If you’ve ever worked in a corporate office environment, you may have come across the term “SWOT analysis.” This has nothing to do with evaluating militarized law enforcement response units, and everything to do with taking a long, hard look at your company.
Conducting a SWOT analysis is a powerful way to evaluate your company or project, whether you’re two people or 500 people. In this article, you’ll learn: what a SWOT analysis is, see some SWOT analysis examples, and learn tips and strategies for conducting a comprehensive SWOT analysis of your own. You’ll also see how you can use the data a SWOT exercise yields to improve your internal processes and workflows, and get a free, editable SWOT analysis template.
Table of contents
A SWOT analysis is a technique used to determine and define your Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats – SWOT.
SWOT analyses can be applied to an entire company or organization, or individual projects within a single department. Most commonly, SWOT analyses are used at the organizational level to determine how closely a business is aligned with its growth trajectories and success benchmarks, but they can also be used to ascertain how well a particular project – such as an online advertising campaign – is performing according to initial projections.
Whatever you choose to call them, SWOT analyses are often presented as a grid-like matrix with four distinct quadrants – one representing each individual element. This presentation offers several benefits, such as identifying which elements are internal versus external, and displaying a wide range of data in an easy-to-read, predominantly visual format.
We know that SWOT stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats – but what does each of these elements mean? Let’s take a look at each element individually.
The first element of a SWOT analysis is Strengths.
As you’ve probably guessed, this element addresses things that your company or project does especially well. This could be something intangible, such as your company’s brand attributes, or something more easily defined such as the unique selling proposition of a particular product line. It could also be your people, your literal human resources: strong leadership, or a great engineering team.
Once you’ve figured out your strengths, it’s time to turn that critical self-awareness on your weaknesses.
What’s holding your business or project back? This element can include organizational challenges like a shortage of skilled people and financial or budgetary limitations.
This element of a SWOT analysis may also include weaknesses in relation to other companies in your industry, such as the lack of a clearly defined USP in a crowded market.
Next up is Opportunities.
Can’t keep up with the volume of leads being generated by your marketing team? That’s an opportunity. Is your company developing an innovative new idea that will open up new markets or demographics? That’s another opportunity.
The final element of a SWOT analysis is Threats – everything that poses a risk to either your company itself or its likelihood of success or growth.
This could include things like emerging competitors, changes in regulatory law, financial risks, and virtually everything else that could potentially jeopardize the future of your company or project.
The four elements above are common to all SWOT analyses. However, many companies further compartmentalize these elements into two distinct subgroups: Internal and External.
Typically, Strengths and Weaknesses are considered internal factors, in that they are the result of organizational decisions under the control of your company or team. A high churn rate, for example, would be categorized as a weakness, but improving a high churn rate is still within your control, making it an internal factor.
Similarly, emerging competitors would be categorized as a threat in a SWOT analysis, but since there’s very little you can do about this, this makes it an external factor. This is why you may have seen SWOT analyses referred to as Internal-External Analyses or IE matrices.
Image via Bplans
Subcategorizing your four primary elements into Internal and External factors isn’t necessarily critical to the success of your SWOT analysis, but it can be helpful in determining your next move or evaluating the degree of control you have over a given problem or opportunity.
You can get the full experience in our video below, and this entire post is dedicated to answering that question, but for simplicity’s sake, here’s how to do a SWOT analysis:
Like feature-benefit matrices, there are several ways to conduct a SWOT analysis. However, regardless of how you choose to structure your analysis, we need to start by asking a series of questions. Here is a breakdown of the questions you should seek to answer when performing your SWOT analysis.
Let’s take our first element, Strengths, for example. To determine what your strengths are as an organization, you could begin by asking some of the following questions:
By answering these questions, you’ll be in great shape to start identifying and listing your organization’s strengths.
Positive brand attributes associated with WordStream, as identified by our customers
We can use the same principle to determine your company’s weaknesses:
You may find that determining the strengths and weaknesses of your organization or project is considerably easier or takes less time than figuring out the opportunities and threats facing your company. This is because, as we said earlier, these are internal factors. External factors, on the other hand, may require more effort and rely upon more data, as these are often beyond your immediate sphere of influence.
Identifying opportunities and threats may require you to conduct in-depth competitive intelligence research about what your competitors are up to, or the examination of wider economic or business trends that could have an impact on your company. That’s not to say that opportunities and threats cannot be internal, however; you may discover opportunities and threats based solely on the strengths and weaknesses of your company. Some possible questions you could ask to identify potential opportunities might include:
When it comes to threats, you could certainly begin by asking a series of questions like those above. However, it’s often quite easy to come up with a list of potential threats facing your business or project without posing questions beforehand. This could include “branded” threats such as emerging or established competitors, broader threats such as changing regulatory environments and market volatility, or even internal threats such as high staff turnover that could threaten or derail current growth.
While we’re on the topic of internal versus external factors, I wanted to mention a tangential but entirely separate type of analysis closely relevant to SWOT analyses, known as a PEST analysis.
Earlier, I mentioned that external factors such as changing regulatory policies and market volatility could be considered threats in a standard SWOT analysis. However, despite their importance, challenges like this are often highly nuanced and driven by dozens or hundreds of individual factors. This can place them beyond the scope or intent of a typical SWOT analysis. This is why many companies also conduct PEST analyses.
This type of analysis is not what an exterminator does upon arriving at a roach-infested tenement. Rather, a PEST analysis functions very similarly to a SWOT analysis, only they’re concerned with four external factors:
One of the main reasons it’s worth looking at PEST analyses is because many of the factors that could end up in a PEST matrix could also be relevant to the Opportunities and Threats in our SWOT analysis. The kind of political and economic turmoil we’ve seen in the United States during the past year, for example, could very well pose legitimate and serious threats to many businesses (as well as some opportunities), but these kinds of obstacles tend to be much more complicated than the opportunities and threats you’d see in most SWOT analyses, given their broader scale and often-complex underlying factors.
Obstacles identified in a typical PEST analysis also tend to be on much longer timeframes – it’s a lot easier and quicker to try and overcome internal challenges like high staff turnover than it is to wait and see if the economy picks up (or if the bubble will burst again). That’s why many larger companies conduct both SWOT and PEST analyses simultaneously – the SWOT analysis provides them with more immediate, potentially actionable roadmaps, whereas PEST analyses can be highly valuable when it comes to formulating longer-term plans and business strategies.
If you’re a marketer or small-business owner, you might be wondering if SWOT analyses are practical or even feasible for smaller companies and organizations. Although there is definitely a resource overhead involved in the creation of a SWOT analysis, there are many benefits in doing so, even for the smallest of companies.
Here’s an example of a project SWOT analysis:
So, now we know what each element of a SWOT analysis is concerned with and the kinds of exploratory questions we can ask to get the ball rolling, it’s time to actually get to work and create your SWOT analysis.
To illustrate how it works, we’ll create our own SWOT analysis example: a family-owned restaurant, with a single location, operating in an urban area.
Here’s the SWOT analysis example based on our fictional restaurant:
As you can see, this matrix format allows you to quickly and easily identify the various elements you’ve included in your analysis.
So, you’ve finally got your hands on a completed SWOT matrix. You’ve identified internal strengths and weaknesses, as well as external opportunities and threats. You’ve begun to see your company in a whole new light.
Ideally, there are two stages of action you should take upon completing a SWOT analysis. First, you should attempt to match your strengths with your opportunities. Next, you should try to convert weaknesses into strengths. Let’s take a look how this works.
One of the best things about the strengths you identified in your SWOT analysis is that you’re already doing them.
In our example above, the restaurant’s location, reputation, and seasonal menu are all strengths. This tells the fictitious company that it should continue to experiment with its popular seasonal menu. It also tells the company it should continue to develop and nurture the strong relationships with its regular customers that have strengthened the restaurant’s reputation in the community.
Essentially, acting upon your business’ strengths consists of “do more of what you’re already good at.”
Acting on the weaknesses you identified in your SWOT analysis is a little trickier, not least because you have to be honest enough with yourself about your weaknesses in the first place.
Going back to our example, some of these weaknesses are very challenging to act upon. Going up against the considerable purchasing power of rival chain restaurants can be very difficult for smaller, family owned businesses. The restaurant is also struggling with its limited reach, the restrictions of a modest advertising budget, and is also failing to leverage the potential to increase sales by allowing customers to order food online through delivery apps like Foodler or GrubHub.
However, that’s not to say all hope is lost. It might be harder for our example business to compete with a chain, but there are plenty of other ways small companies can be more competitive – such as by developing strong, meaningful relationships with customers, which was not only one of the company’s strengths, but also something chain restaurants simply cannot offer.
The Opportunities section of your SWOT analysis is by far the most actionable, and that’s by design. By identifying opportunities by evaluating your organization’s strengths, you should have a ready-made list of targets to aim for.
In the example above, increasing consumer appetites for ethically produced, locally grown ingredients is a major opportunity. However, our restaurateurs cannot rest on their laurels – there’s still work to be done. In this example, this may involve investing in technical expertise to take advantage of the opportunities presented by food delivery apps, or sourcing locally grown produce more aggressively in an attempt to reduce costs.
It’s also important to avoid hubris or complacency in your opportunities. Even if you have an iron-clad advantage over every other business in your industry, failing to devote sufficient time, money, or personnel resources in maintaining that advantage may result in you missing out on these opportunities over time.
Every business’ opportunities will differ, but it’s vital that you create a clearly defined roadmap for capitalizing upon the opportunities you’ve identified, whether they be internal or external.
Anticipating and mitigating the threats identified in your SWOT analysis may be the most difficult challenge you’ll face in this scenario, primarily because threats are typically external factors; there’s only so much you can do to mitigate the potential damage of factors beyond your control.
Every threat, and the appropriate reaction to that threat, is different. Regardless of the specific threats you’ve identified in your SWOT analysis, responding to and monitoring those threats should be among your very top priorities, irrespective of the degree of control you have over those threats.
In the example above, all three threats are particularly challenging. To compete with the prices of its chain competitors, our restaurateurs may be forced to either compromise on their values to secure cheaper ingredients, or willingly cut into their profit margins to remain competitive. Similarly, economic uncertainty is virtually impossible to fully mitigate, making it a persistent threat to the stability of our example restaurant business.
In some SWOT analyses, there may be some overlap between your opportunities and threats. For example, in the analysis above, the popularity of locally sourced ingredients was identified as an opportunity, and heightened competition was identified as a threat. In this example, highlighting the restaurant’s relationships with local farmers – further reinforcing the restaurant’s commitment to the local community and regional economy – may be an effective way for our restaurateurs to overcome the threat posed by the increasingly desperate chain restaurants vying for their customers.
Ready to put it all into practice for your own business? Here’s our free, editable, SWOT analysis template.
It’s a Google Sheet so you can add and remove rows, edit and answer the questions, paste into a slide deck, and more.
We’ve also thrown a blank one in there too:
Originally from the U.K., Dan Shewan is a journalist and web content specialist who now lives and writes in New England. Dan’s work has appeared in a wide range of publications in print and online, including The Guardian, The Daily Beast, Pacific Standard magazine, The Independent, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and many other outlets.
See other posts by Dan Shewan
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