How to Scope Out Your Competition Without Having an Aneurysm

An old standby in the arsenal of marketing research, the Competitor Analysis can be very useful or bog you down with unjustified assumptions and insignificant details that only appear larger than life. Marketing is all about creating strong emotions, so doing your own competitor analysis can lead to feelings of jealousy and inadequacy that will keep you up at night if you don’t go in mentally prepared and take an objective approach.

Can’t find your competition? Either your business is truly onto something that nobody else is doing, or you need to dig a little deeper. Start with the places people go to look for your services. How do your clients find you? If you’re a solopreneur, there may be groups on Facebook or Linkedin for freelancers in your area. If you live in a small enough town that you’re truly the only one doing what you do, try to find businesses like yours with a similar scale in different cities.

As a marketer who looks at competitors on behalf of other brands all the time, I thought I’d share some of my best tips for getting the most useful insights out of your competitor analysis and then getting the hell out of there.

Without further ado, here are my tips:

Limit your search

Before you start picking anything apart, outline a few key criteria for the kinds of competitors you’re looking for: the most useful things to look at are size (number of employees or yearly revenue, if available), services or products offered, and industry or niche. Choose just three (3) with a bit of variety between them and leave it at that. I’m serious. There will be some crossover between their different approaches, so looking at any more than that probably won’t be worth your time.  

If you have a lot to choose from, you have more room to be strategic in your choices. You may want to get a variety of audience sizes to test what factors seem to attract more followers. Alternatively, you could choose three competitors with slight variations in their target niche or price points to see which best practices they have in common. Or just go with your top three competitors if you know who they are.

Knowing what similarities and differences your big three choices have from the beginning will help you know what to do with the finer points of your analysis later on.

Know what you’re looking for before you start

The second step (still not making any assessments yet!) is to outline which factors you’ll be looking at across the board. This may be the most important part of the whole process—you’re creating the framework for data collection and ultimately deciding what pieces are going to inform your own strategy.

This is where you sit down and brainstorm all the rumors you’ve heard and the uncertainties you have about how you “should” be marketing your business. There are all kinds of checklists out there for benchmarks to look for, but this is about finding out what works for your business, your audience, and you. If there’s no way you’re going to ever host your own podcast, don’t spend hours listening to them. But if it’s something you find a lot of your competitors doing, it might be worth making a list of pros and cons.

It’s nearly impossible to get metrics on things like website traffic, newsletter subscribers, and uh, actual sales, so the key here is to look at quality over quantity. Social media is the obvious difference: everyone’s follower count and number of likes is public information, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re having meaningful engagements or converting. For marketing and content purposes, here’s a list of some things that might be useful to consider:

  • What appear to be each subject’s strengths and weaknesses?
  • What kinds of content does each competitor publish? Common ones include blogs, newsletters, white papers, ebooks, videos, webinars, podcasts, infographics, slide decks, case studies, and FAQs. Which ones seem to be emphasized, and what is the quality level? Which ones actually seem useful to prospects?
  • How often are they publishing/promoting these materials and how? Are they using them as lead magnets (download for free when you sign up for our newsletter) or offering them with no strings attached? Can you tell how people are finding their content?
  • How intuitive is their website layout? Is it designed to push users in a certain direction?
  • How easy is it to get in contact with someone at this company? Is there any information about who works there, or is it a faceless entity?
  • What efforts are competitors making to reach new prospects and stay engaged with clients/repeat buyers/users?
  • How do competitors talk about controversial industry topics or handle common marketing problems? Choose one or two topics to look out for.

Get organized and record your findings

It’s up to you how formal you make your documentation, but I recommend at least making a Google doc with your criteria listed out in a template that you duplicate for each competitor so it doesn’t devolve into a journal entry with pages of meandering observations. This will help you conceptualize your findings and adds an element of finality. Get in, record your answers, and get out so you’ll be less likely to get sidetracked and let your analysis grow into an obsession.

Don’t rank!

Appearances can be deceiving. It’s tempting to look at your competitors and think their website is better than ours, or try to come out of the process with a “winner.” Ranking overall approaches is not the goal: assessing individual factors is much more useful.

Unless you know their sales numbers, you have no idea how effective their flashy website or perfect Instagram feed is. Remember that you have no idea what their budget looks like: they could be pouring everything into marketing, or they might have outside funding from investors. Good marketing does not necessarily mean good business.

Ask useful questions

Throughout this process, it’s important to keep your core values and business goals in mind. What do you want your marketing materials to be doing for your business and your audience, and how are these other companies accomplishing that? How could you put your own spin on it?

Ask common-sense questions, such as: which statements seem authentic, and which ones seem like lip service? It’s a universally acknowledged fact that consumers crave authenticity above all else. What makes you trust them, and why?

One final tip: give credit where it’s due and don’t steal ideas outright. People will know and nobody will appreciate it.

Put it in Perspective

It’s important to know what other options are out there for potential clients scoping out your brand for a number of reasons: to understand your market share, prove your differentiation, and learn from their mistakes, to name a few. The competitor analysis is just one tool at your disposal and functions most effectively as a quick survey of “what else is out there” to inform your future decisions and see what best practices you might want to start, well, practicing.

It’s important to remember that gorgeous web design and all the social media bells and whistles in the world don’t mean a thing if they’re not communicating a unique brand message, building relationships, and converting into sales.Trust your gut and base your judgments on quality and utility, rather than trying to decode their X factor.

If you’ve checked out your competitors and are ready to do a marketing tune-up, or if you’re leery of doing a competitor analysis for your own brand, get in touch with me and let’s figure out some solutions!

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