This article originally appeared on PR Daily in March of 2018.
Understanding competitors and their offerings can mean the difference between your own success and failure.
In-depth competitor research is crucial to knowing how your products and services stack up in the marketplace—whether they are cheaper or more expensive, inferior or superior in certain ways. Knowledge of competitors’ strengths and weaknesses reveals where your company can carve out a niche and thrive.
You don’t have to hack their computers or peer through their office windows with a telescope to find competitors’ inside information. Plenty of competitive intelligence is publicly available and can be acquired through legitimate means. Your competitors are probably doing it.
- Examine their websites. That means more than just skimming the home page. Note the specific features or benefits they promote, and monitor any changes they make over time. Shifts in language or website organization can reveal new strategies or products in the works.You can find hidden pages with Google searches such as: “filetype: doc site: companyname.” Change the file type to .pdf, .xls, or .ppt to turn up data or presentations. Competitors often post documents online, thinking no one will find it if they don’t link to it.
A tool such as SimilarWeb reports basic information on competitors’ websites, such as traffic per month, average visit duration, bounce rate and pages per visit, says Eleonora Zolotaryova, a content marketer at Serpstat. Although the figures mean little in isolation, you can gain insights by comparing them against data of other websites in the niche, including other competitors’ sites. If you notice a sharp increase in a competitor’s website traffic, you can attempt to mimic their SEO tactics. Serpstat can compile more detailed research such as referring domains, top keywords and the quality of inbound links.
- Visit competitors’ social media profiles. Competitors’ social media posts can reveal their thoughts on what works or doesn’t. Marketing expert Sujan Patel recalls in Entrepreneur that a competitor shared a post on Facebook on why pay-per-click advertising was not effective. The information allowed him to save valuable resources by avoiding a fruitless strategy.
- Read customer reviews. Reviews on Amazon, Google business listings, Yelp, Facebook and other platforms show useful information. Five-star reviews show what competitors do well; one-star reviews reveal what they do poorly. Their responses to poor and mediocre reviews can hint at their strategies and tactics.
- Sign up for their mailing lists. They’ll send you their promotions to review, and their press releases will inform you of their latest activities. Plus, you’ll get a close-up look at their language. Your company and competitors may seem similar on the surface, but an inside view of their promotions could show startling differences, Patel says.
- Try their products. If your budget and the level of transparency permit it, testing their products can bring eye-opening results. Products may seem the same based on marketing materials, but you can find major differences by trying them yourself. “We might still offer the same basic functionality, but because I took the time to fully understand my competitors’ products, I was able to find my own niche to carve out in the marketplace,” he says.
- Attend trade shows. Stand near competitors’ booths at a busy time when it’s easy to blend in with the crowd and eavesdrop on what they tell prospects, suggests Seena Sharp of Sharp Market Intelligence. Initiatives often are announced at shows, and salespeople might reveal details. Your PR people can attend the press announcements by competitors at trade shows.
- Play secret shopper. Visit their stores. Notice whether employees are responsive, facilities are clean and shelves are well-stocked. Call to ask about their products to evaluate customer service, advises Sean Campbell, principal at Cascade Insights.
Snooping via social media
Ongoing monitoring and measurement of news and social media probably offers the richest competitive intelligence.
News monitoring finds corporate and brand announcements by competitors. Social media monitoring exposes what consumers are saying about competitors and their products, as well as what they like and dislike about them, including possible customer service issues. Your organization can exploit their weaknesses and emulate their strengths.
The most valuable nuggets of competitive intelligence usually come from looking beyond the numbers and seeking insights from the content. To find those insights, organizations need knowledgeable staff members or a third-party service to review media mentions.
Social media monitoring and measurement can track trends in engagement levels, follower numbers, product messaging and other metrics. Some monitoring services can complete a sentiment analysis which rates brand mentions on a positive to negative scale. You can learn about competitors’ audience profiles by analyzing people who mention competitors, which help better define your own target audience.
You can tap into the competitors’ media relations strategies by monitoring online news outlets for mentions of their brand names and products. Unfavorable articles that report customer complaints, issues with regulators, or concerns of investors can indicate opportunities for your own organization. Media measurement can compare their PR performance against yours through metrics such as share of voice and can indicate how to improve your PR.
Conducting competitive intelligence can produce a wealth of invaluable information for developing your company’s products and crafting PR and marketing strategies. Spying legally on competitors may be easier and less costly than many believe, especially with the use of media monitoring services.
A version of this post first ran on the Glean.info blog.