blog post | marketing

How to outsmart your competitors in digital marketing

Camille Bosley Team Photo
Camille BosleyDirector of Strategy

Competitors: we all have them. And whether we like it or not, they’re coming for our lunch.

But what if we thought of them as learning opportunities instead of seeing them as big, scary threats?

Examining your competitors’ go-to-market strategy is a fantastic way to find your niche in the market. Determining their weaknesses and where new opportunities lie gives you the upper hand, allowing you to play to your strengths.

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Below, I walk you through how to develop a competitive strategy to help you create and sustain the biggest moat.

Why should we care about what our competitors are doing?

While we would love to imagine that our competitors do not exist, they do. Smart consumers do a lot of research before deciding who they’ll buy from – whether it’s a service or a physical product.

And that means customers have to be able to find you. You could have the perfect solution for the perfect customer, but if they can’t find you or you aren’t sending them the right message, your competitors will swoop in and take them.

Instead of ignoring competitors, we need to learn from them and put our best foot forward.

How do you do competitor research?

You want to go into competitor research with an end goal or deliverable in mind. And one of the best frameworks I’ve found is a SWOT analysis. SWOT stands for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats.

This methodology ultimately helps you better understand where you’re positioned in the market and how you can improve your messaging.

It’s valuable to turn this into a conversation and bring in multiple departments from your organization. Everyone at your company comes from different backgrounds and experiences that influence how they think about your company’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats.

So get everyone in a room and jot down ideas. Don’t be afraid to dig deep with sales and product teams. Why are leads qualified or disqualified? Why are prospects going with a competitor? If you want to get super granular, you can email all prospects who went with a competitor and ask for their direct feedback.

Gaining perspective makes it much easier to brainstorm new strategies and makes you less likely to miss blindspots.

What are some competitor research tools?

Before using new tools, you need a good grasp of how people find your company today.

Google Analytics will tell you how people find your website, whether it’s organically, through paid ads, or referral sites. Google Search Console is another useful way to know what keywords consumers use.

Many times we think we know this information cold. But the truth is, it’s always changing. So Google Analytics and Google Search Console should be your first stop in the competitor research journey.

But there are four other competitive research tools that I recommend:

1. SpyFu (paid)

SpyFu is a great place to start your research because it covers a lot of different angles. For example, you can search any domain (yours or a competitor’s) and see how much traffic it’s getting, where that traffic is coming from, what backlinks it has, and even what keywords it uses for paid search.

You can use that to find gaps or areas to expand into. On the competitor tab, SpyFu goes into greater detail, showing how many clicks you’re getting versus a competitor, and how much each of you is paying for those clicks.

Sometimes SpyFu’s numbers are a little off. E.g. SpyFu shows you’re spending $20,000 a month, but you’re actually spending $30,000. Apply that same ratio to what they say about your competitors.

2. Semrush (paid)

I highly recommend Semrush. It’s one of the best tools for SEO research. It tells you when your keyword rankings are increasing, when they’re dropping, and, most importantly, how it compares to your competitors (both organic and paid).

You can also generate a keyword gap report, which tells you what terms your competitors are targeting that you are not. This is extremely helpful for content strategy because you want to ensure you have a good share of voice at each stage of the funnel.

The best part is that Semrush tells you keyword intent. Focus more on answering informational questions for people still doing their research and make your content more transactional for those ready to buy.

Semrush will also tell you how often a keyword is searched per month and the average cost per click. So if people are paying a high price tag for a keyword you can organically rank for, you’ll be way ahead of the competition.

3. Facebook (free)

Facebook has a free tool where you can see all of the ads your competitors are running.

Go to any business page, and scroll down under Photos and Video. There’s a section called “Page transparency.” Click the “See All” button and click on “Go to Ad Library.”

Here’s where you’ll see every live ad the business is running. This gives you great insight into what format or copy might work best for your ICP. For example, say you’re trying to make a case for video-based ads. If all of your competitors are running video ads and you’re the only one not doing it, that’s a great proof point to show your management team.

Clicking on one of the ads will take you to the corresponding landing page. We like to click on competitors’ ads and make them pay that $2, so we can figure out where they’re sending traffic.

And remember, paid social and paid search should have two different approaches. Social ads and landing pages must catch people’s attention and disrupt scrolling. Search ads and landing pages should point people to a solution. If your competitor is using the same landing page for both, that might be an opportunity for you to differentiate yourself.

4. Moat (free)

Moat shows you all display ads that a competitor runs on DV 360, Google Display, and native ads.

The output is fairly similar to what you see on Facebook, but there’s a much wider variety of ads from multiple campaigns. And that helps you figure out what audiences your competitors are going after and how they are messaging to them across different platforms.

5. LinkedIn (free)

Like Facebook, LinkedIn has a feature where you can see competitors’ ads.

Head to your competitor’s company page, and then click on Posts. At the top, you can filter on “Ads” to see all their paid content. LinkedIn doesn’t hide anything.

6. Go through your competitors’ sales processes (free)

This isn’t a tool, per se, but I highly encourage you to go through your competitors’ sales processes.

Download whitepapers and get added to nurture campaigns. How many touchpoints are in the campaign? How frequently did they send emails? Try to get as much information as possible about their branding and messaging at various stages of the funnel.

If you’re worried about using the same email address too many times, create several versions of your email address. Simply add a plus sign and a few characters before the @ symbol. So, if yours is “[email protected],” a new address could be “[email protected].”

7. Set up Google Alerts for your competitor (free)

Google Alerts are free, easy to use, and an excellent way to keep a pulse on the market. Not only can you see what your competitors are doing, but you can also learn what they deem important.

Are they putting out press releases? Are they acquiring companies? Are there sweeping changes to their leadership team? Pick out any patterns you can use to inform your strategy.

How should you use the intel you’ve gathered?

The hard part of this process is figuring out what to do with all the information you collect. I suggest people start at the search engine results page.

Regardless of whether you’re a B2B or B2C company, what Google serves to your audience will dictate your strategy. Let’s walk through an example.

Example: Ring

Let’s say I worked at Ring, and I wanted to figure out what Google shows people who are looking for the term “home security cameras.” In the Google search results for that term, I notice:

  1. Shopping options. If Ring doesn’t already have it, they need a shopping option available on its website that Google can pull. If it doesn’t have that option, it won’t show up.
  1. Paid ads. There are a lot of paid ads. So even if I have the number one ranking page for the “home security cameras” keyword, it will be pushed below the fold. Targeting this keyword in organic blog posts probably won’t be fruitful. If you want to be competitive, you’ll need some ad presence.
  1. Ad messaging. Another thing to look at is the ads themselves. Simplisafe likes to target its competitors’ keywords and ensure its name is front and center.

Ring needs to be careful if they’re going to copy this strategy. Technically, Google frowns upon using competitors’ names in ads. You can’t want to trick people into clicking on your ad, thinking they’re going to your landing page.

Instead, Ring could consider creating a feature comparison page. These don’t have to be long; they can be very visual, showing exactly how much more its product offers. Again, tread carefully. Sometimes people aren’t searching for a comparison chart, and spending the time and money to create and promote it doesn’t make sense.

  1. Review sites. To gain a competitive edge, Ring could drive more positive reviews. Review sites typically end up somewhere on the first search results page – for B2B and B2C businesses – so building relationships with high authority review sites will make ideal customers more likely to see your messaging.

One thing to note is that review sites will probably be pay-to-play. But sometimes, an individual writer owns the content and can explain to you how the rankings work and what companies or products get prioritized. With that information in mind, you can work with your product team to get your company slotted higher on curated lists.

Or, you can try the “inception strategy” coined by Dennis Yu. He suggests running cheap ad campaigns on LinkedIn or Facebook for reporters and writers in your industry. Even if you only put $5 per day behind those ads, your brand will be top of mind as they brainstorm and write new stories.

How to prioritize your opportunities in 3 steps

You could spend hours digging and come up with many opportunities, but that doesn’t mean you should act on them. Instead, I recommend:

  1. Building an effort vs. impact matrix. First, list all of your ideas on a spreadsheet. Then, in two other columns, mark the corresponding effort and the impact on a scale of one to five.

When you’re thinking about effort, consider your resources. If you need to add technical code to the website and you don’t have a developer, that’s a five on the effort scale. Impact is really about improving your presence and traffic. What is going to move the needle most?

  1. Focus on low effort and high impact. Start with ideas that are easy to implement and will significantly change your market positioning. Pick a few of these and figure out where they can go in your company roadmap.
  1. Assign tasks. Do not overlook this step – you need to delegate. Follow up with other stakeholders and teams to ensure you’re getting things done.

The biggest mistake with competitor research

The biggest mistake I see is latching onto a competitor and copying them. They have the most market share, so why not just do what they’re doing?

But just because they’re doing something doesn’t mean it will work for your audience.

For example, we had a client that was frustrated about the traffic their competitor was getting. That competitor did something interesting on their website, where a screen takeover pop-up appeared after you scrolled halfway down the page. You had to enter your email address to access the rest of the site.

Our client wanted to copy that strategy, but it was an annoying experience for the user, and the emails their competitor was getting were mostly from unqualified leads. So while the copycat strategy seems logical, it’s not always the secret sauce.

Bring your strategy to life

I like to think of competitor research as putting on my detective hat. Each of my tools gets me closer to knowing my competitor, which eventually helps me outsmart them. Following the steps outlined above will get you a solid foundational strategy.

But of course, you can’t beat expert guidance. So consider booking a call with one of our professionals at WebMechanix to steer you in the right direction.

Or, if you want to learn more about digital marketing in general, subscribe to our YouTube channel. We post recordings of The Growth Clinic every week. Our next session is coming up on Wednesday at noon ET. Join us!

About the writer
Camille Bosley Team Photo
Camille Bosley | Director of Strategy
Camille is a lively director with a competitive drive for results. When she's in the zone, you can find her mapping out magic behind a whiteboard.

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