There’s a difference between being nosey and strategically spying.
Competitor research is the latter.
Sometimes coined as competitor analysis, this form of research is a strategic tactic that helps to keep your brand competitive.
It’s much more than peeking at your rival’s latest social posts — and then doing nothing about it.
Competitor research is a documented process that results in an action plan that works to benefit your business.
What Is Competitor Research?
Competitor research is the act of profiling your competitors by gathering key information about them.
The activity is a little more refined than stalking a shop on Facebook or overhearing competitor reviews accidentally.
Instead, competitor research follows a set structure.
The results of such research are logged in a competitor dashboard for your whole team to access. It’s what we do with this information that counts.
Effective competitor research leads to innovation, development and growth.
How Often Should I Conduct Competitor Research?
It may feel like there is a sharp spike in competitor research activity when you first form a company or start advertising for a brand. Yet competitor research does anything but slump when you get down to the nitty-gritty of business.
Put simply; competitor research is a continual practice.
Each time you make a decision, you’ll inevitably have to keep your competitors in mind.
What’s more, you’ll need to think about your competitors even more regularly when you’re looking to grow your company.
But wait. This doesn’t mean you have to become totally obsessed with tracking your rivals.
Nor do you have to set a regular time aside for competitor research to happen.
Instead, you should keep a working document that you and your employees can add to sporadically. This is often labelled a competitor dashboard.
The more intense forms of competitor analysis, like doing an entire website or marketing review can be set in stone. We recommend refreshing these findings every quarter.
Yet the more subtle forms of competitor analysis — take observation or price checking as examples — will happen naturally, as long as you are engaged and aware of your competition.
It’s true; competitor research is more about having a growth mindset than a solid strategy.
Why Is Competitor Research Important?
Without competitor research, your brand will fail to differentiate itself.
This happens by making ill-informed decisions like pricing a product too high or making your services too similar to others on the market.
Competitor research eliminates the chances of you making these mistakes because it gives you a look at the bigger picture.
As a result of competitor research, you will:
- Be able to differentiate your brand
- Push your brand’s unique benefits
- Be quick to identify opportunities
- Be aware of potential threats
- Have an ability to forecast trends
- Make smart development decisions
- Be inclined to innovate
- Learn from your competitors
Managers with the attitude that all competition is either below them — or worse that they have zero competition — often fail to see the value of competitor research. Those that have respect for their competitors and a drive to always outsmart them often do the best in business.
A sector to look at for inspiration is the supermarket sector.
Brands like Aldi, Sainsbury’s and Tesco are certainly classed as successful businesses.
However, these companies are also majorly aware of their competitor’s existence — and their actions.
Tesco doesn’t simply scoff at brands like Aldi. Instead, they track Aldi’s pricing, promotion and products to come up with clever plans to outsmart them.
Different Areas of Competitor Research
There are many facets to competitor research — even more so when you are looking at your competitor’s to form a business plan or a funding pitch.
For the sake of this training guide, we’re going to talk about competitor research in terms of marketing.
We recommend splitting your time between six topics:
Content Review — As a marketer, your job is to create content. How can you create competitive content without seeing what’s already on the table? In a content review, you will analyse a competitor’s blog, copy, advertisements and social media posts (at least). You should do this as scientifically as possible, logging the content’s performance, word count and any common occurrences like a specific writing style or format. Ask yourself questions like: are my competitors using outbound or inbound marketing? And, why does content with short headlines work so well?
SEO Analysis — Analysing search engine performance is a bit more technical. Yet, it’s easier to consider this sort of data without any form of artistic preference or bias. Why? Because most of it is quantitative. When it comes to search, it’s all about the numbers. SEO analysis is the act of understanding how well your competitors are performing in search engines, like Google. Are they ranking for any of your target keywords? Where does most of their traffic come from? How can you climb that all-important leaderboard?
You can do effective SEO competitor research using SEMrush (which we’re able to offer you a free 30-day trial of via thankyouninjas.com)
Website Review — In digital marketing, you’ll want to take a close look at a competitor’s website to get a feel for their buyer’s experience. This is the equivalent of shopping in a competitor’s store or calling their customer services line to snoop around. Don’t just slate your rival’s website or envy their performance — try to directly compare your website to theirs. Note any major differences and similarities. These will become your opportunities and threats.
For an example of the types of things we look at during website reviews, take a look at this example of our free website review which is very similar to how we’d review a competitor’s website.
Price Check — Part of being competitive is having an attractive financial edge. Sometimes the simplest way to win is to undercut a competitor’s rate or build in an added benefit for the same price. During your price check, you’ll want to make a note of price formatting — like product bundles, pricing packages or bespoke plans — as well as additional cost perks such as free delivery or a free trial.
Brand Positioning — By now, you’ll have got a feel for your competitor’s brand voice and their stance in the market. Factors like pricing and language will give you a good indication as to whether a brand is aiming to be affordable or luxurious. Additionally, you’ll want to review brand positioning as a whole, taking into account the company branding, mission and strapline. Where is their position to yours? And do you need to strengthen your customer value proposition to become a more authoritative voice in your neighbourhood?
Customer Acquisition — Finally, you’ll want to understand your competitor’s sales process. By now, you’ll understand your rival’s bait, but how do they successfully reel in prospects? This information can be a little trickier to access and can’t always be seen on-site. It sits on the very tip of the sales funnel, either involving one-to-one interaction or a virtual checkout. Sometimes ex-employees can provide insights or figurehead interviews may accidentally spill the beans. If you’re struggling to get a good look at a competitor’s sales strategy, the old trick of becoming an actual customer always works to give you unprecedented inside access.
Competitor Research Tools
Don’t worry — you won’t be left alone with your perception, to analyse all of the above aspects of competitor research.
At least when it comes to digital marketing, there are plenty of tools on the market.
Here are some of our favourites:
- Google Alerts — This tool allows you to monitor the web for specific phrases. In the case of competitor research, you can track your brand name as well as the names of your rivals. You might also want to set an alert for broad industry phrases just in case a competitor interview, mention or commentary pops up.
- Buzzsumo — This website tracks content performance allowing you to see how effective your competitor’s content is. This data-led approach removes all creative bias. So, before you ogle too much at a piece of visually-appealing content, use Buzzumo to check if it was successful first.
- Neil Patel’s Backlink Checker — This easy-to-use backlink checker will instantly show you a competitor’s backlink profile. All you have to do is copy and paste their domain and watch the links appear. In this way, you can see what type of sponsored content your competitor is publishing and track their latest press coverage.
- Moz — This tool is also handy for backlink analysis. Yet Moz has much more to offer. This SEO software will show the domain authority of every website as well as track your rankings so you can keep a closer eye on how your site stacks up compared to your competitors.
- Companies House — It’s not often marketers will need to know such structural information about a company. However, it won’t harm high-level marketers to know this resource exists. Companies House is a government-led portal that allows the public to learn more about the structure and accounts of UK companies.
- Ahrefs — Another highly-ranked SEO tool is Ahrefs. This tool is a haven for competitor data and the site even offers a seven day trial at a small cost if you’re not ready for a recurring financial commitment.
- SEMrush — This tool promises to give you competitive intelligence by tracking your position in search versus a select few competitors. There’s a free version of this tool, as well as an unpaid trial of the subscription service. You can try it for free for 30-days with this exclusive discount for friends of Exposure Ninja — thankyouninjas.com
- Mail Charts — For all those email marketers out there, Mail Charts is an email monitoring tool that will save you time and a bunch of junk mail. Without having to subscribe to your competitor’s emails, you can use Mail Charts to build competitive reports and sneakily take a peek of your rivals newsletter writing.
- Quora — This forum-style site allows you to know the juiciest details about your competitors — what their customers think of them. This observational tool allows you to effectively eavesdrop on customer’s conversations without having to be in the right place, at the right time.
- YouGov — According to YouGov itself, this website represents “what the world thinks” by compiling data and opinion scores on brands and topics alike. Using the search bar, you can find information about most mainstream companies. You’ll be met with a dashboard that shows popularity rating and ranking, as well as information on the brand’s demographic.
How to Conduct Competitor Research Step-by-Step
So far, we’ve given you all of the moving parts of competitor research. But now it’s time to put them into practice.
There are six key steps to competitor research. These are:
1. Classify your competitors
Let’s get a handle on who we’re actually analysing.
During your research, you’ll come across multiple companies that sell the same product or service as you. However, for competitor research — which is strategic and targeted — you should look at only your direct competitors, of which there should be no more than ten.
While you still might want to be aware of your indirect competitors, these companies aren’t crucial to your business success — for the following reasons:
- Brands that don’t serve the same geographical areas as you
- Brands with the same solution, but a different customer
- Brands with a different solution, but the same customer
- Brands with the same product, at a different price point
- Brands with a slightly different product, at the same price point
Just to be clear, these firms are similar to you and could serve as a form of inspiration. However, they don’t pose an immediate risk to your business and must be relegated to the second tier.
2. Cover the basics
The first tab of your competitor dashboard should be super straightforward.
Here, you can list the names of your direct competitors with information on their core products and pricing structure. To get this data, visit their website and imagine what core principles are written on these competitor’s business plans.
Does one of your competitors offer an identical benefits package? Write it down. Does the other have a product with similar features? Make sure to mention it.
In this stage, you’re conducting a swift price check and a basic content review.
3. Dig deeper
Now, it’s time to get technical. This is the part where your software comes to play.
You’ll want to play around with the aforementioned tools to dig deeper into the performance of their website and content, as well as analyse their SEO structure.
When it comes to any type of research, data is your friend.
This is because data allows you to be less subjective by giving you a quantitative measure that you can directly compare to your statistics.
Some analysts create numerous graphs to showcase their findings in this stage. Others will stick to one tab that provides vital information like search position and a glimpse into website and content performance.
How you visually relay this information is up to you. And it’s important not to get overwhelmed.
4. Ask your customers
Conducting market research can serve as a great way to find out a customer’s perception of multiple brands.
This data can be collected anonymously via YouGov or other survey providers.
If you feel confident enough, you can ask regular, loyal customers why they prefer your product over your competitors. This feedback may give you some first-hand invaluable advice as to why they always grab a coffee at your cafe or book an appointment at your clinic.
The differentiator could be simple. In the case of a cafe, it might be something like “the music is quieter in here” or “you don’t charge extra for oat milk.” But knowing this basic information gives you great power that you’ll want to highlight in your marketing.
5. Go under the radar
Especially if you’re a brick and mortar business, you’ll find it helpful to take a physical trip to a competitor’s premises to get a feel for the business and its perks.
You can also quickly assess a competitor’s performance and approach by snooping around their stand at an industry conference or purchasing a small item on their website.
Yet if you tend to hold grudges, you might want to allow different team members to get involved too.
Merging different opinions may help you to spot common themes.
After all, this covert type of research can encourage bias, so it’s always best to get multiple points of view.
6. Form a SWOT analysis
You’ve likely done a SWOT analysis of your business. This is the process of outlining your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.
You can also use this simple analytical framework for your competitors, using the data you already have.
Once you’ve contextualised the data you’ve gathered, this one-page analysis is a great resource to share across your whole team. While some members might not need to know the fine print of your customer’s policies, pricing and search positioning, they will appreciate the overview and do better work because of it.