It’s critical to continually dedicate resources to keeping tabs on your competitors—you must routinely check to see if there are opportunities to act on or areas in your own business that need strengthening. Researching and monitoring the competition helps you predict next moves, so you can step out ahead—confidently. Strategically. First.
There are paid options to research competitors, but here are five simple and free ways to start exploring your competitive landscape.
Decide who makes the cut.
If you think you don’t have any competitors, think again. Everyone has competition, and not knowing who is going after your customers could hurt you. Start by doing a simple Google search for businesses in your area that offer similar products or services. To broaden your search, review industry publications and major trade associations to see if they are highlighting other relevant players that are missing from your list.
If you’re aware of a long list of competitors, focus on prioritizing so that you can get to know your closest competitors inside and out. Leave the others to analyze at a later date, but make note of them in your notes. Perhaps they are smaller, emerging, or located outside of the area you want to target.
Carefully comb content.
Once you have your list, take time to investigate each competitor website—the place a potential customer would first visit. Put yourself in the mindset of the customer and explore as a customer would. A website is a holding portal for company content, so it’s essential to take inventory of what’s stored there. Examine the content by identifying, first, where it lives (blog, resource center, case study page, etc.), and, second, its purpose. This is time well spent.
Things to note include content quantity (How much is there of each type?), frequency (How often is it created?), and theme (What topics are being explored?). Next, select a few samples and identify the quality of the content. Is it easily understood? Accurate? In-depth? Does the tone work? Is it structured? Written by various contributors? Is it gated? How is this competitor incorporating SEO best practices?
Once you’ve done your detective work, take a step back and examine your findings. Figure out where you currently stand in the playing field and gauge where you can position yourself to make a bold move. Are there holes that need to be filled with content? Jump in and start filling strategically. And, don’t forget the time-tested saying, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” If a strategy is working for your competitor, it’s a safe bet that it will work for you too. But take that extra step and add your brand’s unique flair to implementation. Can you use a different tone? Develop similar content but distribute it on a different medium? It’s time to flex that creative muscle.
Take social cues.
Next, check out the chatter. Monitor social media activity—conversations started by the competitor and also by customers, because even if the business isn’t social-savvy, customers are. Track social influence—which social platforms are they using? How many followers/likes does each have? How often are they posting content? Most importantly, what are they posting and are these posts resonating with their audience?
The results of your social sleuthing should be included along with your content inventory findings to bolster your strategy. Yes, it’s great to adopt best practices being used by your competition, but, as you’ve done with content, it’s even better to figure out where you can bolster your efforts to stand out and make the strategy your own.
Use free online tools.
Some things in life are free—awesome, right? Tools like Google Alerts, Social Mention, and Marketing Grader are all on the lookout, keeping tab on your competitors (and you!), and listening for when they get a shout-out online, or when their overall performance or influence shifts.
Be the customer.
Sometimes it’s more than price and product that make for a happy customer, and as a competing business, it takes smart detective work to realize this. Customers want a great experience. They want to enjoy the buying process; they want to feel special, empowered, and secure in their decision. So, yes, it’s important that you aim to offer a better price for a similar product, but also take note of your competitor’s entire sales process. Sign up for emails and newsletters (don’t use your work email address) and feel what it’s like be a potential customer of your competitor. How do they design the buyer’s journey for you?
And, while we know it doesn’t make sense for you to go through with a purchase, don’t be afraid to ask others about the experience. Family? Friends? Potential customers? What was the exchange like? How did the competitor finalize the sale? Keep the customer happy? Follow up after the interaction?
Bring the whole team to the table, choose one important competitor, and conduct a SWOT analysis on the competitor before you decide on any significant business moves.
After you spend time researching and monitoring competitors, don’t just set it and forget it. It’s important to return to this exercise every few months or so, because, as you change to fit an evolving marketplace, so does your competition. Take note of fluctuations over time that might include new product or service offerings, an expanding geography, new team members, or changes in brand messaging and visual components.