You wouldn’t agree to a boxing match without knowing anything about your opponent. Likewise brands shouldn’t enter the marketplace without understanding their competition - or else they could end up being quickly knocked out.
Competitive analysis - an in-depth investigation of your competition - allows you to assess your competitors’ strengths, and find their soft spots. With this intelligence you can duck and dive, strategically picking your moments to land the blows that will put your brand in the lead.
We spoke to 20 real businesses and competitive analysis experts to find out how they conduct their research, which tools they use, and asked them to share their top tips for gaining a competitive advantage.
Step 1: Identify Your Competition
Ajay Prasad, GMR Web Team
Where do you start? Before you even start to analyse your competition, you need to be sure of your own target market. Knowing this will allow you to immediately understand who your competition is; others with the same exact target market.
The best way to identify competitors is to start with the problems/pain points that your company is trying to solve for your customers. Search these terms in Google and you can identify other companies running advertisements or ranking for those keywords. Those companies are your competitors.
Carla Williams Johnson, Carli Communications
Here are the three key factors I consider when identifying my clients’ competitors:
Product/Customers: Do they sell the exact same thing as you do and do you serve similar customers? For example, while all soft drinks might be considered competition, customers may choose another beverage such as water, tea or juice and therefore all beverages can be considered competition, since they are all vying for one customer's attention.
Size: Consider how far along they are in business. Ideally you should not compare yourself to companies that are much further along or have a well established brand that has had years of refinement; they should be something to aspire to. For example, if you sold fast food from a truck, you shouldn’t identify KFC as your competition as this is a much bigger brand on an international scale.
Location: If burgers are sold in a particular location then all fast food places within close proximity (even those who do not sell burgers) would be considered competition as they are catering to customers with a variety of similar choices.
Dustin Montgomery, Shippers Supplies
The place I always start when putting together a competitive analysis is Google. I search for a broad category or a specific product the business has and look at the advertisements and first page results that come back.
With a list of websites now in possession, I can compare them against what our business has to see how many similar products they sell and how long they have been around. I can also take a look at the number of inbound links and social activity they have to get a sense of their popularity and size.
A common mistake would be assuming the size of a competitor by the look of their website. It is always best to get as much information as you can. The information you glean from this process can prove to be very valuable when it comes to pricing your products and innovating in your market.
The Attest View
Google is a great way to find competitors, but it’s not the only way. Not everyone has an adwords budget after all, and smaller competitors might not have the SEO rankings to show up in page one - but they could still be eating your lunch.
Social media is another great place to scope out competitors. Who has Facebook pages, or active accounts on Snapchat, Twitter and Instagram for example.
The third approach - which is very powerful - is to take a ‘jobs to be done’ approach, which means that you survey either your target demographic or a nationally representative sample, and ask them how they’re currently solving a particular pain point.
For example, you might ask ‘how do you keep fit?’ and this will present to you a full universe of potential competitors, from gyms to diets to personal trainers to at-home equipment (and many more alternatives).
For more info on the JBTD approach for product development, check out this great podcast interview with Karen Dillon, author of 'Competing Against Luck'.
Taking this open ended approach will yield a lot more surprising (and useful) results that just asking Google, which provides you with just a one-dimensional view.
Step 2: Talk to Your Customers
Deborah Sweeney, MyCorporation
We’re an online document filing service, and when we did our competitive analysis we started with customer research (who do customers mention when they call and comparison shop, for example?).
Surveying consumers is a great way to learn: What did they consider in their purchase cycle? Who, if anyone, provided suggestions for how to proceed with legal business filings? What prompted the search for services like ours?
We also leverage our own customer data: What is the stage in which the customers are looking to incorporate or form an LLC? What types of businesses are most likely to incorporate? What are the characteristics of the business when they incorporate: how many employees? Is there a revenue number that is consistent with timing for incorporation?
We believe that understanding data, understanding our clients and understanding who is most likely to use (and refer) our service, we can better target these clients.
Linda Pophal, Strategic Communications
I find it very useful to create a competitive positioning matrix, which allows you to take a look - mathematically - at the strength of your competitors. It involves identifying the key attributes that your target audience values and then ranking yourself and your competitors based on those attributes, and their relative value to your market.
This works best if you can gather quantitative data on what your market values (and to what extent) and if you're also able to get unbiased insights about the strength of your competitors.
Top Tip: To help you with you competitive matrix, check out our post on 5 Survey Topics that Challenger Brands Need to Focus On or view our Proposition Development template.
Step 3: Start Snooping
Ksenia Newton, CrossCap
The marketing software world is very competitive, and I spend a lot of time analysing the market and our competition. Here’s a trick I use that will cost you nothing other than the time spent on execution: Who doesn’t like a free ebook full of tips from a competitor? I know I do. But under no circumstances do I want my work or personal email to surface in their database of leads. My temp email comes in handy. This temporary email box exists for 24 hours unless you keep it open and revisit every few hours. It gives me an ability to download gated content spam-free and leave no traces behind, just like a spy.
Another tool I use is Serps.com to see what type of keywords the competition is ranking for as well as the content formats (whether it’s a blog post, infographic, checklist, etc.)
Neal Kreitman, ABN Partners
When you start collecting data, I strongly recommend using Indeed and other job boards. Many times the information companies put in their job ads to woo great employees can be invaluable. Initially, it tells you what areas of their company they are looking to grow or solidify.
Louis Gudema, revenue + associates
I do competitive analyses as a standard part of my marketing strategy work with clients. Some of that is obvious: the messaging on their website, their blogs and social media posts. They might be discussing new products and services and who they are working with. I can also find out the events that they are hosting and exhibiting at.
Then I dig deeper: using tools such as SEMrush and SpyFu I can get data on their online advertising and most important keywords. Using LinksSpy I can tell how many links they have and from where. And using Ghostery I can even tell some of the marketing software that they’re using; that gives me an idea of how sophisticated their marketing program is, too.
Jitesh Keswani, e-Intelligence
Here are some of the tools that I use the most for carrying out comprehensive competitive analysis: SEMRush – This is a MUST-HAVE tool for any online business. This tool helps you see the organic and paid search rankings for any site, for both desktop and mobile, across countries. Ahrefs – This tool is really powerful. You can track the performance of keywords that your competitors are targeting in search engines that get them the most traffic and sales.
Alexa – This tool provides you the ranking and popularity of your competitors’ websites. BuiltWith – This tool helps you know the backend of your competitors’ website, such as which platform are they built on, what plug in they use, etc. Buzzsumo – This tool helps you with social listening. Using it, you can find the latest content ideas used by competitors that your customers are the most preferring. FollowerWonk – This tool helps you keep track of the followers of your competitor brands on Twitter.
Kar Villard, Neuroplanner
I will do a trade check either online or offline to review their ongoing marketing campaigns, if they have frequent product promotions, their year long price strategy including seasonal prices, and their means of distribution so I would know where their strengths and weaknesses lie.
Next, I will conduct a thorough review of their marketing campaigns through an online search. For example, I will visit their video channels and see if there was a surge in numbers in their views which means they have done some paid video ads. I will also test this in their other social media or content channels like blogs.
Some top websites will have their estimated page views shown in quantcast.com or if they have an app, I will go check at AppAnnie if they are trending in the app store. Knowing who wrote about them (PR), who has endorsed them (influencers), and who are distributing their products (affiliate marketing or e-commerce platforms) gives a good indication of their strategy on what industry, type of people, or other brands they have partnered with.
Stan Tan, Selby’s
We analyse our competitors’ digital marketing strategies by studying their ads on Adwords, seeing what headline they use, what keywords they are targeting and what their landing page looks like.
We also look at what keywords they are ranking for in Google and sort keywords based on their traffic numbers and keyword difficulty. From there, we can make a decision on the keywords we target based on our next SEO campaign. The tool we use for this is Ahrefs.
From time to time, we also will study our competitors’ websites; what it looks like, what their headline is, etc. The tool we use here is Crayon.co. This tool tracks the changes in how a website looks. You can also find pages based on their categories. For example: Home pages, pricing pages, testimonials pages, etc.
Jason Scott, Archway Cards
Having identified who your main competitors in search are, you can then start to understand how they’ve attained these rankings. Backlinks are one of the key drivers in SEO success, therefore if you can identify where these high-performers are getting their backlinks from, you can look to emulate their success.
Tools like Majestic, Open Site Explorer and Moz allow you to view and analyse the backlink profile of any given site. Simply enter your competitors’ URLs and start analysing. What type of sites are they getting their backlinks from? How many backlinks have they got? What is the authority of their backlink profile?
By analysing and emulating a competitor's’ SEO strategy, you too could find yourself at the top of the rankings for your targeted keywords.
I personally love tools like Ahrefs that allow me to see what backlinks a digital competitor has, as well as what content they have that we might want to add. Seeing a competitor’s backlinks allows us to see what real-world opportunities they’re taking. Are they sponsoring lots of local events? Are they in the news a lot? Backlink data lets us see new areas we could be exploring.
Seeing a competitor’s content allows us to see what new questions we can answer for our audience that we may not have thought of yet. However, it is a mistake to blindly implement a competitor’s strategy (dangerous because you could be implementing bad strategies too), or to only implement a competitor’s strategy (if you never implement any of your own strategies, all you can hope to be is the second-best version of your competitor).
The Attest View
There are lots of great competitor tracking tools available these days, but for a more complete overview of your competitor’s strengths and weaknesses, the value proposition that their customers have of them (not just the one they’re trying to promote), their Net Promoter Score and other core strategic data that you can’t get from SEO tools...you need to talk to consumers!
A lot of online competitive intelligence tools can only provide historical, best-guess data and you’ve no idea how their approach is working with consumers. Is it resonating or tanking? Should you be emulating or distancing yourself from their strategy?
The only way to know is to actually survey their existing customers or prospective consumers, which you can do with Attest.
Step 4: Identify Opportunities
Paige Arnof-Fenn, Mavens & Moguls
We do a lot of competitive analyses for our clients as part of our branding exercises.
One way we do this is by conducting a SWOT analysis which highlights the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. We also create a messaging matrix by audience segment so that you understand which messages are targeting which segment of your market.
Once this information is clearly laid out it is easier to see where the gaps and holes currently exist, where there might be confusion or oversaturation and where the biggest opportunity areas are.
Competitive analysis is not just finding out how your products and features stack up against the competition. That’s good to know, but it’s a small part of the value of the research. Your competitive research should support the creation of a differentiating brand story. What story can you tell that the competitors can’t?
At a company I worked with, a competitive analysis showed that the terms of their offer aligned more closely with the interest of their clients than any of their competitors’ terms. This insight supported and validated the idea of “partnership” as a brand attribute unique to them. Others could claim to be “partners”, but only this company could back it up with facts.
Kyle Golding, The Golding Group
You should be comparing your competitors’ strengths, weaknesses and industry position. Strengths are easy to identify, by using their own marketing. Identifying weakness comes from online reviews, customer surveys or any other rating from a regulating body or business bureau.
Now, you can develop an advertising plan that emphasises your strengths to your opponent's weaknesses, at the same time as avoiding advantages your competitors might have. By putting your best face forward, avoiding the competitions’ strong suit and clearly defining who you are (and are not) you can best achieve your growth potential.
James Pollard, The Advisor Coach
The biggest mistake that I see people make when analysing competition is that they don't take advantage of their competitor's mistakes. Business isn't personal - if you see your competitor with a gap in their service or not serving a need, you need to take advantage of it to the fullest. Competitive analysis will help you do just that.
Top tip: One of the best ways to find opportunities that your competition is missing is to run a monthly or quarterly brand tracker. This will help you assess where your relative strengths and weakness are and how to adjust your strategy moving forward. Take a look at our draft brand tracker template here.
Step 5: Keep Going
Alex Moen, Match Made Coffee
This competitive analysis should be an ongoing part of your business and not a one-time offer. Entire industries get crushed in short periods of time due to not keeping up with competition both inside and outside their traditional industries.
As your business takes on a different form through your analyses, tools like Zarget are great for doing A/B split tests on your website. When you make those well-informed changes, you want to make sure that the new version outperforms the old one at a statistically significant level, and Zarget will determine that for you.
Katy Herr, Audacia Strategies
The key to successful competitive analysis is to never take your finger off the pulse of your marketplace. Talk to others in the industry. Use your interactions at networking events and conferences to ask for their market perspective. You may be surprised by what you learn.
Coordinate with your coworkers in other business units. Who do they see in the market? What behaviors or market trends are driving change? Encourage intelligence reviews at key decision-making stages. Have a designated competitive intelligence lead who sits in on strategic meetings. Request feedback from your front-line channels to “stress test” and refine your competitive assessment.
The Attest View
Well managed businesses stay close to their customers and constantly ask them for feedback. However, this isn’t enough to avoid disruption and becoming yesterday’s news.
Clayton Christensen’s seminal work - the Innovator’s Dilemma - is a great starting point for understanding why so many businesses can listen attentively to their customers and still end up out of businesses.
The best way to avoid this fate is to look outside of your existing customer base and talk to consumers in general. Non-customers will help you understand how the world is shifting in a more neutral - and useful - way, so you can see the big shifts ahead of time and adjust your strategy appropriately.
Competitive analysis can help you get an edge on your competitors; just like eavesdropping on your opponent’s pre-match strategy before you hit the ring.
Thanks to the plethora of online tools available, it’s easier than ever to gain intel. Just a few taps can give you access to a world of data.
But to be sure you’re getting the whole picture you must also look beyond the topline figures and digital-only data. Otherwise you’re in danger of getting a one-dimensional view of the competitive landscape. Data may be cheap and easy to come by, but that doesn’t mean it’s sufficient for rigorous competitive analysis.
Talking with real consumers about their opinions can show you things like the impact competitors’ marketing strategies are having, how they’re winning customers, and - crucially - where they’re letting them down.
Add this insight to the existing stats and facts for a rich and comprehensive competitive analysis that will your brand a heavyweight.