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How to Do a Competitive Analysis So Good Your Competitors Can’t Compete

How to Do a Competitive Analysis So Good Your Competitors Can't Compete
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What is a competitive analysis? Simply put, it’s a research-based strategy that facilitates a closer look into what’s working — or not — for your competitors in terms of their sales, marketing and/or content approach. 

If you’ve got a product or service to market, your #1 goal has always been to stand out from your competitors.

But great products or services don’t just sell themselves. A conversion usually happens after an informed approach that takes into account things like market research, product development and how to make the most of your unique selling proposition.

One of those important exercises is a competitive analysis — the process of looking closer at your direct and indirect competitors. It could be for a brand refresh, a website overhaul or due diligence before launching an ad campaign. It might also be something your SWOT team does to determine your company’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. Whichever it is, there’s a way to go about identifying qualities in a competitor’s strategy that you want to emulate and/or outdo — and things you’ll want to avoid.

Given we’re living in a time where content consumption has seen an all-time spike amid the global pandemic, this piece will pay special attention to how a competitive analysis can be applied to a competitor’s content strategy.

In doing so, you’ll feel better about your company’s big picture as you:

  • Pinpoint areas where passionate engagement exists across your competitors’ channels — i.e., your customer base.
  • Identify noticeable gaps in your own content marketing strategy, based on this high level of engagement.
  • Capitalize on these opportunity areas by reallocating resources to the platforms where you belong.
  • Stay relevant by keeping atop social trends so you can pivot to places where your brand fits.

Before we get started, please note that you must identify who your actual competitors are before doing a successful competitive analysis. When I asked the Director of Product Management at Compass, Karan Nischol, what he thought the single most important aspect (or technique) to consider when you’re doing a competitive analysis is, his recommendation was the following:

“Make it customer backward, meaning focus on the customer and their pain point. This allows for a deeper and wider analysis, opening up the possibility of choosing competitors that may not be obvious. Ultimately, it’s all about the impact it has on the customer, regardless of the type of company or product.” 

Ultimately, you’ll want to be in touch with who your competitors are — both direct and indirect — to start from a good apples-to-apples place in terms of understanding who to look at more closely (and so you don’t begin this process with a flimsy premise).

5 to-do's if you’re going to execute a successful competitive analysis...

5 do’s for a successful competitive analysis

1. Assess your competitor’s content strategy by looking at their media channels.

One of your primary goals in doing a competitive analysis is to define key areas where you can outperform your competitors. Opportunity areas, if you will. To do this, you’ll want to properly audit their marketing channels as much as you can.

But how best to do this? Well, the good news is that your company is probably already on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and/or Twitter if you’re serious about reaching an audience. Maybe even TikTok and Pinterest. These public scoreboards are a dream for analysts and account strategists — as they allow you to tally likes, followers, views, shares, and comments with ease.

It’s practically why the Microsoft Excel spreadsheet was invented.

In addition, there are other telling details — beneath the numbers — to look at when taking inventory of a competitor’s content approach.

Namely:

  • Blog: Does your competitor have a blog? Does it seem useful in terms of practical information? Or is it a vanity play?
  • Videos: How many new videos are being released on YouTube and/or other social channels? Are they of the “how-to” variety or more engaging branded content plays appearing on better-known publisher sites?
  • Posting cadence: How often do they publish new/original updates to status, or do they retweet/repost stories? Are these new updates being published on a regular schedule or are they haphazardly released into the universe on a whim?
  • Accuracy, quality control and relevance: Is the quality of what they’re putting out good? Or is it typo-laden gibberish that will lose credibility with the customer and sound like an irrelevant burst of white noise?

Auditing these metrics (at the very least) can be immensely helpful in determining things your competitors are doing or aren’t.

But beware: they can also be deceptive if you take them purely at superficial value.

This brings me to my next point, which will require a bit more digging on your part…

2. Determine organic — versus inorganic — engagement across your competitors’ social channels.

A company’s Facebook page may have 50,000 likes and their YouTube page, 500,000 subscribers.

But, look deeper — if there are no comments from an engaged fan base, something may be fishier than a one-star rated sushi restaurant. With so much fanfare and so little engagement, you have to ask: What are they really getting for their money other than a superficial metric at the front door that creates skepticism about where those likes, views and follows are coming from?

It’s a quandary companies need to be aware of when doing a competitive analysis and a good question that certain social platforms have been slow to address since social clout can equal revenue — especially when it comes to influencers.

Some social platforms have cracked down on so-called click farms over the years, but inflating follower counts and buying “love” from third-party firms and click farms is a real thing. It would serve you well to account for this in your analysis.

Ask yourself these three questions in the search for red flags:

  1. Are there tens of thousands of people following this page — but no comments on any posts and curiously low “like” counts?
  2. Do the comments resonate as true or authentic to someone who actually knows or uses this product/service?
  3. Are there weird typos, strange user names or curious fumblings of the English language that seem to point to bots?

With the documentaries like The Social Dilemma raising the profile of how social platform algorithms use/access our data, it serves you well as a business to try to understand and account for the value these elements should have in your analysis.

3. Employ the right tools to monitor, assess and tabulate customer engagement.

There are all sorts of new and impressive analytical tools that can help one read and digest data. One tool/technique that works is social listening, a way of aggregating consumer sentiment from across various social levers to glean a greater understanding.

In this article from Hootsuite, who license social listening tools, they tout social listening as a way to look “beyond the numbers to consider the mood behind the data.” A useful tool not just for the advertisers themselves — but also for competitive analysis.

By using a social listening tool to help (which can be cheap or not depending on who you choose), you’ll be able to:

  • Monitor competitor activities online by accounting for certain brand names, product names and handles (this can even be extended as far as slogans or branded hashtags devised for a content campaign).
  • Track performance of your posts and social media mentions of your company — as well as your competitors — so you can benchmark against them.
  • Stay on top of conversations around topics that involve your business and your competitors – using one dashboard to keep track of it all.

Steven Manuel is the lead creative strategist at Hammer Creative, a creative agency that handles video-game marketing for gaming companies. Even though the Hammer team primarily values an approach largely based around “building a personality and building attitude and getting into that emotional human connection over data,” Manuel does say using third-party companies who aggregate data for potential competitors can save you time and headache if you find the right one.

“A company we work with sometimes — that our clients have also worked with — is called Digital Foundry. They do a lot of analysis around data motivation and have done a really good job of dividing players into specific segments strictly based on why they play.”

Manuel appreciates how the data gets broken down by demographics and what they get out of the experience. “Digital Foundry breaks that down really well. They have a giant database and have surveyed hundreds of thousands of gamers.”

Depending on what industry you’re in, ask yourself: Who is your Digital Foundry and how can they help? 

4. Make proper determinations about how much of this passion is paid vs. organic.

Going back to my earlier point about assessing what’s authentic versus inauthentic, it’s also possible that a piece of content might look like a wild success, but instead is part of a wildly miscalculated ad spend that leads to adverse ROI.

Take a look at the post copy and look for sponsored or “promoted” content disclaimers on posts that might indicate that a company is paying to get the ad, video or trailer into your feed. For any social posts that appear with an influencer touting a product, the FTC requires a disclaimer denoting it as such. Hence the “#sponsored” or “#ad” hashtags you’ll often come across.

These elements are worth noting for a proper competitive analysis and to glean a more revealing look into a competitor’s content strategy. Paid ads can get your work out there, but organic traffic and engagement are the holy grail. So, looking at paid media strategies that take into account ad spend has to be a factor since it reveals the ultimate reach of a content or campaign.

Additionally, there are a bevy of SEO and SEM tools that will reveal all sorts of useful data such as what keywords your competitors are ranking for, CPC (cost per click), and where their backlinks are coming from.

These tools can properly assess things your competitors are doing right (or wrong) such as:

  • Organic ranking data and Google ad performance
  • Keyword research to see how you can craft/pivot campaigns
  • Backlinks that create more relevance with search engines

5. Always experience the competitor’s product yourself.

You can do data deep dives and review metrics all day, but one of the best ways to analyze a competitor is still using the product itself to get a tactile experience. That is to say, sometimes the answers you seek are right in front of you.

“We play the games, which sounds so elementary,” reveals Manuel. “I play them, our creative directors play them, our writers play them. Our editors will slice together a sizzle reel or all the features of a game. We really try to get into the personality and heart of a game by playing it, which is not something everybody does. It’s a seemingly obvious thing that’s very important and often overlooked.”

You also need to know where to look if playing the game (or using the product) is not an option. For Manuel and the Hammer Creative team who work primarily with gaming clients, one of these platforms is Twitch, which Manuel calls “a fantastic tool because you can watch people play your game and play competitor’s games. You can look at the data; you can look at the chat; the number of streamers. You can also just watch the game and watch how people interact with it and how different types of gamers interact with it. It becomes an invaluable tool for just absorbing game play.”

Is there a way for you to observe the use of the product you’re competing against? It’s a good question to ask yourself before you spend the time, money and resources on a full-competitive audit. In a video-driven world, this footage may already exist somewhere.

Here’s how to do a competitive analysis so good your competitors can't compete. 5 do's, 5 don'ts. #MarketingTips Click To Tweet

5 things not to do when doing a competitive analysis.

5 don’ts for a successful competitive analysis

1. Don’t take only a cursory glance at your competitors’ socials — and be on your way.

Given the amount of data that’s available, it might be tempting to simply scan your competitors’ social channels, jot down a few telling numbers and be done with it. And in many cases, that is better than doing nothing at all. However, given the insightful analytics tools now available, it’s easier than ever to get a more revealing analysis of competitive content in quick and efficient fashion. Granular, in-the-weeds stuff that speaks not just to statistics but emotional engagement.

Have a peek at them to see how you can do a more thorough deep dive before simply scanning socials and calling it a day.

2. Having said that, don’t let data alone dictate everything.

With data and analytics ruling decision-making across wide swaths of the content and marketing these days, it would behoove you to uncover and digest the data — but also, not to over-rely on it. Manuel speaks to what governs Hammer’s philosophy.

“We obviously use data, we interpret it, we play with it and all that stuff, but our main focus is the why. What are intentions of gamers, their motivations… their emotional resonance with the game. That’s how we approach the competition.”

3. Don’t rely on old-school methods invented before AOL dial-up was a thing.

Digital subscribers versus print. Online sales versus brick-and-mortar. Organic traffic versus “walk-ins.” There are old ways of doing things and new. Try not to lean too hard on telling details that were popular back when the Y2K bug was a thing. By employing old-world methods exclusively, you tell only a fraction of the story and risk missing the point altogether. How things were is great only in the context of determining how they should be now, given the redefined, competitive landscape.

Those are the next-level insights you’re looking for.

4. Don’t rely on a competitive analysis you did years ago before your competition changed.

With technology and trends changing at the speed of broadband, you might be tempted to rely on that competitive analysis from just a few years ago when you paid to license tools, invested time and resources that are now too spent to do another one. It’s not recommended. Content strategies change as do competitors.

And with the aforementioned tools in place that help make it easier than ever to “listen” to competitors online, it’s inherently risky to rely on a strategy hatched a year or two prior. Especially when you take into account how things have drastically changed on this front during the global pandemic, which altered the tone of content being produced, the budgets for ad spends and the overall temperature of the country.

5. Finally, don’t employ unsavory data-collection methods.

It’s important to understand one of the key differences between gathering “intelligence” and doing “analysis.” Intelligence connotes “intel,” which can imply using methods that extend to everything from craftiness to covert collection methods.

On the other hand, “analysis” speaks more to the gathering information already available that’s public and/or can be extracted from data or paid research. I think we can all agree about the potential for ethical breaches involved in gathering intel. But it’s not necessary to accomplish a competitive analysis. For example, talking to and/or poaching people who work for competitors (who may be under NDAs) is not something that’s recommended and/or ethical in many regards.

Less obvious is when companies bring people in from competitors for meetings or interviews, so they can pick their brain — without any intention of hiring them at all. The HBO series Silicon Valley portrayed a variation of this in an episode years ago in comical fashion. Bottom line: employing above-board, high-minded tactics is a good practice because it’s not just the right thing to do ethically (hence the golden rule), but your current employees will respect you for it and treat you the same way.

Now that you know the do’s and don’ts, how will you execute a competitive analysis so good your competitors can’t compete?

We look forward to finding out.

When choosing your competitors for a #competitiveanalysis, consider one thing: 'It's all about the impact it has on the customer, regardless of the type of company or product,' says Karan Nischol, Director of Product Development @Compass. Click To Tweet

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About the author

Gregg Rosenzweig

Over the past two decades, Gregg Rosenzweig has spent his career writing, producing and publishing engaging content for American mass consumption in the digital, TV and branded content spaces. From serving as a Creative Director on commercial spots to pitching/winning/executing branded content campaigns for Fortune 100 companies, Gregg's been fortunate to work for (and with) top advertising and digital media agencies... as well as some of the most highly respected publishers across the media landscape.