Do you “spy” on your competition? No, we’re not suggesting you bug any corner offices or install hidden cameras. But gathering some competitor “intel” can provide you with valuable information.
Here’s what to look for and what to learn from your competitors.
1. Sign up for their newsletters and promotional offers.
Why this is valuable: Most businesses “touch” their audiences at least once a month. Being included on your competitors’ mailing lists is a good way to learn about your competitors’ latest products and services, its positioning, how it “talks” to its audience, and breaking news.
What to look for: What do you like/not like about the copy, the design, and the message? Are the article topics interesting? Do you agree with the content and find it to be factually accurate, or is there room for debate (more on what to do with this below)? What products/services are they highlighting?
What you should do with this information: Look for opportunities to differentiate your business. For example, if you disagree with the content in a newsletter article, take out your frustration in the form of a series of articles that you might call “debunking industry myths.” Publish these articles on your blog, in your newsletter, and throughout social media.
Hint: Use a benign, unidentifiable email address—such as Hotmail or Gmail—when you sign up. In fact, you could create a separate email account that you use only for this purpose: receiving info and offers from your competitors. This way, it’s not muddying up your main inbox and your competitors won’t know it’s you.
2. Follow them on social media.
Why this is valuable: Social media tends to be more informal than a newsletter or website. Following your competitors on platforms like Twitter and Facebook will allow you to see how your competitors speak to customers and deal with negative comments in real time. You’ll also get wind of special promotions/sales.
What to look for: Note the posts/updates that garner the most comments, likes, shares, re-tweets, etc. Since your own fan base will be comprised of similar people, seeing what works for your competitors’ audiences will provide a reference point for the types of things to try out on your own social media platforms. Also note how your competitors deal with complaints and criticism.
What you should do with this information: Social media is more art than science, at least when it comes to figuring out what audiences respond to. We’re not suggesting you copy your competitors’ tweets or status updates, but if you’ve observed that their audience responds well to video, for example, then experiment and see how adding more video to your posts and tweets works with your audience.
If you witness your competitor responding poorly to criticism or negative reviews, use this as an opportunity to highlight how well your organization handles negative reviews (if it indeed does!). Likewise, if your competitor does a fabulous job of dealing with customer complaints, study how they do it. Do they actively ask customers to send complaints and questions via Twitter and Facebook? Would this be a viable solution for your business? Again, the goal isn’t to copy everything your competitor is doing, but rather to learn from what they’re doing right and wrong and see what you can implement in your own organization.
Hint: Some businesses are hesitant to follow their competitors on social media. We can appreciate this. For Facebook, “like” the page using your personal profile or ask an employee to be your mole. For Twitter, check out this article on how to follow your competitors without them knowing.
3. Do a website audit at least once a year.
Why this is valuable: Messaging, positioning, design—all these things can and do change. Make sure you’re up to speed on how all of this is evolving for your competitors. While following them on social media and receiving a monthly newsletter will likely alert you to any changes, conducting a full website audit at least once a year will allow you to see the depth and breadth of these changes.
What to look for: When you look at your competitors’ websites, you should expect to see some overlap with your own site. After all, you offer the same products/services. What you want to note is how the competitor presents the info (both visually and through the copy). Keep track of any offers, such as ebooks, white papers, checklists, coupons, and fill out any forms using your alias email address. Note the follow-up process: do you receive an auto responder? An email later in the week or month? A phone call?
What you should do with this information: Is your competitor using a messaging point that you had never considered before or that you overlooked or somehow took for granted? If yes, then determine whether you should weave that message into your marketing. Is there something your competitor’s site does particularly well, such as leading a visitor through the sales process? There’s no reason you can’t use their strategy as a guideline. Again, we’re not suggesting you copy or plagiarize, but it’s natural to look at a competitor’s site and to then be inspired to make changes to your own. Is there something your competitor is overlooking or has buried on his site that you feel is important? Is there a way you can highlight that particular piece of information more clearly on your own?
Hint: This can be a great intern project. Give the intern 3-5 competitors to audit and have her create a report, complete with screen shots, of what she found along with recommendations for your site.
4. Subscribe to their blog.
Why this is valuable: Seeing what your competitors are blogging about will likely inspire ideas for your blog/newsletter.
What to look for: Keep track of posts you disagree with or that don’t adequately tackle the subject at hand. Read the comments. Comments can be a goldmine, since they often include questions, observations, and opposing viewpoints, all of which can lead to article topics for your own blog or fresh content for your FAQ page on your site.
What you should do with this information: Use your competitors’ blogs as a brainstorming springboard for your own blog, newsletter, and website content.
Hint: Should you ever comment on your competitors’ blog posts? Only if you’re prepared to have your competitors comment on yours. While this is ultimately your decision (and will depend a lot on the industry and your relationship—if any—with your competitor), it probably makes sense to keep your distance.
Bonus idea: Request a sales call. This tactic isn’t for everyone or every business, which is why we didn’t include it in the main list of strategies. But if you’re comfortable doing so and if you have someone (an employee, a consultant, or even a family member) whom you trust, you could have the person create a “fake” persona and, using this persona, request a sales call from your competitor. It’s a way to gather more intel on the competitor’s sales process so that you can learn what works and what doesn’t…and how you can improve your own process, based on the experience. And, yes—if you can do it to your competitors, it’s possible they could (or already) have done it to you.
What strategies do you use for evaluating your competition? We want to hear them. Share in the comments!