Creating a product is often a difficult and time-consuming process. If that product is one that requires specialized technical knowledge like developing software or hardware, this is even more true. Just to be able to create the product requires an investment of time if you are doing it yourself or money if you are outsourcing the development to someone else.
As difficult as the product creation process is, that is actually the easy part when compared with marketing the product and getting people to take out their wallets and give you money for it. Many a product, some of them incredibly well made and built by people with expertise in their respective fields, has failed simply because the founder did not know how to market it or simply could not find enough people to buy.
One way that bootstrappers (i.e. self-funded entrepreneurs) have been successful is to first cultivate an existing audience through content creation over a period of time. Once an audience has been created, product ideas can emerge from a deep understanding of the audience and what it wants. With an existing audience already present, marketing the product is as simple as letting the audience know that the product exists.
But what if a product creator doesn’t have an audience? In my experience, many companies (even large ones) don’t necessarily have built-in audiences they can automatically sell new products to. And even if a company does have an audience and a lot of brand awareness, it doesn’t necessarily translate into the kind of growth it needs to succeed in any particular market.
Being able to analyze a market’s demand potential and competitive landscape is a useful skill for any marketer or entrepreneur. For one, it enables you to see what product features other existing competitors in a market have and to assess how your product compares. Also and just as important, it enables the entrepreneur to see what marketing channels are employed in reaching potential customers of the product
Any product that one seeks to create is not only a combination of the product’s features but also the marketing channels that must be used to sell it. Without a clear path to market and some evidence of existing inherent demand, a product will likely have an uphill battle in creating a sustainable business.
Analyzing the existing competitive landscape is something that, in my experience, far too few companies truly engage in. The technology world is littered with failed startups that could have saved themselves a lot of time and money had they just done a little bit of market and competitor research first before deciding to enter a market.
Whether or not you already have an existing product to market or you are simply investigating the marketing channels of the competitors in an existing market, knowing what marketing channels various players in a market are using can assist you in deciding on how to market your existing product or gauge whether or not you might want to enter a market.
Throughout the rest of this post, we will take a brief look at several of the main online marketing channels in use today and some of the tools that can be utilized for competitive research.
Caveat: I have used several of these competitive research tools over the years and have found them helpful. For others, I have had them recommended to me by people in the digital marketing industry whose opinions I respect. As such, I have no financial interest as an affiliate or representative of any of these tools and recommend them here solely as potentially useful resources for people looking to perform competitive research.
While I believe competitor research in any niche is helpful, I don’t subscribe to the notion that anyone should ever try to copy exactly what a competitor is doing in their product or their marketing.
Competitor research should be used as a starting tool to discover what channels, keywords, ad copy, audiences and types of creative and landing pages are currently working in a niche. From there, you should use this insight as a starting point to go on to discover your own approach to marketing your product or service. Be inspired by your competitors but don’t copy them.
To be successful, a site needs to differentiate itself from its competitors. But before you can differentiate yourself, you need to understand what’s already out there.
With that, let’s take a look at a few of the ways it’s possible to examine a competitor’s marketing strategy.
When most people are looking for a solution to a problem, the first place they usually go is to a search engine. In most of the world, that means primarily Google (but sometimes Bing, Yahoo or DuckDuckGo). In China, the primary search engine is Baidu. In Russia, it’s Yandex.
Search engines have been around almost as long as the web has. Since there have been web pages, there has been the need to organize, categorize and find them.
What’s great about search engines is that, by the very act of searching for something, users reveal their intent to learn or do things. No other marketing channel reveals so much about a person’s intent signals than search engines.
Marketing on search engines happens in a couple of ways. First, there is organic or natural search—the holy grail for many marketers since organic traffic is free and can generate lots of clicks and site visits. Organic search rankings are created via algorithms. In Google’s case, their organic ranking algorithms contain over 200 different factors. The process of trying to make web pages rank high on the first page of the search engine results pages (SERPs) is called search engine optimization (SEO).
In addition to their organic search results, search engines sell advertising that appears both above and below the natural search results—usually blending in with the organic listings. These ads are called pay per click (PPC) ads or less often cost per click (CPC) ads. Search engine ads are sold on a per click basis via a real-time auction for clicks every time a search is made. Ads are ranked on the page using an algorithm that evaluates an ad’s quality and relevance to a particular user’s search query. Pay per click is also generally referred to as search engine marketing (SEM) even though SEO is technically also search engine marketing.
Competitor research tools for SEO and SEM have come and gone over the years. However, a few have remained. The following tools have endured for quite a while and are generally regarded as the standard in the industry:
SEMrush: SEO, PPC, Social Media, Content
SpyFu: SEO, PPC
Researching a competitor’s search engine strategies can get overwhelming and counterproductive if you try to look at too much. Some websites rank for many thousands and even millions of keywords. Generally though, in trying to get a high-level overview of a given competitive space, a quick look at the following will yield a lot of useful insight:
1. Number of pages indexed organically: Not all competitors in a space will have the discipline to undertake a consistent content marketing program that increases organic search presence. However, those that do enjoy a competitive advantage that is hard for others to beat.
Any company can buy ads and quickly increase their search engine exposure, but dedicated content creation for SEO takes time to bear fruit and many companies do not have the resources or the patience to consistently churn out good content and then wait many months to build up organic rankings with strong backlink profiles.
Companies that have a significant number of organically indexed content pages are worthy of deeper analysis. Most companies doing content marketing will have resource sections of their website with links to white papers, ebooks and webinars in addition to an active blog with lots of posts that are indexed by the search engines. Any company in your space that is doing this well should warrant a close look to see how you can develop such a program and even do it better than your competitors are.
2. Number of keywords ranking for organically: Along with number of pages indexed, the number of keywords that a company ranks for organically is proportional to how dedicated they are to creating content on a regular basis. If you see a competitor with a lot of organic keyword rankings, take a look at which of those keywords deliver the most traffic as well as those keywords that have the highest intent for conversion. Look for the less competitive, lower traffic keywords to start with and begin to craft your own organic strategy around these before trying to tackle keywords with higher search volume that are more competitive.
3. Pay Per Click Campaigns & Keywords: Whether or not a company is running PPC ads can tell you a lot. Some companies will just run ads on their brand name. This is often because one of their competitors is bidding on their brand name and they feel they have to defend the top spot on the page for their name.
Many companies (especially startups) with no organic search presence are impatient and want to see results quickly so they run PPC ads on what they believe are their best non-brand keywords. And some companies run both a dedicated content marketing with SEO program along with PPC ads to give themselves as much as exposure on search engines as possible. While PPC can be incredibly profitable for some, it isn’t for a lot of companies.
Despite what Google says about click costs continually going down, the truth is that click costs on many keywords continue to increase every year. The increasing prevalence of automation and machine learning in online advertising has removed a lot of the control that advertisers once had. And once you turn your ads off, the traffic stops-unlike with SEO which takes a lot of time but can continue to deliver traffic no matter whether you spend money or not. Still, PPC can be a fast, reliable and profitable source of traffic if it is done correctly and with the right offer.
If you find yourself with a business that is able to make PPC work profitably, then your only limit is your advertising budget and the number of keywords you can find. You can scale very rapidly and get the proverbial “spend one dollar on PPC and get two back” scenario. Just be careful not to rely too heavily on one channel (one single point of failure) because it can all go away in an instant.
Unlike search which usually delivers a steady stream of traffic, social media tends to deliver traffic in short bursts but with a rapid decay. Because of this, social media campaigns need to continually refresh creative and content to continue to get clicks, traffic and to avoid ad creative fatigue.
While search engines are driven by intent of users, social media is more interruptive. Prospective customers aren’t necessarily looking for your product or service when they’re browsing social media and many, if not most people are very resistant to content or ads that are transactional unless the product or service is a lower consideration product at a lower price point. For SaaS, even asking prospects to enroll in a trial or have a demo is difficult.
From both an organic content and advertising perspective with B2B, social media marketing functions best as a delivery vehicle for content—namely guides, white papers, ebooks and webinars. Much in the same way that search engine optimization and marketing work best with content that solves problems or satisfies user curiosity, a sound social media strategy also has informative and educational content as its cornerstone.
Most social media marketing is done on the three largest platforms—Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. In general, Facebook (along with Instagram) is largely a consumer, B2C platform (although many B2B advertisers swear by it). Twitter is more of a mix of both B2C and B2B. LinkedIn is almost exclusively B2B. YouTube, even though it’s technically a search engine for video, is often considered a social media platform as well.
Like search, social media has seen its fair share of competitive analytics tools over the years. Of course, one of the best ways to analyze what competitors are doing is to simply follow them on various social media platforms. Still, to get more detailed information it’s helpful to use some analytics tools:
SEMrush: SEO, PPC, Social Media, Content
Social Blade: Social Media
Facebook Ad Library: Social Media (Facebook only)
Because social media traffic comes in bursts and because a lot of social media marketing is done to existing, known audiences rather than new ones as with search, the nature of competitive analytics for social media is a bit different.
1. Type of social media posts: What types of posts are they making on social media? Are they exclusively posting content from their website or are there other types of posts as well?
2. Number & Frequency of Posts: How many times per day, week or month is a competitor posting?
3. Posts With the Highest Engagement, Likes, Shares & Comments: What makes some posts become popular is, to some extent, a matter of chance. While certain social media posts may generate a lot of engagement and likes, they may do little to increase a company’s business. Much in the way that long tail, lower search volume keywords often have better conversion rates than higher volume head keywords, some social posts and ads with lower numbers of clicks and engagement deliver better conversion rates. With this in mind, it’s best to look at many different kinds of posts over a period of time to get a sense of how a competitor’s social media strategy has evolved.
Unlike search and social media, display advertising is entirely a paid acquisition channel. Banner ads were the original advertising on the web. HotWired magazine (the early website of Wired magazine) sold the original banner ad in 1994 and launched what has today become a multi-billion dollar business.
The search engine and social media ecosystem contains a relatively small number of platforms and the bulk of ad spend is concentrated in a handful of companies. By contrast, the display and programmatic ecosystem is gigantic and distributed (although many of the big ad tech companies have a large footprint).
In display and programmatic, there are Demand Side Platforms (DSPs) that offer agencies and media buyers a link into a number of large Ad Exchanges where ad inventory is offered by Publishers via Supply Side Platforms. Behind it all are a range of Third Party Data providers that offer a range of audience intelligence collected on vast numbers of websites across the internet. Most people have no idea how large and sophisticated the digital advertising ecosystem has become. It is an enormous business with many players that generates large amounts of money at very high margins.
From a conversion standpoint, display and programmatic ads are definitely not what they once were. These days, many people tend to ignore them or even block them completely. Of the people that do see them, a small percentage even bother to click on them. While search engines and social media can blur the line between useful content and outright advertising, display and programmatic have no such distinction. They are pure advertising with one small exception being native ads which are ads designed to look like content.
Still, if reaching a wide audience of people for awareness and branding is a goal, there are few ways to do so other than display and programmatic. As long as your expectations aren’t incredibly unrealistic in terms of how effective they are, it is possible to generate large numbers of impressions and get quite granular in reaching the audiences you want to reach. While display and programmatic should never be the first or even only channel to get to reach an audience, they do have a place in a larger paid media budget when there is a need for awareness and branding on a larger scale than what search engines and social media are able to provide.
Because display and programmatic have such a wide reach and because there are so many players, analyzing the exact strategies behind a particular company’s advertising strategy can be challenging. Generally, it’s most crucial to look at:
1. Ad Networks & Demand Side Platforms (DSPs): Which ad networks, DSPs and ad exchanges are they using to do their media buys? The competitive tools will give you this information.
2. Ad Placements (Domain & Page-Specific): Display and programmatic paid media have traditionally been, up until the last few years, based on specific ad placements on certain websites and domains. With the rise of third party data has come the rise of audience targeting. That is, targeting the user with ads based on their data regardless of what domain they are on. In this way, placements have taken somewhat of a back seat to audiences in recent years. However, recent debate on user privacy and data collection practices as well as current and future legislation from various governments around the world make this a fast-moving area that is bound to change a lot in the coming years.
3. Ad Formats & Creative (Banners, Video, Native, Mobile): There are quite a few display ad sizes and formats. Companies that buy a lot of display and programmatic are continually testing new creative. Look at the imagery, colors, messaging and calls to action. What are they asking people to do in the ad?
4. Landing Pages & Offers: These days, display ads have extremely low click through rates. If people even notice them in the first place, a small percentage of those people even click on them. If and when they do click on them, what does the landing page look like? What is the offer?
Perhaps the two best competitive research tools for display and programmatic ad intelligence are:
Depending on your viewpoint, competitive analysis ranges from vital to your survival to a complete waste of time. Many people want to believe their website is special and unique and that people will just magically flock to them. As any assessment of the startup space will show you, this is far from certain.
The web is overflowing with websites that never get any traffic. The world of startups is full of stories about failed businesses and billions of dollars in losses. Even with those companies that survive, many of them (even very prominent famous tech companies) consistently fail to make a profit. A tiny few manage to make a profit and live beyond the next market downturn or recession. Failure is incredibly easy to come by. Success is quite a bit harder and more rare.
While analyzing your competitors won’t necessarily guarantee your success, it can help you to figure out how the existing players in a space are acquiring new customers—what channels they are using, what creative and landing pages and what kinds of content. And while copying another website’s content and strategy should never be your goal, it is helpful to take a look at what other companies in your space are doing from time to time