how to research competitors

When building a marketing strategy, it can be confusing to know where to begin. Do you need a website redesign? Should you invest more in content? What about paid Google ads or social? Direct mail? The list goes on and on.

One essential step in helping you bring some clarity to this process is to thoroughly research your competitors. If done correctly, this process will help you determine what marketing tactics your audience is receptive to while also potentially uncovering a valuable avenue for your business that competitors have missed.

Follow these steps below to review your competitors’ marketing efforts and use this information to better position your own business. 

Create Competitor Profiles

If you haven’t already done so, your first step is to create a source document which sums up each competitor. This will serve as a quick reference guide for your organization and can be contained in an Excel or Word doc, whatever works best for you. Be sure to include information on each competitor like:

  • Name and website
  • Their elevator pitch — who they are/what they do and why (usually found on an “about” page)
  • A list of their products and services, with prices if possible
  • Strengths and weaknesses as a brand
  • Overview of key brand differentiators — what sets them apart from other competitors?

Document Their Content 

Your next step is to dive a little bit deeper into each competitor by going through and cataloging the types and forms of marketing content they’ve created. Their website, social media, any videos or blog posts — it all needs to be noted and included on a spreadsheet.

Take special note of what jumps out at you. Do they have an ecommerce option? A digital catalog? What social media sites are they most active on? Nothing is too small or should escape your attention. Subscribe to their email lists and take note of any offers or the kinds of messages they send. If available, request printed information to evaluate their direct mail pieces.   

If you rely on the Inbound marketing method, it’s helpful to categorize pieces of content based off of where they fall in the buyer’s journey. As a quick reminder, this graphic from HubSpot should help guide your categorization:

how to research competitors

On our spreadsheet, we usually include tabs for each stage of the buyer’s journey, upon which each relevant piece of content is listed. We’ll also include a more general primary tab which acts as an overview for an organization’s content, something like this: 

how to research competitors 

Then, on the consideration tab, for example, we could list out the name of each video and include any relevant notes or links to view. This can be done for each content format, but also don’t feel the need to list hundreds of blog posts. You’ll notice in the example above we found blog posts which spoke to all three stages of the buyer’s journey, so in this scenario we would likely include only a few representative blog posts for each tab.   

Along with reviewing your competitors, you should also perform your own internal content audit. It’ll likely go a lot quicker than reviewing your competitors (you’re keenly aware of what you’ve created over the years, after all) and will be an invaluable resource for you when it comes time to compare and contrast your efforts with those of your competitors.

Conduct Interviews

Now that you have your base guide to what you and your competitors are doing on the marketing front, take some time to find out firsthand what works and what doesn’t.

Arrange interviews with your current clients to see if there’s anything they’d like to see from you, whether it be new services, more information on helpful topics or an easier way to purchase your products. Check out our more in-depth post on the benefits of doing this regularly and what kinds of questions you should ask for further guidance, but don’t stop at just your existing customers. 

Have a client who left in recent years? See if they’d be willing to have a chat with you and be clear that you’re looking for helpful feedback — not trying to make them a sales pitch.

Determine What Works

Now you get to be a little judgmental, which can be fun. Take an overall view at all your competitors’ logged marketing efforts and rate their effectiveness.

Determining the effectiveness of each piece can be difficult. Social media should provide you with a good barometer — from follower numbers to likes on posts and comments. You can also rely on analytics to score their web traffic, set up alerts via a marketing platform like HubSpot for mentions of a competitor (businesses and key employees) on social media and generally grade their overall design and content quality. 

What Should You Copy?

Once you’ve scored these marketing efforts, now is the time to determine if there’s any lessons you should take from your competitors.

Some might be abundantly clear. If all your competitors have an ecommerce function, then that’s probably something your audience expects or wants from your organization. Others might involve a little bit more research. Here’s one quick, firsthand example. 

While conducting some competitive research for a manufacturing client recently, we realized that one of their competitors was having huge amounts of success directing traffic to their business via their Instagram profile. While many of their other competitors also had Instagram accounts, their posting was infrequent and photo quality lacking in comparison. 

What Can You Do That They Can’t? 

The final piece of this puzzle is to figure out what, if possible, you can do that your competitors are not doing that will separate your business from the pack. Now, obviously, this can take many forms. Your idea for a new marketing channel or service offering can strike you at any point in this process.

Maybe you see an opportunity to create high-quality video content that will stand out from your competitors. Maybe after conducting your interviews and analyzing all this content, you’ve clarified your organization’s brand voice in a way that will resonate with your audience. You could even realize that a service offering you provide that your competitors lack needs to be amplified and is deserving of a new marketing campaign.  

After completing this competitive research process, you should find yourself on firm footing to evaluate your organization and your competitors. Keep in mind that you don’t want to get too obsessed with what your competitors are doing. The goal here isn’t to exactly replicate their marketing efforts, but instead to gain a greater understanding of your industry’s landscape and position your business for success. That’s really what this process is all about — stripping away all the emotion and taking a sober look at what you need to do to help your organization grab a bigger share of the marketplace.