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So much of digital marketing for a small business ultimately amounts to little more than guesswork. Should you be active on social media? If so, which networks? Should you blog? What about paid advertising?

Small businesses typically start with the basic outline of a plan, then refine their approach through trial and error. They note what works, and improve or change what doesn’t.

However, there’s a better way to figure out how and where to refine your digital marketing plan, and it starts with a little (completely legal) spying on your competitors.

1. What is Competitive Intelligence?

It’s called competitive intelligence, or sometimes competitor analysis, and it can supercharge your marketing efforts.

However, it’s important to understand where to draw the line. What we’re discussing here has nothing to do with illegal spying or corporate espionage. Those activities are illegal and can lead to stiff fines and penalties — and even imprisonment, in some cases.

By contrast, competitive intelligence is the practice of researching your competitors through their digital and real-world footprints in order to ascertain what they’re doing to market their businesses and how well those efforts are working for them. You can then take those observations and apply them appropriately to your own marketing strategies, improving on what works and avoiding what doesn’t.

Keep in mind that competitive intelligence is just one tool in the digital marketing toolbox. It’s not a panacea to fix everything that’s wrong with your marketing. However, it can save you time and effort, streamline your marketing approach, and help you differentiate your business from the competition.

2. How Competitive Intelligence Supercharges Your Digital Marketing

Competitive intelligence forces you to identify who your competitors are, and to get crystal clear on your place in the immediate business environment in which you find yourself. It’s a way to learn what your competitors are doing well. That knowledge gives you the insight you need to meet or even exceed that benchmark your competitor set.

With digital marketing, there’s always something new, something deeper, or something more current that you can bring to a topic. Even if it seems your competitor has written the definitive guide to your niche, you can always go further:

  • Dig a little deeper
  • Expand the focus a little more broadly
  • Argue the other side of the question
  • Change the approach altogether — turn a how-to piece into a piece of thought leadership and explore why, or vice versa

By the same token, if your competitor is getting good results with written content, why not take the same topics and turn them into infographics? They may perform even better.

Another aspect of competitive intelligence into digital marketing tactics is the evaluation of your competitor’s content assets for the purpose of figuring out where the gaps are. By pinpointing what they’re not doing, you can pick specific topics and issues to cover in depth. Then your brand becomes the authoritative voice in your “space” or industry.

Analyzing your competitor’s digital marketing from a competitive intelligence perspective gives you the parameters to guide your own marketing decisions.

3. Basics of Spying on Your Competitor’s Digital Marketing Program

Although the specific process will differ depending on the questions you want to answer, the general procedure for analyzing your competitor’s digital marketing efforts is roughly the same:

  1. First, identify a point of presence on the web that your competitor has established, whether that’s a social media account, a website, or some other place on the web where the company either publishes content, interacts with customers and prospects, or both.
  2. Next, look at what the company is doing there. How much do they publish, and how often? What are they publishing, in broad terms (i.e., written blog posts, videos, infographics, podcasts, etc.)?
  3. Analyze what your competitor is doing there, and how much of its efforts are spent there. This will help you gauge how important the company thinks each channel is to their efforts.
  4. Finally, examine the competitor’s efforts. If they’re working, think about ways you can adapt that approach and make it your own. If they’re not working so well, think of ways to improve on the tactic or strategy.

You can use this generalized plan no matter what aspect of the competitor’s digital marketing you want to analyze. However, keep in mind that competitive intelligence research is no substitute for your own digital marketing plan. Instead, it refines and improves on your existing plan.

4. Analyzing Their Website

When examining the competition’s website, think first about what overall impression the site creates for you. Think in terms of a pair of opposing traits creating a spectrum, then assign a numerical value to represent the site on a spectrum between those two points. For example:

  • Elegant to laid-back
  • Fun-loving to serious
  • Young to old
  • Conservative to progressive
  • Traditional to modern
  • Classical to avant-garde

This kind of paired-trait evaluation helps you more accurately pinpoint your competitor’s appeal to your mutually targeted audience.

Next look at the site’s structure to get a sense for the hierarchy, or the way the site is organized. You’ll usually find a few main pages (About, Contact, Blog, etc.) and many child pages underneath those main pages (About the Company, About Our Staff). Jot down an outline of the core site pages. While you do this, think about whether they’ve created some key page that might be useful on your site.

From there, continue to analyze the site’s content. Get a sense of whether they publish primarily written content (static pages, blog posts or landing pages) or visual content (images, artwork, videos or infographics).

Finally, pay attention to whether there is a call to action on key pages, and if so, how it’s structured. What are they offering as an inducement to get people to take that action?

A great tool to try out in exploring your competitor’s website is Hubspot’s free Website Grader. This free-to-use tool will give you a quick summary report on any website. The evaluation includes the site’s performance, security, SEO and mobile-friendliness.

5. Examining Your Competitor’s Social Media Usage

Another key aspect of your competitor’s digital marketing is its use of social media. To analyze this, first identify the networks or channels it’s currently using (i.e., Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc.).

Then take a closer look at the company’s profile or account page for each active network it’s using. Examine each of the following:

  • Cover or header images: What is the content? Are they purely graphic or do they include text as well?
  • Biographical profiles: What’s the general tone and tenor of the company’s “about” information on the network? How do they describe what they do and who they do it for?
  • Content: What kinds of content are they sharing most often? What’s the proportion of self-serving links (i.e., to their own content) to curated (links to content created by others) to conversational (reaching out to followers, asking questions, starting conversations)?

Another aspect of the company’s use of social media you’ll want to examine is the frequency of posting for each network. Most companies post less often on Facebook, for example, than they do on Twitter (assuming they use each). Then compare the frequency to the level of engagement they’re getting from responses, comments, retweets and the like. These ratios can give you a reasonable place to start from with your own social media marketing plan.

Take a look at the size of their audience, as well. If the account or page has thousands of likes or followers, but no one ever comments or engages with the competitor’s posts, the followers might be purchased, or the competitor may simply not be hitting the mark in terms of content and tone. If that’s the case, figure out what you could do differently to entice these people and engage them with your brand.

Social media is one area in which digital tools and apps are particularly helpful. Sites and tools such as Social Mention and Google Alerts can help you monitor your competitor’s mentions in social media and elsewhere. Use this information to track how and in what circumstances the competition is getting the most traction, then think about incorporating those topics into your own blog posts and social media content.

6. Improve Your Content and Rankings

First things first: set up a straightforward Google Alert for the names of each competitor you’d like to keep tabs on. For ease of tracking and segmenting information, you’ll probably want to create a separate alert for each competitor. Don’t forget brand names and, if the business is generally associated with one individual, that person’s name as well. This will funnel information about your competitor that’s been published on the web and indexed by Google directly into your email inbox. (If you find you’re being buried by emails, you can always request a digest email format.)

Speaking of Google, don’t neglect the power of a simple Google search for the main keywords associated with your industry. Look at the results and find out where your content ranks compared to your competitors. Where do you outrank them? More importantly, perhaps, where do they outrank you? Make a note of those URLs and then examine the associated page in depth. What are they doing that you aren’t? See if you can identify as many factors that they’re hitting more precisely than you are – things you can work with, improve upon or add to your content or layout.

Use a tool such as SpyFu or Ahrefs to examine their keyword strategy and major PPC focus. Search for your competitor’s name or your major industry- or brand-related keywords. From the data these tools can provide, you can then begin to figure out what sorts of content your prospects are most interested in reading and consuming. Use those insights to craft and refine your content strategy.

Don’t forget promotion, however. The best content in the world won’t do you much good if no one ever sees it. You’ll need a strong, targeted promotion plan including blog outreach and social media shares to drive your intended audience to your pages.

7. Takeaways

Use your new competitive intelligence gathering skills for one singular purpose: To improve your own digital marketing efforts and reach your business goals. Don’t fall into the seductive trap of competition for competition’s sake, because quite possibly you’ll find yourself straying away from your true goals and simply following the crowd. Use what you learn to refine and finesse your own ideas, and track your progress. If you’re getting closer to your goals, you’re on the right track.

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