Steal like a marketer. A guide to competitor research.

Steal like a marketer. A guide to competitor research.

Part II - some light Friday reading. Great feedback already this week, thank you. Brilliant basics we call it and it a principle that Richard Chapple maintains - look at his scale-ups and see what this enables. Today, this is looking at the art of marketing. But wait, "Marketing is a science" I hear you say. The measurement yes, the execution is art. But there is a phase before this. The reason that online works so well. Remember Hansel and Gretel? Like online browsers, leave clues. It is the ability to find and do something with these breadcrumbs that makes the difference. 

There is a secondary layer here, we cannot all be experts at everything, but what we can do is surround ourselves with expertise and people who know the what and the how. I am a limpet for these types of people and have been lucky enough to have worked with so many over the years. The author of the next few paragraphs is one of those people and is a marketing gun for hire, Alan O'Rourke. Alan is a marketing expert and has kindly shared his best practice with us for using a simple framework for building a framework for doing your own research. These words matter - your OWN research. No one can understand it better than you. 


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Original LinkedIn Post here - Thanks Alan

New market? New product? Instead of reinventing the wheel and wasting money on guesswork, just copy where the leading competitor is spending time and money. Then innovate and improve from there.

50% of marketing is just knowing what is possible.

Probably half of anything is knowing what is possible.

I use loads of tools in my day-to-day job across research, analytics, outreach, advertising and creative. It’s simply impossible to remember where every option and function resides, never mind when a product updates its UI and continues to add functionality. (Vinny Comment: this is great reassurance from a very skilled marketer, let me sleep easier.)

But you do not need to.

Once you know WHAT is possible, the HOW is usually a 5 minute trip to Google, Youtube or Stack Overflow.

One of the fun nerdy bits I love about marketing is the absolute wealth of information you can pull from online data. Data that can save you a load of time, guesswork and testing and allows you to jump to results faster.

So below is a quick overview of WHAT is possible in marketing data and some pointers to the tools you can use. One caveat though, not all businesses, industries and audiences have a presence online but the following questions should answer that for you. I mention various tools but Google the question you want to solve and you will get many more suggestions. 

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Where are competitors getting traffic and business?

Use tools like SimilarWeb and SpyMetrics.

 This is normally my starting point for researching a market or competitor.

  • You can figure out what channels a company is getting traffic from and spending money on.
  • How many people are coming from direct traffic (usually a sign of how strong the brand is).
  • Referrals from other websites. (You probably need to be on the same websites).
  • How much they are focusing on paid ads.
  • Are they getting much traffic from organic search (probably focusing on SEO).
  • Email? Retention and list building is an important channel.
  • And you can get a look at how they are pitching themselves to customers. What problems do they say they are solving and why are they the best solution.

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How do we rank in Google?

Use tools like Ahrefs and SEMRush

If organic search traffic is a big source of traffic for a competitor, you should test it too.

A rough rule of thumb is that your website ranks depending on what other quality websites link to you and if their subject matter is relevant to your subject matter. There are many other factors but this is the big one.

Using these tools it is possible to dissect what exact websites are linking to your competitor and why.

If you want to rank as high in Google, start by getting the same links.

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What adverts should we do?

Use tools like Ahrefs and Spyfu

 This one can save you a load of money testing ads that do not work. It is generally a good indicator if a competitor is spending money targeting specific keywords and audiences that it is profitable to do so.

You can explore what ad networks a company is using, what ad copy and creative they are using and what keywords or audiences they are targeting.

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What problem are we solving?

What solutions are customers looking for?

See above (what adverts should we do).

Look at what keywords and search terms are being targeted and how the competitor describes the problem and solution in the adverts.

What segments should we target?

See above (what adverts should we do).

Are they running ads for “eCommerce tools for clothing” and “eCommerce tools for car parts”? They are your starting points.

Look also at the web traffic and links. Is much of the traffic going to particular segment pages? Many companies make the mistake of having one homepage. But really you need many homepages for each segment. Look for search traffic going to pages like “ecommerce tools for book sellers” etc.

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What content should we write/create?

Use tools like Ahrefs, Google, Buzzsumo and web scraping

This is my favourite and one of the easiest wins.

  • First look at competitors and see which of their content gets the most traffic, social shares and back links.
  • Then look at the topic and see which content on the web ranks the highest for it and got the most shares.
  • Go to industry trade publications and see which of their content is the most popular.
  • Are many people searching the keywords on Google? Is it trending upwards or downwards?
  • Q&A websites like Reddit, Quora, Stack Exchange or forums in your own market are a gold mine for content research. You can see what questions are asked most and how much they are up voted and shared.

Scrape all the top content and questions into a spreadsheet and rank them. Ideally group the content into the different stages of the buyer journey.

"Your content needs to answer the most popular questions. You can easily get 2-3 years worth of content out of this."

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Note that content need not be text but can be resources as well.

Who influences our sales targets?

See above (what publications should we advertise in)

Once you have your sales targets, look at who they all follow in common. With a bit of Python scripting you can get a ranked list of people, organisations and publications that your target market read and follow. Again, upload this to various ad platforms for ad targeting and try to work and partner with them.

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What is the best selling product?

All the above does not even cover the various marketplaces like Amazon, ebay and Alibaba which all come with their own ecosystem of research tools. You can research pricing, sales figures and search trends. Just Google the question you want answered and you should find a tool or method to find that information. 

What is working?

Use tools like Google analytics, Data studio and Excel.

It is important to track what is working and good analytics and reports lead to new and better questions and research angles. Track everything that you can but where you cannot, ask. One of the most useful things I did for a client was a simple form after a new customer has signed up asking “Where did you first hear about us?” . The result allowed us to correct spend and allocate resources to under-served channels.

Re use and re purpose

The great thing about all the above research is that it makes for some terrific content. I am lazy and hate doing unnecessary work so I love when I can re use material. Do the above research and suddenly you have content like "The top influencers in Industry", "The top events every eCommerce pro must attend", "The best articles of 2020" etc. Everyone loves hearing about themselves so they will come visit you.

Wrap up

The above list is not exhaustive, just a quick overview of some of the big questions in marketing and what data is possible to find.

Google will point you to some finer grained tools / answers and also try Product Hunt for specialist tools.

All in all, the ultimate research tool is Excel or Google sheets (not great for BIG lists of data) for pulling all the data together. It is the marketing tool I spend most of my time in. And you know what, I love it :)

So any tools you recommend I play with? Any other sources of data work looking at?


Header image is an adaption of Steal Like an Artist from Austin Kleon which is a great book. Read it.

There you have it folks. If you cannot take 7 minutes to read this, you will definitely not take the time to do this invaluable research.

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