Become a Content Marketing Secret Agent with Competitive Intelligence

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Who wouldn’t want to become a secret agent like Jack Bauer, Ethan Hunt, and Perry the Platypus? We all want cool gadgets, sexy entourages, and glamorous gigs.

More importantly, we want to be secret agents because they always have inside information.

And as a content marketer, you can get the secret scoop on your competitors by doing a little high-tech spying.

Using slick online snooping techniques and a little sweat equity, we can all find out what our competitors are doing well, what they could be doing better, and how we can adapt their best techniques to improve our own businesses.

Let’s go looking …

Why you need to find out what your competitors are doing

We can find out what products our competitors are creating, what content is doing well on their websites, and how they’re ranking in the search engines.

Competitive research lets us see where they’re thriving — and where they’re failing.

We use our research to help us brainstorm marketing ideas, create better content, and tweak our online strategies so we get better at what we do.

Finding out what our competition is doing is highly motivating – it can be a kick in the pants that motivates us to get stuff done bigger and better.

Because there’s nothing like knowing what your competitor is doing well to help you crank out your next great content masterpiece.

How to find your competitors

Many of us know who our main competitors are, but it’s a good idea to dig a little deeper than just the top few names.

Look for competitors on social media, in search engine results, and in traditional media outlets. Also, pay attention to people who are making a splash on the speaking circuit and authors writing new books in your industry.

And always keep your eyes peeled for new and talented guest bloggers on your favorite industry blogs. That’s a great place to spot new and upcoming competitors.

Start your research

When you’re looking at what your competition is doing online, here are a few things you’ll be checking out:

  • The products and services your competition is offering
  • The content they are publishing on their website and on social networking sites
  • Their social media strategy
  • Their SEO strategy
  • Their level of social success
  • Your competition’s overall strengths and weaknesses

Examining your competition’s online content

Are your main competitors using content marketing strategies? If so, how well are they doing? Are they publishing great content on a regular basis?

When you do your research, examine their content in depth — find out what topics they’ve covering, how good their writing is, what content is getting a strong response from their audience and how many social shares their posts are getting.

Look at what your competition is doing better than you — are they cleverly newsjacking hot topics so they get tons of traffic? Are they coming up with creative ideas and new insights? Is their writing better than yours? Is their audience larger? If so, can you figure out why it’s larger, more loyal or more engaged?

By gathering data on their content, you can not only assess how well they’re doing (or not doing) with their online marketing, but you can also discover great new ideas. If you find a topic that is taking off with your competitor’s audience, you can potentially adapt that topic for your readers by putting your own unique spin or angle on it.

No, I am absolutely not recommending you plagiarize or steal ideas. Let me repeat: Don’t do that.

But if a specific topic is really resonating with an audience and attracting a lot of discussion, you can figure out how to cover that topic on your site — in your own way — and still stay well within the bounds of our online marketer’s ethical code.

Researching your competition’s search performance

You should always keep an eye on the search result pages in the top search engines (Google, Yahoo!, and Bing) for the most sought-after keyword phrases in your industry.

Regularly run keyword searches to see where your competitors rank. Search engine research can help you figure out new keyword phrases to target in your own SEO efforts.

One of the best ways to how your competition stacks up in search is to examine how many backlinks they have — and the quality of those backlinks.

Looking at the sites that link to your competitors not only helps you discern how successful that company is in the search engines, but also gives you clues about their online relationships and alliances.

When you discover backlinks to your competitors, you can look at the anchor text phrases they’re targeting, which can give you clues about their SEO strategy and the keyword phrases they’re trying to rank for.

There are many free and paid tools that will help you dig into this research – Open Site Explorer and Majestic SEO are two of my favorites.

Spying on social results

Check out what your competition is doing on social networking sites. Do they have a substantial and content-rich presence on the major social services, like Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and LinkedIn?

Do a quick check through their social media profiles. How many fans or followers do they have? Are they consistently posting great content on their profiles? Have they attracted vocal brand advocates who consistently talk them up? Are they driving people back to their website and converting them into mailing list subscribers?

Search for your competitor’s name on Twitter and Facebook to see what people are saying about them — are the comments generally positive, or are people complaining? Is there a need that the audience has that isn’t being properly met by your competitor’s products and services?

One of the quickest and easiest ways to search for what people are saying about your competitors on Twitter is just to run a Twitter search for the URL of one of their latest blog posts. For example, this is what people are tweeting regarding Kelton Reid’s recent post about Dan Harmon.

You can easily check to see what content people are sharing on Pinterest from a particular website by going to[yoursitehere]. For instance, you can see Copyblogger’s Pinterest source page here. You can learn a lot by examining the descriptions pinners use when they pin content (and which boards they pin content to, as well.)

Another great place to look for feedback on your competitors is on review sites like Yelp, Angie’s List, TripAdvisor or InsiderPages. And don’t forget about newsletters, forums, LinkedIn groups, Twitter chats and Facebook groups, too — they’re always great places to do online social spying, too.

Setting up your system

As with most online research, studying your competitors isn’t a once-and-done affair. You’ll want to regularly monitor what your competitors are doing online.

The best way to make sure you keep up with your research is to develop systems that make it easy.

Create spreadsheets of the competitors you’re tracking (and all the critical information for each), and make good use of the available ways to save your searches using RSS feeds and alerts.

Build time into your calendar every month to revisit your competitive research and see what (if anything) has changed. Then use your planning time to integrate all the new ideas you’ve found in your research.

Getting the inside track

All the best secret agents do their research — because inside information can mean the difference between succeeding in their missions and failing miserably.

So make sure you regularly conduct competitive research. Then get yourself a fedora, some x-ray glasses and an awesome car, and you’re all set 😉

This is part three of the Content Research Series

This post is part three of our series on how to do effective research as a content marketer.

To get the full series, watch for future posts here on Copyblogger. If you’re not already subscribed, sign up to get new posts delivered straight to your inbox.

Miss the start of this research series? You can read the first two below …

Research Ain’t Easy (But it’s Necessary)

A 6-Step Content Marketing Research Process

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Reader Comments (24)

  1. says

    Being a secret agent on your blog is the one being you.

    Secret agents have tried many techniques and failed too.

    So don’t be afraid to fail.

    • says

      Like Caleb Wojcik says: Successful Entrepreneurs Focus Better and Quit More Often
      I totaly agree with him, you find the cash cow and stick to it until you find something better.

  2. says

    This stuff isn’t technically “wrong” I guess, but it’s focusing on distribution, and marketing, and not delight and wonder. Meaning this: if we did shit work, we’d never get traction…no matter how nuanced and perfected our Pintrest strategy is. We don’t (anymore) worry about our competitors because if we did, we’d not have our own personality and we’d sink down/play down to their levels.

    As a counterpoint…this (all of it) seems like something fairly stressful to add to an endless “to do list” and a lot of the 80% of stuff that “feels like work,” but makes a negligible contribution to your bottom line. I couldn’t handle doing it emotionally, so we just try to create the best work that we can do.

    A (not the) problem with content marketing is that it can create an insatiable beast that demands input all the time. . This is one more thing to add that won’t (for 95% of readers) produce results at the margin. (Yes, yes, there are edge cases, but creating a long to-do list and being competitor obsessed is lunacy.)

    • says

      Hi Chris – I didn’t say we need to be obsessed with our competitors. I think we should take an hour or two once a month and look at what out competition is doing, because it will make our content better. We will get *more* traction if we add research like this into our regular schedule of creating great content, but I’m not saying AT ALL that our to-do list for content marketing needs to be one long, dreadful list of stuff we hate to do.

      But I believe it’s important that we take a teeny portion of our schedule, and do it. You can always opt out of doing it, of course! Up to you!

    • says

      Chris, you have the luxury of making great videos for people who did the research to create books, software, etc. Don’t hate on the rest of us. 😉

      • says

        Far be it for me to hate on anyone. Worrying about, tracking or monitoring competitors is for 8 figure companies. or, maybe, rotary club businesses. Gotta call it out. Most people will be hurt by thinking twice about their competitors. Ignore, transcend, figure out how to do it better.

        The “luxury” was focusing on my customers- what do they need, how do we create an awesome process around them. It’s a fun indulgence to send signals that I’m unhinged to my competitors, but beyond that they don’t really cross my mind much.

        • says

          I only partially agree with you Chris because of the comment you made about figuring how to do it better, which naturally suggests that would have to know what you’re competition is doing in order to achieve this.

          It is smart business sense to at least have some knowledge of what is and isn’t working in the marketplace especially if someone else has gone to the trouble and expense of discovering for you.

          • says

            In my “better” I was referencing us. We do a pre-mortem to start a job and a post-mortem to close a job. The post mortem looks to identify things that we can improve about our process. So I do care – and hear back – about our company and its place in the market, but the information finds me, I don’t need to seek it.

            We could be bigger, but I’m waiting to have a tight process, and perfect execution before I really turn on the ‘marketing afterburners.’ We are happy to develop and perfect our process in relative obscurity.

    • says

      I agree with Chris. Lately, my partners and I have been more focused on being who we are, as a company and we have stopped the social media check list. We realized, we couldn’t be everywhere… what we did do was set up more “real world” meetings with people (face to face). As a result it has increased our business and we’ve made new friends.

      To check out our “competition”, seems too much. I’m not saying we shouldn’t be aware of them, but to analyze them in such a way seems like a lot of work, that may or may not contribute to generating business. If you know your market, your customer, you shouldn’t have to do this.

      I guess I’m just tired. Seems like an online business is becoming a lot of work these days; pin this, share this, tweet this… sometimes, all it takes is a cup of coffee with another human being.


  3. says

    You can keep eye on your competitor as a customer, or you can make anonymous surveys to track which competitor working best in the market and what you can learn from them to increase your ability of sales.

  4. says

    I am always looking out at what bloggers in my niches are writing about, there have been plenty of times when I have actually got killer ideas for blog posts because I’ve seen another blogger covering the subject. :)

  5. says

    Oh ya spying is absolutely necessary. Although the word “spying” smells fishy, it is good and in general healthy for any niche and business. That’s how the market as a whole can improve since everyone wants to create content and outperform their competitors.

  6. says

    Taking that approach to keeping an eye on competitors is verging on stalking I think. I do think it’s important to know what your competition is up to generally, but if you worry to much about what they’re doing then it will inevitably take a toll on your own output. At a rough estimate, maybe limit ‘spying’ time to 5% of your time?!

  7. says

    Mark – I’m definitely not saying that you should spend all day, every day researching what your competitors are doing. But we’re doing a disservice to ourselves as business owners if we don’t keep an eye on our competition for a couple of hours a month. It can only help our business (as long as we keep this research in balance with our main job as content marketers – creating great content.)

  8. says

    Its always important to keep tabs on your competitors to not only learn what they are doing right, but to also learn where they are going wrong.

    Facebook is a fanstic way of researching bigger companies as customers will constantly provide feedback on likes and dislikes.

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