3 ways to learn from your competitors [without fixating on them]

A competitor analysis is a vital component of any business strategy. You need to understand the market and how other companies are meeting your buyer personas’ needs. You should have an offer that differentiates itself through variables such as:

  • Features

  • Processes

  • Value

  • Customer experience

  • Access to expertise

  • Philosophy.

But you shouldn’t obsess over your competition.

Often when we talk to business owners, it won’t be long before they tell us about their competitors’ actions. They’ll show us a landing page or blog and say ‘we need something like this so that they don’t corner the market’. Or they’ll send us a list of a competitor’s pay-per-click adverts and say ‘we like this messaging, so we should do the same’.

That’s a fast track to muddling your own plan for growth. Obsessing about your competition and incorporating elements of their messaging into your own branding will weaken your unique voice and confuse customers.

Tip 1: Keep both eyes on your path (but one ear tuned into external noise)

Ever made a mistake and then focused so hard on the reaction of everyone around you that you continue to make mistakes and can’t get yourself back on track? This could happen when you stall in a queue of traffic, trip on the treadmill at the gym, or muddle your words in a team meeting. The more you look at the faces staring at you, the more panicked you become and the longer the episode goes on – you can’t get your car, feet or tongue to work.  

You cannot move forward if you’re gazing around at everyone else – and this is true in business, too. Keeping an ‘ear out’ for new developments in your industry, or changes to how your competition markets themselves, is sensible business management, but becoming preoccupied with everything your competitors are doing will slow your own progress down. 

Instead, we recommend taking some of the following actions:

  • Subscribe to a few of your competitors’ blogs

  • Opt to receive their newsletters

  • Follow a few competitors on social media

  • Download a few of their resources to read 

  • Visit their websites once a month to see if anything has changed.

Keeping competitors as a general ‘white noise’ in the background means you’ll be aware of their activity by osmosis, but without fixating on them. 

Tip 2: Use competitor-analysis tools – in HubSpot and beyond

Sometimes, we have to learn a lesson multiple times. In 2016, our agency was taking the first steps to becoming a HubSpot Certified Partner. Part of that process involved mastering the tools in the HubSpot platform, one of which is an app for analysing your competitors’ marketing performance.

It’s a powerful tool that pulls together a number of key metrics to inform your understanding of how the market’s needs are being met. You can dive into metrics and use another dashboard to monitor competitors' social media activity. As HubSpot themselves put it:

‘Every brand can benefit from regular competitor analysis. By performing a competitor analysis, you'll be able to: identify gaps in the market; develop new products and services; uncover market trends; market and sell more effectively.’

As well as HubSpot, you can try tools such as SEMrush, to look at other information. This platform will tell you things like:

  • The messaging competitors are using on paid search

  • Which external sites are linking to their pages

  • What reviews say about them: what are their strengths and weaknesses?

Meanwhile, Ahrefs is great for researching SEO and keywords. You can use it to:

  • Find out what keywords competitors are ranking for

  • See how much organic traffic competitors are getting

  • Discover which specific content is generating traffic

  • Compare domains to spot any content gaps

  • Track specific keywords you’re targeting over time.

This isn’t only information we love to dig around in ourselves, but having this collection of tools is something that helps us deliver a better, faster, happier service to our customers, too. But, as with Tip 1, set yourself dedicated times of the week or month to use these tools, glean the information you can from them, then put them away again. 

Gathering data about your competitors at regular intervals, then applying genuinely helpful findings to your own marketing strategy based on your SMART goals is one thing, but getting transfixed on competitors’ actions every day isn’t helpful behaviour for growth, as we’ll discuss in the next section.

Tip 3: When and how to use competitor-analysis tools

It’s not that these tools are unhealthy in themselves; they show you valuable information. It’s just the extent to which you use them that can be the problem.

You always want to be aware of the market and other companies pursuing the same prospects as your business. So how do you identify these people? You split them into the following groups:

  • Direct competitors: businesses who sell the same product or service as you, to the same audience, in the same geographical location. E.g. you sell outdoor play equipment to families in the UK, and so do they.

  • Indirect competitors: businesses who offer similar services and products to you in the same area, but who are serving a different purpose or audience. E.g. you sell outdoor play equipment to families in the UK, and they sell outdoor activity equipment to elderly care homes in the UK.

  • Tertiary competitors: businesses who sell products that are vaguely linked to yours, but don’t directly compete (yet). E.g. you sell outdoor play equipment to families in the UK, and they sell inflatable soft play equipment to indoor children’s centres in the UK. It’s worth watching out for these companies in case they decide to change direction and enter your selling space, thus becoming direct or indirect competitors.

When you’ve identified competitors within these groups, it’s best to check in on their data regularly – with a particular focus on direct competitors – while keeping your Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) front of mind. Only if those headline metrics show something unexpected, should you pay closer attention to the competitor – if you’ve got space to grow and aren’t meeting your targets as readily as you’d like, you might then be able to learn something from these groups. 

If your business has decided on a change of direction, offering new services or products, that’s a good time to check your competitor-analysis tools, too. If you’re about to increase or decrease your investment in a specific area of your business, you need to know what you’re facing in the market space.

Look out for potential opportunities that would benefit your business first and foremost – and if it happens that competitors haven’t spotted this chance for themselves, all the better. Are there any obstacles in your way to achieving your goals? How can you learn from those around you to skip these potential pitfalls? 

The most powerful lesson is to start looking around you only when things aren’t going as well as you want. If you start changing the way you service customers, create content or sell products just because you’ve seen someone else do it another way, you’ll be opening your business up to unnecessary risk. You wouldn’t advise a winning sports team to change their manager just because a competitor got a new boss: business is the same. 

Remember, you’re much more likely to reach your destination by looking ahead, than by constantly looking behind and around you.

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