Do you know what your competitors are saying…right now?

At my daughter’s college volleyball game this past weekend, I struck up a conversation with a guy who let it be known that he was the Director of Marketing for a company that owned a few hospitals.  Knowing something about hospital marketing, I asked him about his competitor’s marketing activities and he then told me he thought one competitor was doing this and that another was doing something else…he thought. I asked him how sure he was about those things and he said “Honestly, that’s why I said ‘I think that’s what they’re doing’ because I really don’t know for sure.”

With more work to do with less people, budgets and services, along with not putting in place research that would tell them differently, it’s easy to see why lots of companies don’t really know how their competitors are marketing themselves and their products. One thing we all know for sure is that times have changed and, as a result, it’s more critical than ever to have competitive intelligence for the benefit of the company’s future…as well as not having your boss say “What do you think about the new ad for ABC Widget?” and you haven’t a clue. It’s just not a good place to be…I know.

So what can a budget-challenged marketing professional do to track the competition without taxing already limited resources?

Let’s start with a few basics: Know who all your competitors are–not just the obvious ones, but the ones flying under the radar as well. Simply put, competitors can be direct (those offering nearly identical goods or services as you do) or indirect (those offering different types of products that answer the same needs).  Staples and Office Depot are direct competitors; Sam’s Club is an indirect competitor.

From that point on, it’s about keeping your ears and eyes open. Again, while it seems oh so obvious, when was the last time you looked at a trade magazine or business journal or dug around online to see who’s saying what to your customer or prospective customer? What did the competitor’s ad say; the trade show booth look like; how did their packaging show on the shelves; or what did their last promotion look like? And let’s not forget about all their online initiatives.

On that note, here are some things I do to get intelligence on “the other guys”. An easy place to start is with Google Alerts. Plug in the name of the competitor or associated products and let Google send you daily messages whenever related content appears online.

Then there are the websites. Ask yourself when the last time you visited a competitor’s website and what did you see? For example did you notice things like the kind of content and the different formats used; any social media networks they are part of; what media coverage they received and the different topics they issued in their press releases?. What about looking at their content, which will give you an idea of what they’re trying to rank for. And here’s one for you: how many different websites do your competitors have? It’s quite possible that maybe some of your competitors have more than one website. Time to look for them.

You can also check out the social media profiles of your competitors on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc. or use a social media search engine such as to see the kind of content they post and who they follow and who follows them.  It can also reveal what others are saying about your competition, good and bad.  And then there are corporate blogs. Studying the blogs by your competitors, if they have any, can help you know what kind of topics and categories they cover because it will help you ensure that your blog follows a different and better messaging strategy.

For those that are saying “yeah, yeah, yeah, what else?”, well, a backlink analysis of your competitors’ sites will give you a basic idea of where they are getting their links from. For this you can use sites like Open Site Explorer. They show up to 1,000 backlinks for free and even more if you use their paid version. Backlink analysis often brings up sites where your competitors might be advertising and those links give you information on some of these popular sites (they did some research –  gain from their knowledge).

Did you know about a little known tool from Google called Double Click Ad Planner?  It’s for finding out detailed demographic information about your competitors’ customers. As well as giving you reliable figures on how many visitors your competitors’ websites get, you can also find out the age of their customers, income, gender, education level and more. And while we’re on the subject of Google, if Google’s the one ranking your business against your peers, then it makes sense to understand who Google thinks you’re similar to, right?  Here’s food for thought: type in your own URL in the searchbar and see what comes up. You may be surprised.

So, am I trying to intimidate you by showing you just how much competition there is out there today? Nope. But it’s important that you’re aware of it so that as you monitor competitors’ actions, you’re looking at the right sites and in the right direction. Because times have changed and your competitors are no longer just the names you’ve always known.  Your competition is anyone who gets themselves in front of YOUR customer’s line of sight.  Frances Bacon’s quote “Knowledge is King” couldn’t be more right on.

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