The complete marketing competitive analysis checklist for startups

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How we ran a marketing competitive analysis for startups and tech companies we work with 

 + a bonus marketing competitor analysis checklist  

Reading time: 15 minutes (the actual work is a different story…)

What are you getting?

  • A tactical and hands-on walk-through of how to run a tactical analysis with actionable insights
  • An overview of some free or freemium tools we love using

Remember the notorious “Competitive Landscape” slide all entrepreneurs are expected to prepare for their investor pitch? It’s probably the one slide most people don’t like to work on. Who wants a reality check interfering with their dreams?

Well, you can think about tweaking the reality like when pitching potential investors, but when it comes to your marketing strategy and operation – the actual marketing planning that should help you run the needed steps in each stage in order to eventually win the game— that’s a different story. You can learn a lot from your competitors by methodically looking at what they are doing and exploring the different marketing strategies of complementary products by companies that are targeting similar audiences.

Key data is revealed when you overview your competitors’ messages, website structure, keywords, PPC efforts, PR strategies, links structure, content strategies, demand gen activities, and more – basically, a whole world of intelligence exists behind the tactics they have chosen to focus on and how they interact with their audiences.

After all, some of the companies in the ecosystem have been around for some time and they have probably learned a lot through trial and error. Smart startup marketers piggyback this knowledge.

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The trick is to find the tactics and methods that are used by your competitors

Marketing is a profession that naturally makes you aware of the competition. Marketing aside, you can’t pitch investors without naming at least one competitor unless you want to drive your investors off. You can learn a lot by looking at real pitch deck examples from successful startups and some more recent pitch deck examples here.

But we’re here to talk marketing…

One of the first steps in creating effective marketing plans and architectures is the startup benchmarking analysis, also called a comprehensive marketing competitive analysis. This informative step helps marketers finetune the strategy and specific tactics, validate their plans, and make sure their decisions are optimal and goals are feasible.

We have conducted this kind of marketing-focused competitive analysis multiple times, for many of our startup clients, coming from many different industries. In fact, we almost always insist on conducting such analysis as part of the operation onboarding phase.

So, in the spirit of sharing the knowledge, I decided to outline the research methodology we follow and use a case of one of the startups we work with, sharing some important insights and pointers, with the goal of saving you a lot of precious time and helping you do your job better and more strategically.

 

Marketing focus, not a product…  

It’s important to note, that we focus on startup marketing rather than product analysis. Many people get confused and think about product features comparison when I mention the task of the competitive analysis. Product marketing is not the goal here. I am focusing on inbound marketing strategy and tactics, mainly digital and growth-oriented.

Before we start working on the analysis, we first plan what we are about to explore: Competitors’ key messages, why they chose to use these specific messages, their marketing strategy (and how much of it is digital), and more importantly, what inbound marketing tactics they focus on (as these are probably the ones that worked better for them).

Why competitive analysis?

The competitive analysis helps us find hints that could validate the tactical planning, tweak it and optimize it. For instance, we search for differentiating factors to fine-tune our messages, we micro-segment relevant audiences and we better understand which digital and social channels we should look more deeply into. We understand the SEO challenge, what ads creative units are out there, the influencers landscape, what is the quality of the content served by competitors, what lead-gen components it includes, how it is ranked in search engines and so forth.

we try to understand what engages potential customers the most (which posts, messages, ads, etc.), how competitors’ marketing operations evolve (the content and ads they used to push out and how it’s changed), and alike

Present Yourselves, Direct Competitors!

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The average entrepreneur will say they are sure they are familiar with all their competitors.

Well, based on our experience, they are almost always wrong. New startups are formed every day, out-of-box search queries reveal interesting results,  and there is always new competition out there to be found. Competition doesn’t have to offer the same solution benefits – marketing competition can be one that uses a similar set of messages, or even a close enough one.

When we run a deep dive search, using long-tail keywords,  we almost always reveal new competing companies that could be very relevant to our competitive analysis and were not originally named by the startup team. Therefore, be sure to spend some time on searching for companies you are not familiar with, even if you are positive that you know them all.

Don’t underestimate “weak”, local, or newly established competitors. You can learn a lot from almost every competitor. Even the tiniest one. On the contrary. I sometimes prefer looking at brand new competitors. They are usually hungrier, more innovative, and have the potential to be much more creative in their marketing.

While gathering the initial comprehensive list of potential competitors, I try and answer some important questions:

  1. How red is the ocean we are swimming in?
  2. Are there titans in this arena, or just a lot of SMBs? How many giants? Where are the giants located geographically?
  3. Are there young startups that manage to show quick positive trends, even with limited resources (this is useful for calculating your odds or at least how big the challenge is)?
  4. Can I find competing companies in our stage, others that are slightly ahead and some that are a lot more mature? (tracking companies that are in different stages helps establish benchmarks and set reasonable marketing KPIs). For example – a company established 2 years before us and had raised a similar amount of money, is located in the US, has managed to reach X traffic score, Y referring sites and so on, it gives me some idea of the achievements we can strive for. If such a company has managed to achieve impressive results in a short amount of time,  we know that it’s feasible for us to do the same.

We then create an initial competitor list in an excel table. Very basic. No need for more at this stage. Our startup data is filled in the first row. Columns titles marked the important parameters we wanted to focus on. Later we will deep dive into the companies that are most relevant and we will focus on the data that is most important for us to investigate.  You should include parameters that are important to YOU to get the complete competitive insights picture that is tailored to your specific needs. For example, if you are not planning to run any SEO efforts, maybe you shouldn’t invest precious time in running SEO-related competitive research

How many competitors should you review?  

Thinking about a recent case, I compiled a list of a total of 10 companies. A few more (that I wasn’t aware of in the first place) came later. This number may differ according to the industry and product. Then I deep-dived into a couple of them.

There’s no ‘one size fits all’ in this case. During my career, I had found myself running a competitive analysis of over 30 companies for a single startup, and then an analysis for a different startup that consisted of only 5 companies, as there were just no others that seemed to add any value. So, the short answer to how many competitors you should collect is that it depends…

Who,  out of the list of competitors, you should analyze further?

Start with looking to focus on players close to your startup in budget and phase that are succeeding in creating a buzz in the industry, or present interesting trends of traffic and engagement metrics (use competitive intelligence tools. Some are listed here below). You need to analyze companies that show enough data that you can use for intelligence, but also, you need to think about the fact that analyzing giants will not help you gain too many insights on feasible tactics that you can execute too, in order to compete.

At this point, you should start with a simple excel like the example below. You don’t need to put effort into building a fancy template…

In addition to looking at direct competitors, I try and hunt players whose business we plan to disrupt, plus I examine complementary services as well, as they focus on the same target audience.

While researching tactics and referrals, I also look for interesting business development and partnership initiatives that these companies engaged in. This info could be valuable to other team members and I might as well serve their interests while I am at it. Also, partnerships are a great source of online traffic and lead generation.

As you might have already guessed by looking at the table above, I also review the funding status as well as the investors. This data can be found on Crunchbase or by running a simple Google search with relevant keywords. This helps me learn how well funded my competitors are, which reflects on their marketing strengths (or weaknesses). Of course, CrunchBase doesn’t capture everything, but it gives general information.

I also use this data to explore potential investors who seemed bullish about my startup industry – I then serve the founders with related insights.

What are the competition’s pitch, main messages, and exact target audience? 

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When I deep dive into specific competitors, I usually start by looking up the competitor company on Google – then I read the title tag and description (their SEO meta tags). From there I continue and visit their homepage to review taglines and other key messages before scrolling down.

I write down the competitors’ pitches and analyze whether the focus is around features, benefits, common pains, or other elements. I want to understand what instant impression visitors get at first glance. Then I write down my key takeaways for each.

I also look at “about us” page and overview the “about” section on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or alike.

Lastly, I try to figure out what is the current business model, how it evolved over time, and how my startup differs.

How good is the marketing-oriented content? Lookin’ for the good, the bad, and the fluff

Content comes in many forms, shapes, and sizes across multiple channels.

When I surf each competitor’s website I review written blogs, news, and gated content such as reports. I look at news items, videos, webinars, collateral, newsletters, guides, case studies, customer testimonials or success stories, guides written by company reps, interesting partnerships, and updates shared across all the social media channels. I try to identify patterns and learn about the quality of the content.

Content channels – Where do you look for content?

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On top of the company website, I review the entire range of social media outlets: Facebook, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, YouTube, Instagram, Pinterest, Meetup, Slideshare, Medium (where relevant), you get the idea… I try and identify differences between channels, unique offerings per channel, more and less active channels, etc. – which helps me estimate the challenge and identify untapped channels (opportunity!)

As mentioned, I relate to the types of content that competitors are producing — quantity (length and number of posts, updates, and items), frequency, quality and value, uniqueness, etc.

How to identify high-quality content

In order to estimate the quality of a content piece and the effort that was put into producing it, I ask myself this question: Would any writer be able to produce this content piece, or that it demands running thorough research and using technical writers?  Do I feel that the content includes real value for the reader? how is it ranked? How well organized is the content using sub titles, bullets, paragraphs, and alike?

How engaging is the content? Is it well written? ‘Scannable’? What length are their blog posts? Do they offer downloadable (lead capture) guides or whitepapers?

looking at social posts, are my competitors mostly curating content developed by external publishers or that they also produce original content? Do they build a thought-leadership presence? Would they be considered a go-to source for information? Do they have key opinion leaders or thought leaders from within the company? Are they building advocacy personas?

I also examine SEO parameters related to the content, such as backlinks to the blog, the popularity of blog pages and so forth.

You may be asking why content quality is so important to me. Looking at the competition I know that content could make a difference and I know that the startup I am serving should do to gain an advantage.

By looking at the overall digital presence I can understand how well developed my competitor’s marketing operation is, and estimate how much my startup would have to invest in order to meet the competition standard.

At this stage, I identify the gaps and I usually manage to find some untapped territories- Yay! Holes in their bridge.

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Content SEO

Reviewing content was a great way to find popular keywords and SEO terms that would be important.  I generate some ideas that could help drive my content calendar and content topics planning later on.

More content SEO tips here:  SEO for content curation and distribution

A word of caution: This step does NOT replace proper keyword research.

Content distribution and engagement –

It’s interesting to see which companies are updating their social media channels more frequently, how much, how much traction they have and how much followers engage with their content.

For example, for Twitter I took total number of tweets, number of followers and following and follow-to-follower ratio, average tweets per day, total retweets and favorites. I paid attention to engagement – what gets comments, re-tweets, Facebook, and LinkedIn shares, likes, comments, YouTube views, etc.

Tip: a great tool to easily assess social engagement for each competitor is buzzsumo.

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Source: Buzzsumo

In this example I saw that most of the content generated by my competitors was shared on LinkedIn (for several pieces and across several competitors), so I learned that most of my audience was active on LinkedIn and that I should focus my efforts there. Since Buzzsumo provides engagement metrics for individual pieces of content it also shows me relevant topics that my audience cares about.

Social content distribution:

When you track social engagement, you really start to understand what your relevant target audience is interested in.

There are some cool free tools you can use to get bottom line metrics for competitor social media analysis.

Friendly reminder: Download a complete competitive analysis template, to save some thinking and structuring time and get started on your marketing-focused competitive analysis

Time for numbers!
Digital success metrics and website/app analytics:

If content is king, then quality traffic and measurable indicators are the emperors…

So, I started with looking at competitors’ traffic metrics as the bottom-line indicator of marketing success. Needless to say, in the tech industry, we mostly have digital activities.

Traffic analysis tools

Two very popular tools you can use are either Alexa or Similarweb. Both are free up to a certain limit. These tools provide an analysis of the traffic that a website gets (not completely accurate but good to compare between different sites), traffic sources, referring sites, paid media to some extent and more.

You can expect to see conflicting data between different traffic analysis tools. But marketers know that there are always gaps between different measurement tools, and we just need to accept it.

Why? There are a lot of explanations and you can try several time-wasting methods to try to get to the root of all the variations. I keep seeing entrepreneurs try to fight the statistics with tons of excels, coding and the like.  But I’ve got to ask – what for? It seems to be such a waste of energy because in the end accurate figures don’t matter as long as you look at the overarching trends.

So my advice – don’t fight the data. Accept it. And move on.

Disclaimer – I do put effort into further investigation when the gaps are too significant or when different analytics tools indicate opposite trends.

I look at the trends – to see if they were improving or falling behind.

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After gathering all of the data, I pick one metric and make sure I am consistent across all companies I’ve looked at. The number has no meaning, if you are consistent. It’s the comparison that matters.

A tool I love using to learn about competitors’ paid campaigns, creative and copy is www.moat.com – you are going to love it, as it provides some priceless insights!!

Engagement metrics

Moving down the funnel, I wanted to see if the right audiences were captured and engaged.

Let’s assume I had learned as much as possible about a specific competitor’s traffic: growth tactics, scale, sources, mixture…still, now I need to better understand the behavior of the traffic (web of mobile app) – such as returning visitors, time on website, usage patterns… anything that can shed some light on the quality of the website/app retention and the traffic.

I used Alexa (even the free version has some engagement info):

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Source: Alexa

Bounce rate isn’t the best parameter to check on, when it stands alone. I wouldn’t jump to conclusions based on bounce rate.

Time spent on site (also known as visit duration) or Page Views (also known as pages per visit) metrics can shed some light on how valuable the content is. Again, as mentioned before, the absolute numbers mean nothing to me. I looked at the differences between different sites. The comparison is what matters.

  • Geos – I looked at the main geographical regions the traffic came from using both Alexa and Similarweb.
  • Sources – I examined the sources of traffic – direct traffic, search, referrals (sites referring to the site), social media, email marketing, and display ads. This helped me understand growth activities better.
  • Paid versus organic – I drilled down and tried to get an idea of how much of the traffic is based on organic search (prestige that takes time to gain)  versus paid search (relatively easy to achieve significant impact quickly, depends on the budget).
  • For paid search, I looked for keywords and terms that my competitors were targeting and at what cost.
  • Keywords – I looked up keywords to gain some SEO insights
  • Upstream and downstream sites – which sites were visited immediately before visiting the site? I tried to better understand the users’ journey. I would later use this information to create “user journeys” for my startup client.
  • Advanced web metrics

I used SEMRUSH to dig into the organic and paid keywords used by my competitors as well as to list links to sample landing pages and sample google text ads. I got advanced messaging and keyword insights I needed for the execution part.

Spyfu keyword research tool served me well too! You should check it out and see if it benefits your keyword research.

What else?

Advanced competitive research for marketers with OCD ? 

If you’ve made it this far –  congratulations (or condolences, you decide)! You are either as obsessed or as thorough as I am.

Don’t worry, there’s an upside to being a little OCD.

But first, here are a few more parameters I considered while sizing up my competition:

  • Events and exhibitions

Do my competitors participate and promote industry events? Do they sponsor events? Speak at events? Host webinars or meetups? This part is important, especially since I was building a marketing plan and event calendar and wanted to pick the must-go-to or must-exhibit events.

  • PR and influencer strategy

What PR noise do they make? I searched for press releases or news items that got more engagement and shares. Have they teamed-up with industry thought leaders? Influencers? Complementary players?

  • Business development and strategic partnership opportunities

Who was referring visitors to the website? I wanted to know who they partnered with. Are there complementary service providers or products they offer in addition to their own? This helped me get some fresh ideas about potential business partners that help drive more targeted traffic to the site.

  • Customer reviews, feedback, and comments

Buyer journeys today are mainly digital, and have almost nothing to do with vendors until very far along in the process. In fact, only 29% of people want to talk to a salesperson to learn more about a product while 62% will consult a search engine (hubspot inbound marketing statistics 2016). This means that online reviews matter and can accelerate or hold back conversion rates, even for B2B, though it no doubt impacts B2C marketing even more.

B2C product or service reviews are much easier to get. eBay and Amazon are good places to look, as well as Facebook comments, etc.

B2B customer review sites:

Things have evolved for B2B customer reviews and now several websites are offering verified reviews especially on business software. The following is a list of all the B2B SaaS reviews I have found:

  • IT central station offers unbiased reviews from the tech community
  • G2 Crowd offers online reviews on business software and B2B marketing services
  • GetAPP has software offers, SaaS and Cloud Apps, independent evaluations and reviews
  • technology advice offers side-by-side comparison of solutions within categories
  • TrustPilot is an online review community where users can interact and help each other find the right solution for themselves and others
  • Trustradius offers business software reviews that are validated
  • Gartner has recently joined the club with Gartner peer insights – a natural move for the technology research and advisory firm

Differentiating Factors

Finally, when I got closer to the end of the analysis I had a general idea of how I measured up against the competition, differentiating factors, and I certainly knew something about their main strategy and content.

Now I was able to move on to focusing my efforts on prioritized areas, and to better understanding the most relevant communication channels I should start with.

Hungry for some more marketing BI?

Check out this article on Smart Insights blog about competitive analysis which offers a lot of tips and hacks. 

For ongoing competition monitoring it’s easy to use google news alerts or Mention . Also, you can check out these tools recommended by Kissmetricks.

If you are interested specifically in app marketing, check out this  out-of-the-box competitive analysis for App marketing  by Einav Laviv.

If you missed the template link – Here it is

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Final words:

In this competitor analysis checklist, I’ve shared my way of starting my engines before I roll out marketing execution for startup companies we serve here.

You don’t have to follow these exact steps but should rather modify your actions to fit your specific needs.

Just don’t start executing before you’ve completed the critical step of competitive analysis. I call it the brain, the steering wheel, the engineering, the cooking instructions, you get the idea…

 

 

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Einav Laviv is a tech and startup marketing exec. with 20 years of experience, and a Co-Founder at G2Mteam, which supports Israeli startups with full-stack global marketing services since 2014. She lives, breathes, and loves deep tech & data driven marketing