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How I ran a successful marketing competitive analysis for a startup I work with
+ a bonus checklist and a downloadable template
Reading time: 15 minutes (the actual work is a different story…)
What are you getting?
- A tactical and hands-on walk-through
- A free marketing competitive analysis template
- Overview of tons of free or freemium tools I 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 tweak reality as much as you like when pitching potential investors (sadly, it’s even sort of a routine), but when it comes to your marketing strategy and tactics – the actual plan that should help you win the game— you can probably learn a lot from your competitors by simply looking at what they are doing or exploring the marketing activities of complementary products that are targeting similar audiences.
The key information lays in your competitors’ messages, the tactics they have chosen to focus on and how they interact with their audiences.
After all, they have been around for some time and they have probably learned a lot through trial and error. Smart startup marketers leverage this knowledge. It’s called piggybacking.
The trick is to find the tactics and methods that are used by your competitors.”
Marketing naturally makes you aware of competition. And an all too important truth often overlooked is that 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 is the startup benchmarking analysis or competitive analysis. This informative step helps you get focused on a strategy, specific tactics, validate your plan, and make sure your 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. So, in the spirit of helping others, I decided to outline the research methodology I took for one of the startups we work with, sharing some important insights and pointers, with the goal of saving you a lot of precious time.
The actionable insights I gained were critical in building an optimal marketing strategy and prioritizing our hands-on tasks that followed.
A marketing, not product oriented, focus
It’s important to note, that I focused on startup marketing BI rather than product analysis.
Many people get confused and think about product features comparison when I talk about competitive analysis. Product marketing is not the goal here. I am focusing on marketing strategy and tactics, mainly digital and growth oriented.
Before I started my analysis, I planned what I was about to explore: my 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 tactics they keep going back to (as these are probably the ones that worked better for them).
Why competitive analysis?
Competitive analysis helped me find hints that could validate my tactical plan, search for differentiating factors to fine-tune our messages, micro-segment relevant audiences and better understand which digital and social channels we should start with.
I also tried to learn what engaged my competitors’ customers the most (which posts, messages, ads, etc.), the concerns they raised (in social posts comments for instance) and so forth.
Present Yourselves, Direct Competitors!
The average entrepreneur will say they are sure they are familiar with all their competitors. Right?
Well, they are almost always wrong. New startups are formed every day and there is always new competition out there to be found.
A deep dive, using long tail keywords, almost always reveals “new” competing companies that could be very relevant to our competitive analysis.
That was my experience, at least.
Don’t underestimate weak, local, or new competitors. You can learn a lot from every competitor. Even the tiniest one. I sometimes prefer looking at brand new competitors. They are usually hungrier, more innovative and much more creative in their marketing.
While gathering a list of potential competitors, I managed to answer some important questions:
- How red is the ocean I am swimming in?
- Are there titans in this arena, or just a lot of SMBs? How many giants? Where are the giants located?
- Are there SMBs that managed to show positive trends, even with limited resources (this is useful for calculating your odds or at least how big the challenge is)?
- 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 – if a company established 2 years before us 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 another 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.
I created an excel table. Very basic. No need for more. My startup client filled in the first row. Columns marked the important parameters I wanted to focus on. Later we will focus on what was important for me to investigate, but you can and should include parameters that are important to YOU to get the complete competitive insights picture that is tailored to your specific needs.
Answer the questions YOU care about!
How many competitors should you review?
I analyzed a total of 10 companies to start with. A few (that I wasn’t aware of in the first place) came later. This number may differ according to the industry and product.
In the past, I had run competitive analysis for over 30 companies for a single startup, but I had also run an analysis for a different startup that consisted of only 5 companies, as there was just no others that could add value.
Who are the important competitors to analyze? Start with the players creating buzz in the industry, or if you are a new player in the industry – traffic and engagement metrics will reveal a lot.
If you are still unsure, here again, a simple excel will do. Don’t put efforts into building a fancy template. This is not a corporate “make me some slides” world. We want quick and actionable insights. Here’s an example portion of a list I made.
I’ve prepared a free template for you to download – Here it is
If you don’t feel like downloading it now, below you can find a partial screenshot of how it looks like, so you know what to expect.
In addition to direct competitors, I looked for players whose business we planned to disrupt, and I examined complementary services as well, as they focus on the same target audience.
While researching tactics and referrals, I also looked for interesting business development and partnership initiatives that these companies engaged in. This info could be valuable to other team members. Also, partnerships are a great source of online traffic and lead generation.
I then reviewed funding status and a list of investors on Crunchbase or by running a simple Google search with relevant keywords. This helped me to learn how well funded they were, which reflected their marketing strengths or weaknesses. Of course, CrunchBase doesn’t capture everything, but it gives general information.
I also used this data to explore potential investors to approach who seemed bullish about my market.
As you will see, when a marketer is headed for a comprehensive competitive analysis, the entire startup benefits…
What is the competition’s pitch, main message and target audience?
I started by looking up the competitor company on Google – then I read the title tag and description (their SEO meta tags). From there I went to their homepage and reviewed taglines and other key messages before scrolling down.
A company’s prime real-estate is on its home page, the copy above the fold.
I wrote down my competitors’ pitch, and analyzed whether the focus was around features, benefits, emotional or technical elements. I wanted to understand what impression visitors get at first glance. Then I wrote down my key takeaways for each.
I also looked at their “about-us” page, and read their “about” section on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other social media outlets.
Lastly, I tried to figure out their current business model, how it evolved and how we differ.
How good is the content?
Lookin’ for the good, the bad and the fluff
(If content isn’t “a thing” in your case, skip this part)
Content comes in many forms, shapes and sizes across multiple channels.
When I surfed each competitor website I reviewed written blogs, news, and categories of content. I looked at news items, videos, webinars, collateral, newsletters, guides, case studies, customer testimonials or success stories, guides written by company reps, interesting partnerships, and updates on all their social media.
Content channels – Where do you look for content?
Besides the company website I continued to review the entire range of social media outlets: Facebook, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, YouTube, Instagram, Pinterest, Meetup, Slideshare, Medium (where relevant), etc.
Tip: I found out in the process that although most websites have the famous social media icons linked to the company’s social media pages, not all digital assets were properly linked to the homepage. So, I searched all platforms for the company name to verify I wasn’t missing anything.
I noted the types of content they generated—quantity (length and number of posts, updates and items), frequency, quality and value, uniqueness, etc.
Content Quality: How to identify high quality content
I asked myself this question: Would someone who knows little about this industry be able to generate this content piece, without running proper research? Do I feel that I get real value out of the content? Are they offering actionable advice or just fluff?
How exclusive does the content look (such as professionally produced videos compared to simple interviews shot by a smartphone, at the back of the office)?
How engaging is the content? Is it well written or simply a keyword-stuffed article with typos and grammatical mistakes? This can often tell you if they take their content seriously and are looking to provide high quality articles to their readers
Are my competitors mostly curating content developed by external publishers? Did they build thought-leadership status? Would they be considered a go-to source for information? Do they have key opinion leaders or thought leaders writing for them or guest blogging for them?
What length are their blog posts? Do they offer downloadable (lead capture) guides or whitepapers?
You may be asking why content quality was important to me. After all, isn’t it too early for this kind of analysis?
Looking at the competition I knew that content could make a difference and I knew that the company I was working for could do amazing content. But, we didn’t have unlimited resources, so I wanted to know what I was dealing with.
Fluff content is easier to compete with. Complex, quality content was, to me, a sign of the level of marketing sophistication. If they put in the effort to produce quality articles, rather than take the easy route of fluff, they must be serious about their niche and the potential conversions out there.
By looking at the overall digital presence I could understand how well developed my competitor’s marketing was, how many satisfied customers they had, and how much my startup would have to invest to reach their level of online presence.
At this stage I identified the gaps we had and luckily, I managed to find some unmet needs that our competitors didn’t address.
Yay! Holes in their bridge.
Reviewing content was a great way to find popular keywords and SEO terms that would be important. I generated some ideas that could help drive my content calendar and topics planning later on.
More content SEO info here: SEO for content curation and distribution
A word of caution: This step does NOT replace proper keyword research.
Content quantity and frequency
I looked at the frequency of social media and blog/news section updates, and as mentioned, also at the length of blog articles.
Content distribution and engagement – heads up, social is coming…
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.
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.
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.
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!!
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):
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.
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
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?
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
I know. Good things must come to an end! 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 my steps. As long as you got something out of this article and it helped you start your engines, the way you like, I am good!
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…
Good luck and don’t forget to join our Facebook group that’s made for global tech pros and startup marketers operating in Israel