T o gain a competitive edge, your business needs to conduct competitive research—and that entails much more than simplyascertaining who your competitors are. The most effective competitive research encompasses analyzing your business’stactics and results against those of your direct competitors as well as those of other organizations in your industry
y benchmarking against both competitors and the industry as a whole,” says Kate Kenner Archibald, Chief Marketing Officer of social media management platform Dash Hudson, “marketers are empowered to evaluate themselves against core metrics, determine their marketplace position, and ultimately double down on the tactics and strategies that will deliver the highest return on investment to ensure their brand maintains—and surpasses—its marketplace position.”
In fact, some would argue that you should even compare your business with those outside of your market. “There’s so much you can learn when looking outside your competitive set. Inside the competitive set, there’s much of the same,” says Nicole Bond, Associate Director of Marketing Strategy at marketing intelligence firm Comperemedia. If you’re, say, an insurance firm that markets largely via direct mail, your mailpieces are competing for attention not just with mailings from other insurance companies but also with supermarket flyers, clothing catalogs, nonprofit letters, and everything else they share space with in the mailbox.
And just as your audience members are receiving your direct mail, they are also receiving hundreds of other marketing messages daily from multiple different media channels. Ideally, then, you should conduct competitive research and analysis among multiple channels, not just the one you spend the most resources on or the one seeing the greatest decline in performance. “We tend to see brands testing on less expensive channels. Connecting those dots can give you the big picture [regarding competitors’ overall strategies],” Bond says.
Beyond helping you hone your strategies and tactics, competitive analysis can reveal new markets. Bond cites a client in the financial sector that was losing share of voice in the student market. “They knew it was going to a competitor, but not why,” she says. “So, we stacked up products and compared. What became very clear was that our client was speaking to students as if they were 10 years down the road—talking about credit scores, buying a car—whereas their competitor was focused on right now and things like how they could earn cash back now.”
The client could have used that information simply to overhaul their messaging so that they could better compete in the student market. But they decided to dig even deeper and see what age groups were being targeted by other competitors in the financial sector. “We were able to identify this white space of unmet customer needs of people over 55,” Bond recalls. “The client focused on them with discounts, creative, etc. and were able to get out ahead of their competitors.”
Diving into Direct Mail
Decades before the internet and AI, direct marketers maintained libraries of print catalogs, sales letters, and other direct mail pieces to keep an eye on the competition and seek inspiration. Who’s Mailing What! (WhosMailingWhat.com), an online database of direct mail, began as one such repository in 1978, but it now uses data technology to facilitate speedy comparisons and analyses of mailings going back several decades in nearly two dozen business categories.
“By comparing your competitors’ previous campaigns with their current solutions, you can identify what didn’t work for them before so that you don’t repeat their mistakes,” says Who’s Mailing What! (WMW) President Jill Corcoran. Similarly, by identifying mailpieces that competitors have used repeatedly—controls and grand controls, in WMW parlance—“you will save time and money by learning from their experience and replicating successful mailings for your own brand.”
First, though, you need to identify your competitors. Regardless of the medium—direct mail, social media, or over-the-top content (audio, video, and other media content delivered over the internet)—a common mistake is “relying on perceptions of who you’re competing with for consumer or donor attention,” Corcoran says. “Oftentimes companies have their eye on their top or primary competitors. Without doing a regular market analysis, they can miss emerging companies that are creating impact or presence within their space.”
When analyzing competitors’ direct mail, Corcoran advises homing in on the following:
- Copy — This includes both word count and tone. The latter can help you gauge the audiences your competitors are reaching out to. It’s not necessarily about “Is it working?” but also about “Why are they using this messaging? What does that tell us about their strategy?”
- Formats — Have some competitors switched from larger self-mailer catalogs to smaller physical sizes or formats with fewer pages? Perhaps your research has uncovered that your industry is using fewer postcards and more personalized, folded self-mailers. Keeping an eye on such changes can suggest which formats are trending and whether budget-friendly or more complex formats seem to be prevalent.
- Digital response tools — Tools such as QR codes and personalized URLs drive traffic and simplify effectiveness measurement. Seeing what competitors are doing can help you determine expectations among your audience and inspire your own efforts.
- Discounts and special offers — Direct mail’s ultimate goal is to engage the prospect and keep them involved, influencing them toward the desired action. Watching the offers that your competitors are making to their customers and which ones are used more frequently can reveal what consumers are engaging with.
- Personalization — Perhaps a competitor is using the same creative but tweaking the copy or the offer for different audiences, which is information you wouldn’t be able to garner by looking at just one individual sample of their mailpieces.
Including the above in your competitive research helps you address what Bond considers “the big basic data points: spend, volume, how long a piece has been in circulation, where competitors are marketing to, [and] where they are pulling away from.”
One of the most ubiquitous marketing channels is social media. Thanks to the very nature of social media, numerous free tools—including those offered by the social platforms themselves—provide a wealth of competitive information and data. Knowing what your competition is up to on social media helps you make more informed strategic marketing decisions and have a much better understanding of your own target market. Data points to look at include the following:
- Other brands or organizations your target audience follows
- Which social networks your audience and your competitors are most active on
- How often and when your competitors post
- Competitors’ engagement rates and the type of content that garners the most (and least) engagement
- Most popular hashtags among your audience and your competitors
A challenge of relying exclusively on free channel-specific tools for data analysis is that the more platforms your organization participates in, the more tools—each with their own specific dashboards and idiosyncrasies—you need to use, making it more difficult to put together the all-important big picture. “Historically, gleaning competitive insights and benchmarks has been manual and time-consuming, leading many brands to skip the step in the spirit of ‘getting it done,’” Archibald says. Platform-agnostic tools that use AI and machine learning can generate metrics and provide valuable context in a fraction of the time.
Another potential drawback to relying on free tools is that as social media algorithms and formats change, the tools may no longer be
capturing the data you need. “For example, in recent years, the social media landscape has shifted from traditional connection-based feeds to entertainment-driven formats, which has also shifted user behavior and preferences,” Archibald says. This led Dash Hudson to develop Entertainment Score, a tool that measures the entertainment value of TikTok and Instagram Reels. In a subsequent project with NielsenIQ, it examined how beauty brands were using TikTok to boost sales. “The study revealed that beauty brands with an Entertainment Score of more than five grew their sales by 51 percent on average, while brands with a lower score grew by just 17 percent,” Archibald continues. “The results of this study prove that the social media landscape has evolved beyond metrics such as likes and comments.”
Searching within SEO and Beyond
According to search engine optimization agency Safari Digital, fewer than 1 percent of all people who enter a term into a search engine look beyond the first page of results. If that doesn’t underscore the importance of conducting SEO comparative research so that your brand rises to the top, nothing will.
Fortunately, “the process for conducting SEO/SEM competitive analysis is similar to that of conducting competitive social analysis in that both look at what competitors are doing, analyze the content that is being produced, and determine where and how conversation is being generated,” Archibald says. “Where they differ, however, is how content is optimized to rank. While most marketers do not reoptimize their social media posts but rather refine their social strategy, SEO teams will regularly reoptimize website content based on competitive trends.”
Here are some data points to investigate when studying competitors’ search marketing efforts:
- Who is ranking high on your main keywords
- This could help you identify brands you might not have considered competitors.
- The number of backlinks on competitors’ pages
- Google uses the number and quality of links to a page to determine a site’s trustworthiness—and trustworthy pages rank higher.
- Which pages rank for the most keywords
- Technical issues, such as redirects, missing headings and tags, and broken links that would hurt rankings
- Types of content on high-ranking pages—such as blog content, user guides, and product reviews
As with social media, free SEO analysis tools can provide basic competitive research. Search algorithms and tactics change at least as frequently as those for social media; a page that ranked near the top of Google results for a search term yesterday could easily fall down several pages in the rankings just a few days later without your even noticing. For this reason, many businesses find it worthwhile to invest in specialists, agencies, or customizable tools.
Regardless of the channel or the medium in which you are conducting competitive research and analysis, you should “always consider the why, where, and how,” Bond says. It’s not enough to simply know metrics and KPIs; to improve your strategy, tactics, and results, you need to understand the reasons for those metrics.
Some experts suggest incorporating subjective resources, such as focus groups, into your competitive research. Others also consider it important to get input from experts outside of your organization or even business sector, helping you see the forest for the trees. “You want to be able to add context to things you’re not even seeing,” Bond says. And perhaps above all, you need to determine what your goals are and what your next steps should be once you’ve gleaned this competitive knowledge. If your goal is to improve return on ad spend, for instance, you will want to take very different actions than if your objective were to increase alumni giving.
“While metrics can improve insights, they should be analyzed within the context of the brand’s goals and objectives and the industry’s benchmarks,” Archibald notes. “Without context, metrics can be misleading and fail to drive action.” Conducting the competitive social media, website, or direct mail analysis is only the first step. The real value lies in being able to analyze your research and develop action plans based on the findings of your competitive research.