6 ways to spy on your competitors

6 ways to spy on your competitors

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Everyone is your competition.

That’s what a famous economics book once told me. When time and money are limited resources, every minute spent on every single product that is not yours, every cent spent not on you can be technically counted as lost potential revenue. Business is a zero-sum game, to some extent.

But it’s not like you’ll try to promote your app by urging people to stop buying food and cars.

In my last post I talked about finding customers and researching the market when you’re creating something completely new, with little or no competition to copy from.

Today, let’s talk about espionage. Let’s reflect on how lucky you are when there’s someone more experienced and successful in your niche – someone you can learn from in express time.

Identify your competitors.

List them. They can be companies selling a very similar product, or companies from a different niche whose customers you think could benefit from your product. For example, you can have a productivity app that’s also an email management tool. You could consider your competition to include apps like Evernote and Wunderlist, but also Boomerang or Inbox.

#1 Spying level brutal: just ask them

You can learn a lot directly from your competitor’s sales staff, if you can keep it cool and your story straight.

If you can’t, ask one of your sales people to do it.

Steli Efti has a brilliant video tutorial (and a blog post to go with it) that tells you what questions to ask and how to deal with objections. Steli has a sales outsourcing business, so interviewing a company’s sales people about their sales department? It doesn’t get more sinister than that.

If you don’t have a sales business, you can still find out about the company’s development plans for the near future by asking about their product roadmap and hiring plans. Or about their customer acquisition process. Or even about their competitive advantage over your own product.

“To make an informed purchase,” of course.

#2 Sign up for their newsletter

For some companies, newsletter is their best converting channel, so it’s the first place where they write about product updates and a lot of thought goes into it (and a lot can “inspire” you).

I have signed up for a lot of big brand newsletters and some of them go from headache-inducing spammy to so infrequent I forget they exist. There are some with the perfect frequency, but I ignore them too because they’re not being subtle about trying to manipulate me into buying.

I’m looking at you-know-who-you-are, with your second month of “This offer expires in two days, really, seriously, this time for real!”

But well-crafted newsletters – I wait eagerly to open my inbox in the morning when I know they’re coming. I happily do all the calls-to-action, because the authors of those emails know me and they make me do things I wanted to do anyway.

8tracks - this is how you write an engaging newsletter
8tracks – this is how you write an engaging newsletter

So write down the newsletter’s frequency, the tone and calls to action. Compile a whole series of notes on newsletters in a .doc, spreadsheet or Evernote. Pay attention to whether the email recommends products based on your taste, makes you revisit your bookmarks, or sign up for a webinar with a brand partner.

In short – are they sales emails or brand advocacy, top-of the funnel kind of communication? Are they trying to build your habits, such as giving you excuses to log in and use the app? Those are the habits you want to nurture in your customers as well.

Even if you’re personally fed up with being sold to, or hate daily reminders to log in, chances are your competitors use those types of patterns because most customers react the way they intended (differently than you).

#3 Graph Search on Facebook

For a long time I cursed Facebook for its lack of proper search filters and advanced search interface.

And then I read about that innocent-looking little blank search bar up top.

I’d thought it was there to remind me whom I stalked Messenger’ed yesterday.

I was so wrong.

Take your competitor’s brand name and type this:

Facebook Graph Search

Groups joined by people who like ThatBrandIHate

And cry at all the research you have to do now with all the data you’re about to get. (Note that choosing brands liked by half of the Earth will not be helpful. Go as niche as possible.)

You can join some of the relevant groups and get into discussions with people who like products similar to yours.

You can learn from those discussions about the customers’ needs that your competitor is not meeting.

Try:

Interests liked by people who like ThatBrandIHate

This will give you a recipe for Facebook ads based on precise interests. And so will this:

Pages liked by people who like ThatBrandIHate

#4 Support channels

Disclaimer: I’m not encouraging anyone to poach customers. If you think ye shall not poach lest ye shall be poached from – don’t steal customers. Karma is ruthless.

This is just basic sensibility though: if your competitors can’t or won’t provide something their customers want – someone has to, right?

So if you want to find out what your competitor is doing wrong, go to their Facebook page or search Twitter for their brand name, see what their customers are complaining about.

If you want to turn spying on your competition into a long-term project, you can set up a media monitoring tool, like Brand24 or mention. For extra thoroughness – nothing beats actually signing up for their product, trying to break everything and contacting the support regularly, asking about their product roadmap and subtly figuring out what known issue is unlikely to be fixed.

That’s kind of mean, though.

This wouldn’t be so important 10 years ago, but in the 2010’s the quality of support is one of the top reasons why customers stay loyal to a brand or take their business elsewhere. There is an alternative for almost everything. If your competitor won’t invest in taking care of their customers – that’s your competitive advantage up for grabs.

#5 WhatRunsWhere, SpyFu, Wayback Machine…

WhatRunsWhere

You can use WhatRunsWhere to find out what kind of display ads work for your competitor. It will show you the graphics they rotate and how they target them – what kind of messages work? What colors and ad placements?

Pay attention to iterations. The ad that runs for a long time after multiple changes and adjustments – that’s the winning design that resulted from long testing.

Taking The Wayback Machine way back in time will show you what kind of website copy and design worked best for your competitor. If a big company doesn’t change their website design for a long time, it’s most likely not because they can’t afford a redesign – it’s because it works.

SpyFu is another research tool with which you can analyze keywords used by a given website. It will also give you stats for their AdWords campaign and search traffic. It’s similar to SimilarWeb, SEMrush and Ahrefs. I recommend trying them all to see which one gives the most accurate results. Competitive analysis is a very competitive field, as you can see in this forum thread …at one of the competitors, Moz.

#6 Career pages

Nothing shows a company’s roadmap better than a list of requirements for its current growth plans. Some career pages even explicitly state what those plans are.

If they’re expanding their sales department – their customer base is probably not growing as fast as they’d like, or they’re expanding to a new local market.

Hiring customer success or support people? They’re growing too fast for your comfort. Or struggling with customer churn.

Hiring developers? Someone just got an injection of cash or is doing a major rebuild of their product. Or needs to clean up a lot of messy code.

By carefully studying job ads, and asking support the right questions, you will find out what your competitor is up to.

What you do with that information, is your decision.

Competitive intelligence is not unethical – if the information is easily available, it’s fair game. Lying to support or sales people? Well… You can bet some of your competitors have done it at some point. Whether you want to do it too, is between you and your conscience.

Marta Bogacz

Marta believes that everything is a footnote to Plato and that the only marketing trick you'll need in the 21st century will be giving up marketing tricks and being a real human. Or a real robot.

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