“Know thyself” is a Greek aphorism that’s as true today as it was thousands of years ago. In life and in business, to truly grow you need to understand your strengths and your weaknesses, and you need to understand how to improve on both.

But knowing your neighbor—or competitor in this case—is just as important to your business’s success. We don’t market our businesses as islands, so we can’t expect to achieve our goals by cloistering ourselves. We must understand our competitors just as much as we understand ourselves.

To develop a robust content marketing strategy, a competitive analysis is crucial to make an impact and connect with your targeted audience.

Below, we’ve outlined four fundamental steps in conducting your own content marketing competitive analysis.

1. Identify Your Competitors

Yes, the first step in our list seems obvious, but you’d be surprised at how often content marketers don’t fully understand who their competitors are. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that it’s not often that information is communicated effectively to the entirety of the marketing team.

Identifying your competitors (and communicating who they are to your whole team) provides several benefits:

  1. You can pinpoint the benchmarks you need to improve.
  2. In addition to tracking your competitors’ moves, you can anticipate them, too.
  3. You can better understand your own limitations or deficiencies that can cost you potential sales.

The Types of Competitors

When you identify competitors, you have three types to consider: direct, indirect, and replacement.

Direct competitors are the businesses that sell a similar product or service in the same category as you. (These are the competitors you most often think about.)

Example: McDonald’s and Burger King.

Indirect competitors are the businesses that sell a product or service in the same category as you, but it’s different enough to act as a substitute for your product or service.

Example: McDonald’s and Subway.

Replacement competitors (also called “phantom competitors”) are the businesses that sell a product or service that’s both different in category and type than you, but one which your customers could choose to spend their money instead.

Example: McDonald’s and Stouffer’s frozen meals.

2. Profile Your Competitors

With all your competitors listed out, you can begin to profile them in detail. Try not to go overboard here with a dozen competitors from each type: 1) it’s a nightmare to keep up with, and 2) you likely won’t be competing with that many anyway. If you begin to feel your list creeping past five or six of each type, consider focusing on only the ones who have the biggest market share.

Compare Yourself against Them

When comparing yourself against your competitors, I recommend interviewing your stakeholders and customers—including those you might have lost to the competition. Your sales team in particular, will be a great resource for extracting this knowledge, as they likely hear day in and day out from prospects what makes your competitor good or bad in comparison.

But your customers and lost customers will be invaluable in providing their insight. (If you’re worried your customers may give a biased perspective, you might consider hiring an outside vendor to conduct the interviews.)

You can ask a myriad of questions during these interviews, but you want to at the very least walk away with a comparison of the following:

  1. Price
  2. Quality
  3. Durability
  4. Image/style
  5. Value
  6. Customer service
  7. Convenience

Understand Their Objectives and Strategies

This can be easier said than done, as it’s not as if your competitors will just publish their playbooks online for the world to read. But it’s not difficult to read between the lines in a lot of cases.

Getting back to those interviews, your sales team likely has received copies of competitor proposals and presentations. The work pitched can say a lot about the objectives of a company and where they may be heading.

Online publications can reveal your competitors’ strategies. Read their press releases, and, if their senior leadership is publishing, read what they write about the market and the industry and any predictions they’re making.

As you study your competitors, your goal should be to answer the following questions:

  1. Are they looking to grow or maintain?
  2. Are they focused on short-term or long-term profits?
  3. Are they launching new products or improving current ones?
  4. Are they trying to become a market leader?
  5. Are they working to defend their existing market share?
  6. Are they developing new markets for existing products?

With these questions answered to the best of your ability, you can begin to anticipate your competitors’ new moves and plan ways to counteract and prevail. For instance, if you believe an indirect competitor will try to grow its market share in 2017, you can reach out to current customers with a new value-add campaign to strengthen customer loyalty.

3. Review Your Competitors’ Content

To compete effectively through your content strategy, you must know what your competitors are doing when it comes to producing and distributing content.

Often, marketers look at sites like BuzzFeed or Mashable or Content Marketing Institute as their yardsticks. While I admire your aspiration, we need to be realistic here. If you’re marketing for a high-end, accounting software company, you’re not likely to get 200 million visitors a month to your site.

By looking at your competitors’ content, you give yourself an achievable goal.

Popular Topics

The most popular topics your competitors publish tell you what resonates the most with your overlapping target audience.

But how do you know what’s popular?

The simplest way is to check your competitor’s blog. A common widget web designers add to a blog site will be called something like “Trending Posts” or “Most Talked About Content.” For any given time, you’ll likely see what content is ranking supreme.

If your competitor doesn’t provide that information, you can use tools like SEMrush or BuzzSumo to track how many people are sharing and talking about it.

But since those are paid services, the cheap way to discover popular content is through Twitter’s Search. Just type in your competitor’s blog URL (sans http), and filter by Top.

Types

The type of content your competitors publish could provide opportunity for you to take the lead. If your competitors are focusing only on blog posts and videos, you can prioritize SlideShare presentations, podcasts, or live streaming.

Look for the following content types:

  • Blog post
  • Infographics
  • Podcasts
  • White papers
  • Videos
  • Tip sheets
  • Ebooks
  • Frameworks
  • Perspectives
  • Presentations
  • Virtual events
  • Product guides
  • Evaluation tools
  • Case studies
  • Testimonials
  • Data sheets
  • Product comparisons
  • Product demos

Look at the quality of each content type. Compare it against your own content. Should you invest in a professional designer? Or does amateur-style content connect better with your audience?

What types of content are published the most? Are they publishing premium content that’s gated for lead capture? What about the forms they use? How much information are they users to provide?

Frequency

The frequency at which your competitors produce new content can set a benchmark for you to hit or exceed. If your competitors publish three or four times a week, you may want to invest in a dedicated copywriter to keep up. Or you can consider content creation services like Contently or Fiverr, which will help you find freelance writers.

4. Discover Their Distribution

Creating and maintaining quality content is one thing; getting it in front of your audience is a whole other ballgame.

SEO (search engine optimization) may be one of the easiest ways your competitors are getting their content found. Look at their title tags, meta descriptions, Page Ranks, and ranking keywords. What keywords are they being found for? Is there overlap with the keywords you’re ranking for? If so, are they outpacing you?

They could be promoting their content through paid channels. Tools like Searchmetrics and SEMrush can reveal if your competitors are promoting themselves in paid search and what keywords they’re bidding on.

If your competitors have an email newsletter, sign up for it. How often are they sending our emails? What content is featured there? Are they just promoting new content or are they mixing in promotions? Compare it against your own newsletter. You may want to increase the frequency of your email cadence or promote new content based on segmentation.

Follow your competitors on social media. Are they using it just as a distribution channel or are they actively engaging on it? What’s their mix of self-promotion versus aggregation?

With a full understanding of their distribution tactics, you can find the gaps in their strategy to outpace and overtake them.

The Competitive Conclusion

“Know thyself” may be sage advice, but knowing your competitors is crucial for your business’s success. To truly understand where you stand in comparison, you must document and profile your competitors, dig deep into their content marketing, and discover how they distribute that content. With a clear understanding of your competitors, you will be in the prime position to achieve your goals.

How are you analyzing your competitors? Share your ideas with us on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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