Online Sleuthing Techniques to Learn about Your Competitors’ Marketing Tactics

How to find cool marketing channels and tactics that competitors and related vendors are using?

In a comprehensive analysis of all potential marketing channels a company can use to target its selected market segments, competitive research is a very important step. The competitor’s marketing tactics are a good set of inputs for the overall list of applicable channels, and the concentration of channel types or media will give some additional insights into whether certain types of marketing channels are more appropriate or have been more successful in the markets. This information is so important that we typically suggest that at least a lightweight competitive marketing channels analysis is done before the project is fully planned out for execution. The insights from this preliminary research will inform the key content areas as well as the marketing channels that deserve the most in-depth research in the process.

However, when one searches for “Competitive Research,” one typically finds the “competitive research” process described in many SEO and SEM resource websites which give the impression that it is the extent of online competitive marketing channels. But as we shall see below, there are many other venues where important clues can be found, leading to more direct discoveries of marketing channels or marketing campaigns executed by the competitors.

When these evidences are compiled together, a fuller picture of the marketing channels and tactics being used by the competitors will emerge. Moreover, these techniques are equally applicable to reviewing related vendors, or even partners marketing channels, because those are all potentially applicable marketing channels for your company.

1. Website Analysis

Everything really starts with an analysis of the official Web presence of the competitors (or related vendors). The website readily lists social marketing channels the company is utilizing, the events section typically lists past and upcoming conferences that the company attends or sponsors, the “News” section gives clue to the most important media mentions of the company. Other potential, if not common marketing channels are: strategic alliances, virtual events, cause marketing, speaking opportunities and co-marketing opportunities. Already a solid, if unsurprising, set of marketing channels can be found by a systematic review of the competitor’s websites.

2. News Mention

To more exhaustively analyzed the traditional media channels that the company uses, one can use the Google News search engine to find mention of the company’s name (as well as its CEO/Chairman). This should give a list of articles on/about the company in recent years, and we can also further analyze the reporters behind those articles as they are truly the levers of influences at those organizations.

3. Google General Research

To even more exhaustively capture any other media/Web mentions of the company that might have not been indexed by the News Mention, we would run a generic Google search for the company’s name, the main product’s name, and the CEO’s names. These searches will review non-media appearance of the company in the following types of marketing channels: awards, exhibition, personal awards (for the CEO), product awards, product reviews, product test labs, as well as less traditional channels: online forums, media sharing social networks, or blogs that mention the company.

4. Social Media Mentions

If the competitive research is focused on online influencers, then running a social media mention search is a good idea. Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Yelp, Foursquare, etc. all have specialized search engines for their content, and site-specific search will be more effective at identifying social media mentions of the company, its founders, and the product. By tracing back to the source of social media mentions, we typically find new potential online influencers, or new, lesser known marketing channels whose trace is captured in the social media bustle.

5. SEM Intelligence

SEM Intelligence refers to the monitoring, review and analysis of competitors’ paid search engine strategies. Companies like Spyfu.com or Keywordspy.com routinely capture paid search engine placements, pricing and ranking among the top millions of web pages on the Internet. With a small fee, they even automatically monitor competitor’s keyword choice, spending budget, landing pages and ad copy. As mentioned above, this area is well researched and you can find a lot of tools and advanced techniques on the SEOBook.com website.

6. Backlink Analysis

While most SEO specialist is familiar with doing Backlink Analysis on their own website, doing Backlink Analysis on competitors’ websites is just as helpful. When the list of backlinks are sorted by Google Page Rank and/or Alexa or Compete Traffic Rank, the competitor’s most important inbound links are identified, and many of them will be actual marketing channels while many others will indirectly lead to relevant marketing channels. Unfortunately, with the demise of Yahoo! Site Explorer, one has to try out new backlink research tools, or use the more basic, less reliable Bing WebMaster Tool or the Google inlink search parameter (link:domain.com).

7. Job Ads / Employees Profile

The next two techniques are truly bordering on digital detective type work. A competitor’s marketing channels and strategies can be inferred from the capabilities of its internal marketing team and its outsourced marketing consultants/agencies. To do so, one can review the competitor’s marketing employees profiles on LinkedIn (or Twitter) and identify key marketing channels-dependent skill sets that they have as well as marketing agencies they work with. These all provide important clues to the kind of skills and expertise the company needs for its operations. Job Ads for marketing positions are similar because they also describe exactly the type of skills and expertise the company is looking for, potentially to execute certain marketing campaigns on certain marketing channels.

8. Customer Forums

If the competitor has a large enough pool of customers, eventually these customers will congregate digitally on customer forums. These forums can be company-sponsored, or independently supported, or be part of a larger, more general social forums. The most import thing to know is that these are treasure troves of competitive information. Customer forums are important sources of customer feedback, customer grievances, and are also the first place where new marketing campaigns are disclosed. They can found through a social media search, a general Google search, or a forum-specific search. When reviewing a forum post, we need to always consider it in the context of the discussion thread, and use other posts in the same thread to qualify, disqualify or enrich the information given in the original post.

What is important in each of these methods is the ability to infer and follow the sometimes very scant evidences of a competitor’s marketing activities online. The techniques above are more “starting points” for research, because a single “lead” can take a researcher through many new marketing channels and give hints to other possible channels to be searched for or investigated. For example, if some evidence is found on Twitter about an occasion where a competitor’s CEO is speaking, we can directly validate this by running a direct Google search for the company’s CEO name and the occasion/event mentioned. Furthermore, we can broaden the search by replacing the CEO name with lesser officers, and/or run a general search without constraint on the specific event to capture more evidence on the company’s participation in that event.

Do you know of other online research techniques?

If you want to learn more about applying competitive research techniques, the following are great articles and resources to get you started:

http://www.inc.com/guides/2010/05/conducting-competitive-research.html

http://tools.seobook.com/competitive-research-tools/ (Mostly for SEO)

http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-505125_162-51060253/how-to-gather-competitive-research/

http://www.networksolutions.com/blog/2011/04/using-social-media-for-competitive-research/

http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/220761

http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/222489

http://www.instigatorblog.com/competitive-research-101-for-startups/2011/08/30/

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