There’s a plethora of tools out there that let you “spy” on your competitors, unmasking their Adwords campaigns, Facebook ads, and other traffic sources – including some of our own apps.
While this information is far from useless, I also think it’s overrated. (At least at face value).
Because unless you’re literally selling the exact same products & services, you will have limited success by taking a copy-and-paste approach, and simply emulating your competitors’ keyword targets, messaging, ad copy, etc. The whole idea is to offer something unique to the marketplace, after all.
But even aside from the fundamentals, competitive intelligence needs to be carefully interpreted to be useful.
In some ways, it’s like learning how to surf. When you’re just starting out, you’ll need to rely on basically just paddling out to the obvious take off spots. (There’s a reason why nobody’s bothering with some of the waves that look rideable, but aren’t).
But as every beginner soon discovers, there’s a big difference between the waves that you see the “pros” riding, and the waves that you should actually be trying to catch. If you’re hauling your big 9 foot longboard out to a steep, barrelling reef break where the pros are ripping around on shortboards because “that’s where the wave is”… a learning experience is inbound 🙂
The key is to recognize what your competitors are doing that actually:
- Matches your model
- Is realistically attainable
Let’s take a closer look at how “read the waves” accurately…
Intentional Success vs Random Noise
We all know about the 80/20 rule, where about 80% of our results are likely attributable to 20% of our actions. The idea is to figure out what the “20% stuff” is, and do more of it.
In marketing, I’ve found that 80/20 is almost too conservative. It feels more like 95/5, especially in the early stages of a new business, where the vast majority of your results are driven by anomalous breakout successes.
A single ad test that struck a nerve. A random article that got upvoted to Reddit’s 1st page. And so on.
If you’re paying attention, the sensible reaction is to evaluate why certain things drive outsized responses. Whether it’s certain keywords or audience targets, or messaging that seems to nail it home for your prospects – the smart business will take whatever it is that worked, and scale it up.
But, for whatever reason, not every business pays attention. And even for those that do – not everyone has the time or resources to scale what’s working. This could be life getting in the way, outside pressures, other priorities… you name it.
Why does this matter?
Well, it matters a whole lot when you’re reverse-engineering a business like this – where all of that “competitive data” could simply be the cumulative result of random experiments, reactionary content, and rudderless marketing actions.
This is why it’s critical to take competitive ‘intelligence’ with a grain of salt. You may be trying to find intentional patterns where there are none.
Spotting the Pay-Streaks
There’s a surprising number of parallels between prospecting digitally and in ‘real life’. As far as competitive research goes though, one of the easiest ways to identify a gold-bearing area on a creek is to look for a series of dig sites in a row. Either inline with the creek or perpendicular to it.
Generally these are found in the gravel bars on inside bends of the creek.
What this indicates is that someone got “on the gold” and obviously kept finding it along the pay streak. Since digging up gravel, boulders and roots really sucks – spotting a series of concerted holes like this is an obvious tell. They weren’t dug for fun; you will find good gold if you expand out the existing holes, or dig in between them.
In contrast, if you’re exploring an area and you spot a single hole in an ideal spot (inside bend, behind a bolder, on the bank of a low pressure spot, etc), then the jury’s out. This could mean multiple things:
- Did the other prospector find good gold – but maybe ran out of time to dig further, or had to leave for some unrelated reason?
- Did they find nothing?
- Or did they find some gold, but not enough to warrant further effort?
The problem is, you have no way of knowing without getting your shovel out, and testing the area yourself. This is all well and good, but let’s say your “time budget” is only 2 hours for the day. Testing a new spot will take about 20-30 minutes, at least. And there’s actually a 2/3rd’s chance that it’s a bust.
This is the risk of isolated competitive data.
Did they target that area – or in our case – that keyword / marketing angle?
Was it worth doing?
- We have no idea – and the odds are skewed against.
This is why spotting the pay streak in your competitor’s data is so critical. Much like gold panning, you need to look for a sustained effort on a certain keyword theme, marketing message or audience target.
Here’s what the tell-tale “diggings” look like in marketing intelligence:
- Multiple variations of the same ad copy, across multiple channels, over several months (they’re trying to beat a control ad)
- Consistently publishing content on recurring themes (pay close attention to patterns with title tags / headlines)
- Purposefully targeting a few core keywords with variations, keyword modifiers, long-tail phrases that include it, etc.
- Intentionally building lots of backlinks to certain key pages
And so on. In short… look for an intentional, sustained effort on certain areas of their marketing activities.
That’s where the gold is.
Now let’s discuss how to get more of it.
The Art of Capturing a Sure Thing
Outright copy-pasting your competitor’s strategy, or their targeting, can work in some cases.
But for a number of reasons, that’s usually quite inefficient. For one, you will be squarely in their sights if you start competing in the exact same spaces, and they probably have a better handle on their numbers. (So basically, it will just be more expensive and time-intensive).
Secondly, blindly copying the top of their funnel might not be congruent with the rest of your messaging. At the very least, you’ll need to adapt your messaging, and maybe your offer, to compete “head-on” like this.
- Targeting derivative keywords that they haven’t concentrated on yet: Long-tail variations, modifiers, etc.
- Following the pay-streak upstream: Research the core audience who searches this keyword, and determine what content they digest, and where. (Eg. people searching for “dog training books” probably read Rover.com, which also ranks highly for that keyword. Target Rover audience across various channels.)
- Following the pay-streak downstream: Using any conventional keyword research tool, build a list of related keywords from their proven target, and refine it down to a list of 3-4 that have the exact same intent, even if they’re entirely different words (eg. “dog training books” and “puppy discipline”).
You’ll find that this approach will get you a lot more mileage than simply copying your competitors.
This is how you target the wider, untapped pay-streak – reliably capturing a sure thing in the process.
There’s just one hanging question…
What’s the easiest way to spot the ‘pay streaks’, to begin with?
It just so happens that we have an app for that 😉
Here’s how it works:
Golden Prospects shows you exactly where your competitors get the lion’s share of their traffic from organic search.
- The estimated percentage of traffic from each keyword
- The estimated percentage of traffic for each page of their site
This is a gold mine of data – and you’ll usually be surprised which keywords actually drive the majority of their traffic.
But where you really want to pay close attention is the pages on their site that soak up the most search traffic – including the homepage. Take note of the following:
- What keywords do their title tags focus on?
- Are they publishing multiple pages around a certain theme (topical or keyword variations)?
- How many backlinks are they building for these on-theme internal pages (non-homepage)?
The app displays all of this in mere seconds, exposing their best ‘pay-streaks’ in the process.
You can also compare your own domain against your competitors to identify the largest gaps between your sites (highlighting their best traffic sources where you have no visibility).
See it in action:
The video below is a quick tutorial, but it gives you a good idea of how the app works…
Try it for yourself:
Golden Prospects buries the noise, making it easy to identify the “good gold” in your market, and it should be an essential part of your content planning strategy.
This is how you can know for sure that the time, effort & investment in getting your content ranked will actually pay off. It’s a no-brainer.
And like I mentioned earlier, the idea here isn’t to simply copy-paste your competitor’s best targets – it’s to effectively capture the proven producers by targeting the “gaps”, going upstream (targeting the core audience), and going downstream (targeting related keywords with identical intent).
Our 14-day trial gives you full access to Golden Prospects, along with every other app in Zag.ai
So if you haven’t set up a trial yet, you can get started here.
(If you already have an account, just login and click on “New App” at the top, activate any app, and you can start your trial from there)
Competitive intelligence might not be foolproof, but this approach is as close as it gets.
Nobody’s going to consistently invest in the same type of content targeting and promotion, over and over again, unless it was worth their while.
This is why learning how to build your own strategy around this – like how we’ve discussed in this article – will give you an impressive edge in your market.
You’ll be creating content regardless. Might as well create traffic assets in the process 🙂