Your business is shaped, in part, by the competitive landscape in which it operates.
Here’s a fun way to think about it: Your business is a band, and your competitive landscape is its historical context. Joy Division—one of the most celebrated post-punk bands to come out of the UK—was shaped, in part, by trailblazers like The Stooges. In turn, when you listen to the early work of The Cure, Joy Division’s influence is clear.
A simple snapshot of a hypothetical competitive landscape.
If you want to understand a legendary musical act, you have to take a long, hard look at the other artists around them. And if you want to understand your business—your strengths, your weaknesses, your opportunities for differentiation and growth—you have to pay close attention to your competitors. Failure to engage in what’s known as competitive analysis may result in poor decision-making, missed opportunities for revenue, and reduced market share.
This is an introductory guide to conducting competitive analysis across search and social. Once we’ve defined competitive analysis, we’ll discuss the basics of evaluating your competitors through the lenses of PPC, SEO, and social media marketing.
What is a marketing competitive analysis?
A marketing competitive analysis is the ongoing process of scrutinizing your competitors in relation to your own business. It’s the act of examining each company in your market and determining how you stack up in terms of product, marketing, sales, copy, and more.
The goal is to draw conclusions that simplify the decision-making process. If your analysis of Competitor A leads you to the conclusion that you have a clear advantage in organic search, you may decide — for the time being — to focus on making improvements to your paid media strategy. Had you not taken the time to draw this conclusion, you may have invested limited marketing resources in suboptimal fashion.
The SWOT format is one way to organize insights gleaned from a competitive analysis.
Competitive analysis can (and should) be applied to every facet of your business, but for now, we’re going to focus exclusively on digital marketing. Hopefully, if you’re able to take the ideas shared below and formalize them with processes and templates, folks from other parts of your organization will have a head start.
Marketing competitive analysis: search engine marketing
PPC and SEO each have their own benefits and drawbacks; generally speaking, it behooves you to strike a balance between the two. Plus, I’m willing to bet that each of your competitors is, to some extent, investing in one of these channels—if not both.
Competitive analysis for PPC
Our PPC competitive analysis consists of three key focus areas: keywords, positioning, and offers.
Your closest competitor is your closest competitor because they sell a product or service that’s similar to yours. It follows, then, that they’re probably bidding on many of the same keywords that you’re bidding on. (And if you’re in a particularly competitive market, they may even be bidding on your brand name.)
Always good to be on the lookout for stuff like this.
To get your competitive analysis started, there are a few questions to consider:
- Which keywords are you winning? As you review the keywords you have in common with your competitor, take note of your strongest performers. Which metric(s) you use to identify your strongest performers is entirely up to you. By no means should you get complacent about these keywords — on any given day, your competitor might be brainstorming various ways to overtake you on the SERP — but it doesn’t make much sense to spend your time trying to fix something that isn’t broken.
- Which keywords are you losing? Using the same metric(s) you used to identify your strongest performers, take note of your not-so-strong performers. Keep in mind that your top keywords are evidence of your ability to beat your competitor in the paid search results. So, what’s going wrong here? Whether you need to tighten up your ad groups or refresh your landing page copy, make sure to identify at least one concrete way to get more value out of these under-performing keywords.
- Which keywords are up for grabs? Because your prospects are typing never-before-seen queries into the Google search bar every single day, you should always be on the lookout for new keywords that neither you nor your competitor are taking advantage of. Picture yourself claiming the top spot for a keyword that’s not yet even on your competitor’s radar. What’s better than that?
Beating your closest competitor in the paid search results for all the best keywords is pointless if you’re unable to position your product or service effectively. Plus, if your lackluster messaging translates into poor click-through rates, it won’t be long before your top impression share begins to decline.
Top impression share = Top impressions / Opportunities for top impressions
Here are some questions to consider during the positioning portion of your competitive analysis:
- What does your competitor tend to emphasize in their ad copy? Whether their messaging tends to focus on features or outcomes, understanding how they position themselves enables you to differentiate your product or service. If, for example, your competitor emphasizes the comprehensiveness of their solution, you might consider emphasizing the intuitiveness of your solution. What’s important is that you’re using competitive analysis to ensure your messaging isn’t run-of-the-mill.
- Has your competitor’s emphasis recently changed? Here’s where the ongoing part of competitive analysis really comes into play. Staying on top of your competitor’s positioning in the paid search results enables you to pick up on any changes they make—changes that may indicate a new direction and/or revenue stream. As some of you may know from experience, getting blind-sided is the last thing any of us wants.
- Where are your competitor’s gaps? As you get better and better with competitive analysis, you may start to notice gaps in your competitor’s positioning — specific pain points or outcomes or features that they fail to address with their PPC ad copy. Take a look at the search queries that are triggering both your ads and your competitor’s ads. Are your prospects searching for something that’s nowhere to be found in your competitor’s ad copy? Something that you can speak to and use to drive traffic?
Positioning, though important, isn’t the only factor your prospects consider when evaluating the paid search results. If you want to turn those impressions into clicks—and direct clicks away from your competitor—you need to create valuable and differentiated offers.
Consider the following:
- Which offers do you and your competitor have in common? Two businesses bidding on the same keywords as one another are likely to rely on similar offers: free shipping (ecommerce websites), free trials (D2C brands), demos (B2B companies), etc. Because certain types of offers work well for certain types of businesses, it’s inevitable that you’ll have some degree of overlap. Making note of which offers both you and your competitor are using enables you to experiment with your PPC ads. And if you’re wondering what I mean by that …
- Do you see opportunities to experiment with your ad copy? Today’s PPC ads would look pretty foreign to someone who hasn’t used the internet since 2012. Headlines are longer, descriptions are richer, and extensions are more diverse. As search ads expand, marketers have more and more opportunities to try new placements of their offers—and, in the process, differentiate themselves from their competitors. If your competitor is constantly placing their offers at the end of their headlines, do something different! Not all experiments will be successful, but failing to stand out is a much worse fate.
- Are your competitor’s offers aligned with keyword intent? The effectiveness of an offer is determined, in part, by how well (or poorly) it aligns with the intent of the prospect. If you’re marketing car insurance, it doesn’t make much sense to offer a free quote to someone searching “how does car insurance work.” Take note of any instances where your competitor’s offer is out of sync with keyword intent — these are opportunities to put appropriate, differentiated offers front-and-center in your PPC ads.
Marketing competitive analysis for SEO
Our SEO competitive analysis also consists of three key focus areas: keywords, backlinks, and SERP features.
Although, mechanically speaking, PPC and SEO are different, keywords essentially play the same role across these two disciplines: we target them in hopes of driving traffic to our sites.
As such, our three basic questions for getting your competitive wheels spinning are the same:
- Which keywords are you winning? In terms of metrics, this question is more straightforward than its PPC equivalent: For which (non-branded) keywords are you outranking your competitor? Again, the purpose of identifying these keywords is not to justify complacency, but rather to simplify the task of setting priorities. You probably don’t have time to optimize your website content for every single keyword.
- Which keywords are you losing? Unless you’re HubSpot or Wikipedia, you’re probably getting outranked by your competitor for certain high-value keywords. Again, you’ve proven that you can win the SERPs in your niche. So, take a look at the under-performing content and come up with some ways to improve your rankings: write additional copy, compress images to improve page speed, increase keyword density, and so on.
- Which keywords are up for grabs? Same story here: Every day brings new, unique search queries that no one has ever searched before. It’s not enough to merely play catch-up on the keywords you’re already losing; you’ve got to stay on top of emerging keywords that neither you nor your competitor are targeting. SEO software is useful towards this end, but don’t forget about Google Search Console. If you dive into the queries that are driving traffic to your site, you’ll probably find valuable keywords that you’ve yet to directly target with a focused piece of content.
There’s more to SEO than keyword targeting. If you want to be the leader in your market in the organic search results, you need a strong profile of links pointing to your site from high-quality sources (i.e., trusted websites in related or adjacent markets).
An overview of Wikipedia’s backlink profile, according to SEMrush.
That’s why backlinks are the second focus area in our SEO competitive analysis. Keeping in mind that you’ll need a third-party SEO tool to answer the following questions, ask yourself:
- How does your volume of backlinks compare with that of your competitor? Though quality trumps quantity when we’re talking about backlinks, it’s worthwhile to do a quick volume comparison between you and your competitor. Why? Say, for example, that your competitor tends to outrank you for high-value keywords, but you discover that you’ve accumulated nearly twice as many backlinks as they have. This is useful information, as it may indicate that, on average, your competitor attracts higher-quality links than you do.
- Who links to your competitor, and why? Regardless of any differences in volume, you should know, in a broad sense, which domains link to your competitor—as well as why those domains link to your competitor. At a glance, it should be fairly easy to determine why a certain domain has chosen to give your competitor a backlink. If it’s a publisher that covers stories and topics related to your market, they’ve probably deemed your competitor to be a worthwhile resource for their readers. If it’s an odd-looking domain that has nothing whatsoever to do with your market, it’s probably a useless, spammy link that’s unworthy of your time.
- Can you identify any untapped opportunities? In keeping with an emerging theme of this blog post, you must always keep your eyes peeled for untapped opportunities—i.e., worthwhile domains that link to neither you nor your competitor. Say you sell homemade coffee mugs through your ecommerce site and you come across a popular publisher with an article titled “The 24 Best Coffee Mugs We Can Find on the Internet.” If neither you nor your competitor is mentioned in the article, that may be a good opportunity to contact the publisher and ask if they’d consider reviewing your mugs.
As satisfying as it is to outrank your competitor on high-value keywords, winning special features on the SERP—most notably the featured snippet, among others—is another way to gain a competitive advantage in your market (and an increasingly prevalent one, I might add).
To wrap up the SEO section of our competitive analysis, consider the following:
- Do you own a SERP feature for any keywords? Whether it’s a featured snippet, an answer to a related question, or a YouTube video that surfaces in the search results, you may own a SERP feature for a high-value keyword without even realizing it. If that’s the case, it’s worth taking the time to formulate an educated guess as to why you own that feature — so you can try to replicate whatever it is you did correctly!
- Does your competitor own a SERP feature for any keywords? Another good use of your time is finding the keywords for which your competitor owns a SERP feature. Say there’s a particularly valuable keyword that both you and your competitor are targeting and they’re the ones who own the featured snippet. Ugh. But, wait a minute — in addition to a featured snippet, the SERP for that keyword also includes YouTube videos, and neither you nor your competitor has created a targeted video. If YouTube is part of your content marketing strategy, perhaps it should be a priority to make that video ASAP.
- Can you edit your content to win any untapped opportunities for SERP features? Last but not least, do some digging and see if there are any keywords that (1) both you and your competitor are targeting and (2) do not trigger certain SERP features you’ve deemed desirable and/or attainable. Can you restructure a piece of content to make it a better candidate for a featured snippet? Can you update a piece of content with ancillary keywords to make a run for the related questions feature? Can you rename one of your YouTube videos to give it a better chance of surfacing on the SERP for a certain keyword? Be competitive and strategic with your optimizations!
Marketing competitive analysis: social media
Congratulations! Thanks to the power of competitive analysis, you are now better positioned to go head-to-head with your rival in the search results—both paid and organic.
Search engine marketing is powerful because it enables you to provide value to your prospects when they’re using the internet with intent (whether it’s educational intent, commercial intent, or something in between). But, what about those times when your prospects are using the internet without any kind of intent?
Facebook & Twitter are among the most trafficked sites in the US, per Ahrefs.
That’s where social media marketing comes into play. The value of social media marketing is a subject worthy of its own blog post—perhaps its own blog—but for now we’ll focus on one central concern:
Because you have limited time to optimize your social media marketing strategy, you need to understand what your competitor is and is not doing — as well as what these insights reveal in terms of opportunities for differentiation and growth.
Your guide to conducting a basic social media marketing competitive analysis is broken, unsurprisingly, into three key focus areas: channels, paid content, and organic content.
Throughout the PPC and SEO sections of our competitive analysis guide, it was safe to assume we were talking about Google and Bing; the vast majority of internet search activity is, after all, handled by these two companies.
Social media is a different story. Yes, Instagram’s parent company Facebook is a tech giant on par with the likes of Google and Microsoft (which owns Bing). Nevertheless, the range of social media channels available to digital marketers is far greater than the range of (worthwhile) search engines available to digital marketers.
So, even if you’re a B2B marketer who could not care less about Snapchat or TikTok, let’s begin our competitive analysis with a few considerations related to channels:
- Where are you and your competitor active? Obviously, the answer to this question is going to depend, in large part, on the kind of business you’re marketing. Whereas someone marketing a D2C brand may focus primarily on Instagram and TikTok, a marketer at a B2B consulting company may care exclusively about LinkedIn and Twitter. No matter what, it’s useful at the outset of your analysis to get a general sense of which channel(s) you and your competitor have taken most seriously up until this point. If you’re both publishing amazing content on LinkedIn, but neither of you is doing anything interesting on Twitter, think about how you can start providing more value to your followers on the latter platform.
- Which channel promises the greatest opportunity for growth? If you’re in a situation where both you and your competitor are crushing it on one channel and coming up short on another, then this is an easy question to answer: the latter channel is likely the one that promises the greatest opportunity for growth. But things are seldom so black and white—and if you’re in a competitive niche, you’re probably going up against people who know what they’re doing. So, to dig a bit deeper, ask yourself: Recently, across the channels where you’re active, which has been delivering the best results, and which has been the most stagnant? Have you noticed a steady increase in Instagram video views as your Facebook engagement has leveled off? Whatever it is, trust your data and your gut to tell you which channel to prioritize.
- Are there any emerging channels you should be using? Though this final question isn’t of equal importance to every marketer, the explosive growth of TikTok in the final moments of the 2010s illustrates just how rapidly a new social media channel can rise to prominence (or even dominance). Given your niche and the level of competition you’re up against, your competitive success in the coming years may depend, in part, on your ability to establish a presence on the emerging channel that’s generating buzz. Though you shouldn’t throw money at something purely because it’s shiny and new, you know what they say about early adopters.
There’s more than one way to get value out of a social media channel—quite a few, actually. But, in the most general sense, marketers have two (non-mutually exclusive) options: paid content and organic content.
Paid content on LinkedIn.
Regarding the former, here are three questions to mull over:
- Why is your competitor running social ads? Without espionage (which is never justifiable), you can’t answer this question definitively—and that’s fine. Pay close attention to the types of ads they’re running, the tone of their copy, the CTAs they’re using, and so on. Based on these observations, would you say they’re focused primarily on brand awareness? Lead generation? In-store conversions? The answer will almost certainly change over time—perhaps seasonally, depending on what kind of market you’re in—and that’s the beauty of regularly conducting competitive analysis. Picking up on these changes and trends gives you an incredible degree of insight into your competitor’s strategy.
- How does your competitor position themselves in their social ads? Recall the positioning section of our PPC competitive analysis. As part of your copywriting process, take the time to understand how your competitor is positioning themselves in their social ads. What pain points do they tend to address? What features or outcomes do they tend to emphasize? Are there any gaps in their messaging that you can fill in? Because paid search and paid social are so fundamentally different, the copy your competitor writes for Google might be worlds apart from the copy they write for Facebook. And remember: the purpose of this exercise is not to imitate, but rather to ensure that your copy isn’t stale.
- What kinds of offers is your competitor making to prospects? When we discussed offers during our PPC competitive analysis, our focus was on matching keyword intent. Keyword intent, of course, doesn’t really exist on social. So, when you analyze the offers your competitor is making to their social prospects, use that intel to make an educated guess as to what kinds of prospects they’re going after. Is your competitor in the legal services market using their social ads to offer an ungated educational video? They’re probably targeting cold audiences with the intent of spreading awareness. Is your competitor in the hospitality market using their social ads to offer discounted rates? They’re probably targeting warm audiences with the intent of driving conversions.
As effective as social ads can be, you’re doing yourself a disservice if you’re overlooking organic content entirely. You can only throw around a certain amount of money per month, and non-paid content typically gives businesses greater flexibility to engage their audiences in unique and creative ways.
Organic content on Twitter.
With that in mind, let’s wrap up our competitive analysis with three final questions to consider:
- What is your competitor doing with their organic content? Organic social content comes in many shapes and sizes. Some marketers use it to start conversations with their customers and prospects. Others use it to publish original content that can’t be found anywhere else—almost like a second blog or YouTube channel. Marketers who are particularly crunched for time use organic social primarily to post links. Once you’ve determined what your competitor is doing with their organic content, you’ll have the intel you need to do something better. Are they primarily posting links? Great—start posting thought-provoking content. Are they neglecting to interact with users? Awesome—go fill that gap while you still have the chance.
- How much engagement does your competitor get from users? As you’re evaluating your competitor’s organic social feeds to determine what kind of content they’re publishing, you should also take note of the engagement they’re getting. If it seems that they’re making an honest effort to share original, valuable content, but their engagement numbers are unimpressive, that may indicate something significant about your shared audience. Is your competitor speaking to a pain point that users don’t actually care about? Are they packaging their content in a format that users find unappealing? You can learn a lot from the performance of your competitor’s organic content.
- Where are your competitor’s content gaps? This is essentially the same question we asked at the end of the positioning section of our PPC competitive analysis. Based on what you know about your audience—pain points that keep them up at night, features they want, outcomes they’re working towards—can you identify anything that your competitor is failing to address with their organic social content? To put it in more general terms, how can you use your organic content to provide value that your audience isn’t getting from your competitor?
Make it a habit to conduct your marketing competitive analysis!
At the risk of beating a dead horse, I’ll say it one more time: Competitive analysis, whether you’re focused on PPC, SEO, social media marketing, or some combination thereof, is an ongoing process. Can one-off insights here and there be helpful? Of course. But when you make it a habit to regularly conduct competitive analysis over time, you begin to pick up on patterns, trends, strategic shifts—the kinds of insights that can truly make an impact.