Consider it the carbonation to your soda, turning basic sugar water into bubbly ecstasy with a 50x markup. Because let’s be honest.
All those digital marketing techniques and tactics floating around are deceptively simple, right?
I can attest that I’ve tried hundreds of ‘em only to look back months later and see that they generated little change.
Tips like “build a relationship with prospects” or “focus on benefits instead of features”, while great advice, are only really giving you half the story of what makes them effective.
Let me illustrate.
What does the tactic “build a relationship with prospects” really mean? Is the process the same for those selling health supplements as for those selling HR consulting?
What about the tactic “focus on benefits when writing sales copy?” What benefits should you focus on? Which are most powerful?
As you can see, there’s a lot of ambiguity when it comes to these tactics. And it’s easy to jump right in and start executing.
Without industry insight, however, what do you really have to guide your execution other than guesses and assumptions?
Sarah Cox in her report, “Social Media Marketing in a Small Business: A Case Study”, states that far too many small business owners execute tactics without having a solid strategy:
“…one in five small businesses have no social media strategy. Without strategy or goals, a business is unable to determine whether or not they are gaining anything through their efforts, or simply wasting time. "
"Those businesses without a strategy also reported being less satisfied with social media’s ability to generate new leads (SMB Group, 2012). Small businesses need to have a plan when using social media.”
I don’t know about you but the last thing I want to do is spend my time and money on guesses. That’s why whenever I start a new campaign, I ensure I’m prepped with ample industry insight.
This post is here to give you a few of the processes I’ve uncovered to accomplish just that.
Unfortunately, we can’t just log into our competitors reporting accounts and get access to what’s working (and what isn’t). As such, quantitative research on our industry isn’t really the easiest to do.
That’s where the real power of qualitative research comes to play.
Just so happens that reasons, opinions, and motivations are the very things industry insight aims to learn more about.
Michael Porter in “Techniques for Analyzing Industries and Competitors” advises a 4-pillar framework for analyzing competitors, aimed at discovering:
Thinking of these four pillars when performing industry research helps you better frame what competitors are doing, why, and the resources needed to execute.
Seeing, for example, that your top competitor highlights the benefit of “simplicity” could make you assume that this benefit is what works. Drawing a conclusion solely on this one competitor and one benefit featured, however, is dangerous.
By looking at their four pillars, we can get more insight into why they used that benefit.
Was it out of mere convenience or habit? Or was it a more strategic approach aligned with a history of using that same benefit? AKA, is the benefit “simplicity” a key selling point that built their business and, as such, is one they continue to reinforce?
If that’s the case, do you want to compete against those strong foundations? Or is it better to differentiate yourself and focus on another benefit?
While we won’t know the cold, hard numbers of a competitor’s ad campaign or email series, knowing what they executed and why provides ample information.
If you’ve studied anything about animal and human behavior, there’s one frequently repeating concept: " Nature is a procession of the environment."
What our competitors proactively engage in (and how they execute) are all symbols of a response to the environment (their audience).
If your competitor has stumbled upon a certain appeal or angle that works, they’ll likely repeat it.
By seeing what competitors have historically used to promote their services, you can get a strong picture of what messaging has worked and what hasn’t.
Clearly, a sales appeal that tanks will disappear quickly (assuming the company is savvy and results-driven).
Nevertheless, there are other ways to gauge an appeals power: popularity .
The fact is that our world is highly saturated by competitors and marketers in every industry where money is available.
As such, if you find a sales benefit or feature highlighted by one competitor but none of the others, there are often two reasons:
This hidden gem is what we always aim to look for. It’s how we can find an easy way to compete in the industry without resorting to a bigger ad budget or higher lifetime customer value than our competitors.
While we may get lucky finding a hidden gem through historic campaigns our competitors have engaged in, that’s just one approach
To amp up our chances for striking gold, we’re going to want to research not only our competitors but our target audience as well.
Consumer behavior is shaped by primarily two things:
No doubt about it, your competitors behavior and communication influence how your prospects interact on the internet.
Their search queries, preferences for purchase, etc are all stemmed from actions they took with prior competitors.
For this reason, assimilating as much insight into what your target consumers respond to is vital.
When it comes to digital marketing, for example, most everyone knows SEO as SEO. Highly advanced SEO practitioners engaging in schema, however, use a rather different terminology to describe their approaches.
As such, you can expect a blog post titled “The Semantic Web & Emergent SEO” to garner little response. Compare that with Neil Patel’s post, “Demystifying SEO: How to Skyrocket Your Traffic Through Schema Markup” and you have a post that’s much more approachable to the typical SEO audience.
I can guarantee Neil knows a ton about Schema and advanced SEO. But he also knows that the goal of his post is to generate publicity and links, NOT to share advanced topics for personal pleasure in a way that alienates 95% of his readers.
It’s about your audience, not you.
So how do you go about getting more insight into what your audience responds to? Here’s a quick-start list:
You can tell a lot about an industry from how your competitors structure and set up their website.
I’m not just referring to SEO optimization and keywords.
What are the key messages and call-to-actions placed on the homepage? How is the top navigation arranged? What are the links placed in this menu?
How is the blog section set up? Is there a section for visitors to enter their email address? If so, what is the headline and copy used to entice visitors? Also, what categories are used in the blog?
The answer to all of these questions reveal a carefully thought out series of decisions your competitors made.
I recommend setting up an excel sheet with rows and columns and documenting just what you find through this process for each of your competitors.
Now here’s where the common mistake comes that most fall for.
They carefully analyze the way competitors set up their website. Then, after brainstorming and wireframing, they come up with a prototype that combines what they feel were the best ideas along with their own contributions from experience. See the problem?
This process is simply using your competitors decisions as your research. What about your consumers behavior? What about the thought processes your competitors made to reach those decisions?
By basing your decision off your competitors decisions, you’re side-stepping an important practice to success: critical thinking and analysis of why these decisions were made.
This is an all too common trap us digital marketers fall for.
We copy competitors we see as successful without arming ourselves with enough audience insight.
That’s why the next process is golden…
While we don’t have access to our competitors email and ad campaign metrics, we do have something else: online super stores and social discussion sites.
These sites give clear indicators of what content and appeals resonate most with audiences. What’s more, often times many hidden gems can be found that your competitors have yet to mine.
If you have a strong focus on content marketing, ebooks, or whitepapers, Amazon is a great source of valuable insight.
Whatever industry you work for, I can guarantee there are books on the subject available at Amazon. As such, each of these books have a few key things:
By analyzing your niches top selling books with the most engagement, you can get a pulse for what segments your audience is comprised of and what resonates with each of them.
While doing research on the photography niche, for example, I found that there were three basic categories:
Category 1, beginners, appeared to generate the highest sales, reviews, and popularity. Category 2, however, was close in comparison. What’s more, the audience profile of beginners to more specialized learners is quite different. Category 3, conversely, had the lowest sales but a high amount of engagement.
Within these categories, there were certain appeals and book titles that were more successful than others. Additionally, the customer reviews gave a clear idea of how readers responded to the content, what they liked, and what they disliked.
Numerous conclusions can be drawn from this insight.
Along with books, Ebay has a variety of products on sale – many of which likely fit in your industry.
Fortunately, Ebay also allows you to search for recently ended auctions, number of bids given, and questions and comments provided by prospects.
By checking out this data, you can see how products are pitched on the tamed “wild west” of the internet.
As valuable as Ebay is, consider Craigslist the untamed version. Anybody and everyone can post services and products online. As such, you can get a good feel for how your product or service is being sold on there as well.
Sell consulting or services? The services section likely has thousands of posts. These posters, in an attempt to get as many views as possible, continually tweak their headline and copy. As such, you can get a good feel for which appeals seem to work best (and which don’t).
As most all content is user generated, forums are a great source of insight on the needs, desires, and interests of your audience.
Which posts get the most engagement? What topic is discussed?
What do people talk about most? Which emotions tend to be elicited most?
Are audience members “ego-based”, aiming to brag or boast of their achievements? Or are they engaging and helpful?
By seeing the lingo of your audience and how they interact with one another, you can better gauge what messages will resonate with them and how to tailor your content to their personas.
As you can imagine, these are just a few of the many sites online where you can get a better understanding of your audience and industry.
The more time you spend on these sites, the more you’ll pinpoint communication styles, cues, and “online body language”.
With that said, remember the simple equation posed earlier:
Consumer Behavior + Competitor Behavior = Industry Insight
While gathering consumer behavior is important, we don’t want to start from scratch and reinvent the wheel. Our competitors have likely done similar research. Seeing what they’ve done, in combination with what we’ve seen from consumers, makes us more likely to succeed.
Here are a few more areas of competitive research that prove fruitful…
Direct mail. TV Spots. Magazine spreads. Email campaigns. All of these are competitor assets aimed at your consumer. As you’ve gained insight into your audience, its segments, and behavior, seeing what businesses have presented to them allows you to see how communication is being executed.
Dissecting the activities of your competitors is really an art in itself.
What are the key points highlighted in these ads? Is their main benefit the same one you use? If not, how is it different?
What rationale do you think competitors are using to come up with these decisions?
While looking at one ad campaign by itself may not reveal much, that’s where a historical timeline becomes vital.
One such ad channel where you can get historical data easily is banner advertising.
What Runs Where and AdBeat both allow you to see how long a competitor ran a banner ad, where they placed it, and how many impressions it received.
While some ad campaigns are focused solely on impressions and branding, as a general rule, the more an ad is run the more money spent.
As such, banner ads with strong longevity are more likely to be seen as successful to your competitor.
Why else would they keep running it?
Conversely, banner ads with low longevity are likely to have been perceived as failures.
Now we don’t know for certain whether either banner was a success or not. Nevertheless, longevity lets us know that the assets on that banner (the ad copy and design) were perceived as a success.
Again, to immediately assume that a long-running banner is successful and duplicate this approach is to guess. But by adding this insight to our now-expanding industry insight arsenal, we become better aware of how this banner fits into the scheme of things.
Unlike banner ads, data on web content shares is readily available. Sites like BuzzSumo, for example, give us hard numbers on social shares of a given link.
Checking out our competitors sites and which pages received the most shares lets us know how their audience is responding to their content.
We can readily see which posts were most popular and which weren’t.
While the free data provided by Alexa doesn’t reveal much, there is something it does tell you: search queries and source of origin.
This data isn’t the most accurate but it’s still data. And since we aren’t basing our research solely on this source but numerous channels, the value add is worth it.
Simply checking out your competitor sites, you can collect:
This information gives you a feel for who the audience is that is interacting most with your competitor sites.
All five above tactics are quick ways to gain more insight into your competitor and audience behaviors.
The more we can understand how our industry behaves, the better we can shape our own behaviors to cause impact.
For the fact is, there is an enormous pull in human nature for us to repeat the behaviors we’ve already performed.
It’s a déjà vu like situation you’ve likely experienced.
The other day, for example, I drove past a funky house and said a comment to my girlfriend only to realize that it was the exact same comment I said weeks earlier.
This type of situation happens all the time online as well.
I’ve seen customers purchase an eBook they bought years ago without even realizing it. When I catch this, I inform them and give them a refund. But it still amazes me how this happens at least once a month!
Nevertheless, it makes sense.
Someone that buys an XYZ widget is much more likely to buy the same widget – with a slight different presentation or angle. Give enough time to pass and they may even buy the same widget without even knowing it.
We as marketers bore of doing the same things over and over again. And the idea of copying the approach of our competitors can seem repelling to many.
Coming up with new approaches to marketing, however, should never be sparked solely from boredom or guesswork.
Instead, treat your digital marketing strategy and execution like science – based on fact and grounded research.
When you do this, discovering innovation is like clockwork.
Spinoza, a 17th century dutch philosopher, believed to fully comprehend a text, you must study not just sections of it, but the entire work, it’s historical context, and its origin.
The same can be said for your industry.
Build your marketing strategy on grounded, proven principles of behavior known to resonate with your audience.
When you do this, you gain insight that can guide your strategy for years to come.
Consider it an investment.
As such, the more you put into industry insight, the more you’ll get.