I Spy with My Discerning Eye: A Disciplined Approach to Monitoring Online Competition

By Jenny K. Hill

At my first job, the salespeople were a suspicious bunch. They were vigilant about screening resumes for potential spies. They sought out juicy nuggets of gossip on the road. At trade shows, they instructed me to clear our booth of all marketing materials whenever we were on breaks. (In the meantime, our team was tasked with collecting as many examples of our competitors’ work as we could without causing alarm.)

It felt a little cloak and dagger, but we were in an emerging field and were changing client expectations. We were disruptors before there was a name for it.

Chances are, you've felt the same way at times. Smart business people keep an eye on the competition -- while maintaining their focus on perfecting their products and services.

At Papercut, we take a disciplined approach to evaluating the competition our clients face. As with any art, the instructions will get you just part way there -- discernment of what has value comes with experience, training and a good dose of vision. (You don’t expect me to tell our competitors everything, now do you?)

Step 1 -- Choose who you will watch.

Your competition on the floor at a show may be quite different than your competition online. Know the difference and develop research strategies for each.

Step 2 -- Evaluate the technical prowess of their sites.

Consider basics like mobile friendliness, then dig deeper to study speed and how they’re optimizing the site for search engines. Here are two no-cost tools that measures site speed to get you started: GTmetrix and Think with Google. And Moz’s free MozBar toolbar and Open Site Explorer are great ways to dig into a site’s search engine optimization.

Step 3 -- Explore their sales funnel.

Does your competition approach selling differently than you? Is it better? How are they capturing leads on their site? Do they offer useful resources that help their sales teams close deals? Are you being watched when you’re on their site?

Use your sales smarts to evaluate the “art” of their sales structure. Then, use a browser extension like Wappalyzer to peek behind the curtain and see if they have tools installed to collect data on visitors.

Step 4 -- Walk into their web.

Follow links where they lead -- don’t just take a page at face value. Are there gems hidden that can help you better understand how your competition does business? Even better -- what advantages of your own company do you see missing that you can capitalize on?

Take note of their social media too. Savvy marketers can learn a lot about their competition from the company’s approach to customer service, marketing and HR on social media.

Step 5 -- Know where they’ll be next.

Track your competition's paid digital campaigns along with your own as a benchmark. Using paid tools such as SEMrush with a professional (or Spyfu on your own) will show you what terms your competition is advertising.

In closing, I want to emphasize two words: Discernment and Discipline

When evaluating your competition, I implore you to think carefully about their motivations and identify your opportunities for advantage. Discerning your company’s unique strategy for reaching customers is key for achieving your goals.

Discipline is also important for two reasons. First, the last thing you want to do is plan your digital marketing and company position in reaction to your competitors’ approaches. To quote many a wise mom out there, “You be you.”

That said, don’t study your competition and then forget about them. There’s a reason swimmers want to be in the center lane -- so they can keep an eye on the whole pool. Make a commitment to evaluating your competition on a regular schedule -- every six months should do it for most companies. Online, your competition can change quickly. What was ancient yesterday can be launched shiny and cutting edge tomorrow. (I know -- we do this for clients every day!)

I hope when you evaluate your competition you find that you’re outperforming them from every side. If not, here’s the not-so-secret way to get in touch with me: jenny.hill@papercutinteractive.com.


Jenny K. HIll is a partner at Papercut Interactive, a web development and digital marketing company founded in 2001. Papercut services include custom website design, marketing strategy and digital marketing. Learn more at papercutinteractive.com.