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What You Can Learn From Spying on the Competition

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This post is part of a series called Strategic Planning for Your Microbusiness.
How to Uncover Hidden Goldmines and Lurking Monsters
How to Get to Know Your Customers

All you have to do to find the secrets of success is to start spying on your competitors. By seeing what successful businesses in your niche are up to, you can copy the strategies they use to prosper.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to go undercover and bring back secrets you can use for your business.

You can complete this mission from the comfort of your home office. Everything you need is available for anyone to see. The trick is in knowing where to look.

If you feel guilty about spying, remember you're not doing anything wrong. You're just using information anyone can access to give your business a competitive advantage. It's all legit and above-board. Treat it like an adventure. See yourself as James Bond on a secret mission.

In this article, I'll show you what you can learn from spying on the competition, and I'll give you a peek into the spy's toolbox. Let's get to it.

Note: In business jargon, this process is called a "competitor analysis". If you've been following our series on business planning, you'll know we've dispensed with the typical jargon to make your business pursuit feel fresh and stimulating.

What You Can Learn from Spying on the Competition

You can pick up a ton of valuable information for your business plan from your spying mission. This includes:

  • Pricing. By seeing what your competitors charge, you'll discover what is a fair price for your products or services. You'll see what customers are willing to pay, and you can decide whether you'll compete on price (by undercutting your rivals), or in another area, such as product quality or customer service.
  • Marketing. The marketing efforts of your competitors are out there for all to see. By seeing what marketing campaigns are working for your competitors, you'll discover what might work for you. With this information, you can choose to stay safe and follow the crowd, or branch out and try something completely new.
  • Recruitment strategies. How do they put together their team? What's their strategy for finding good people? Where do they place recruitment ads? You'll also see what skill-sets you might need when hiring people to help you run your business.
  • What's missing from the marketplace. Have your competitors covered all bases? By looking at how your competitors operate, you can see if they're missing a trick. You can take advantage of the gap in the market by positioning yourself in the place they've overlooked.
  • How they do customer service. By observing how your competitors interact with their customers, you can see what it takes to keep customers satisfied in your industry.

Who Should You Spy On?

How you use your new spying skills is up to you. It's worth setting aside an hour or two every week to keep yourself in the loop about what your competitors are up to.

The best businesses to spy on are those that are successful in your niche. You can't absolutely know which businesses are successful, but you can look for clues. These include:

  • Looking for businesses with a big social media following. The more followers they've got on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest, the better they're doing.
  • Scanning the ads that come up when you do a Google search in your niche. If they've got money to splash on ads, they're either desperate, or (more likely, as desperate companies don't last long), they've got a solid ad strategy for generating leads.
  • Checking their ranking on Google when you search for their products or services. The closer they are to page one of search results for key terms, the better they're doing.
  • Looking at the Alexa Page Rank of their website. Again, higher ranks are better.
  • Conducting a Google News search and seeing how many news stories they appear in. If they're getting the attention of the press, especially if the newspapers are trumpeting their success, they're doing something right.

Don't only look at established, successful businesses. You can learn a lot by looking elsewhere.

Seeking out businesses that are failing, or struggling to survive is an education. You can pick up on what they did wrong, so you don't make the same mistakes.

It's also worth keeping your eyes open for up and coming businesses. If they're hot property and growing fast, they're doing something right.

Already, through the process of evaluating businesses to spy on, you've learned a lot. Now it's time to open your spy's toolbox and dig a little deeper.

Your Spy Toolbox

Where can you get all this in-depth information on your competitors?

Start with their Website

Checking out their website, you'll see how they conduct business. On their site, you'll find:

  • Products. What do they sell? What don't they sell? Do they focus on a few products or services, or do they have a broad range?
  • Prices. What's their price point?
  • Design. What colors do they use on their site? How is their site structured? How much do they use images? What framework is the site built on (Wordpress, Drupal, etc.)? How does the design reflect the products or services they sell?
  • Copy and personality. Is their copy formal or laid back? Do they talk to their customers like friends or like business partners? Look out for keywords that come up again and again. You might want to target these for your SEO.
  • Contact page. How easy is it to find? What are the options for getting in touch? Take notes, as we'll be using this information in a moment.
  • Blog. Do they have one? If so, what do they blog about? Which blog posts get the most shares or comments on social media? This is valuable information when you're deciding what to blog about.

Also, take note of the differences between the websites in your niche. What do your competitors do with their websites to stand out from the crowd?

Follow Them on Social Media

After you've looked at their websites, go to their social media accounts. Here you'll find:

  • Company news. So you can see what they're up to. What changes are they making at the company? Do they appear to be growing? If they're expanding, that means there are opportunities for you, too.
  • Promotions, offers and contests. These give you insight into how they promote their products, and therefore how you could promote your products.
  • The types of update they share. Do they use images, video, links, or text updates? Which updates get the most engagement from their fans and followers? What's the content of their updates? Do their updates entertain, inspire, or share useful information?
  • Customer queries. Do customers get in touch with them on social media? What are their customers asking about? Do similar problems come up over and over again? How do they respond to customers? What could they do better or differently?
  • Long term campaigns Do they have their own hashtag? If not, what hashtags do they use?
  • Who they follow. Where are they getting their business advice and tips from? These are likely to be good people for you to follow too.

All of these can give you insight into developing your own social media strategy, and into the best ways to connect with customers.

When you're checking them out on social media, don't just look at their official business account. Take a look at the personal account of their CEO, too.

See Where They're Making Headlines

Following the news is a great way to see what your competitors are up to day-to-day. You can also see the events that are impacting on them, good and bad.

The easiest way to stay updated on industry news is through a Google alert. You can set up alerts for individual companies, or for your industry as a whole.

When you're creating the alert, set the Result type to News.

Here's an alert I created for ecommerce:

You can set up an alert for any Google search you can think of. One way to keep a particularly close eye on your competitors is to set up an alert for their website. That way, you get to see any changes they make to their site, such as new products they list.

To do this, create an alert using the following format:


Then, set the Result type to Everything.

Get in Touch

A final way to keep tabs on competitors is to get in touch with them. You can do this in one of two ways.

You can make contact playing the role of a customer, a bit like a mystery shopper. You can ask a question about one of their products, or get more information on pricing. The main aim of this exercise is to see how they interact with customers. How quickly do they get back to you? Are they formal or relaxed when they talk to you? What about their customer service makes you feel good?

Alternatively, just drop the company founder a line. Let them know you're setting up in the same niche, and you're networking with others in the industry. Chances are, some will become your friends, and could even become valuable members of your Mastermind Group.

Your Turn

I'm curious to know if you've ever done a competitor analysis. If so, what did you find out? Do you have any other strategies for keeping an eye on what your competitors are up to?

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