How do you make your business stand out and attract leads and customers when everybody else is fighting for the same bits of attention?

We live in an age of fierce global competition. 

The barrier to entering the market today has never been lower. Plenty of your competitors are out there with exceptional products and services.

Let’s face it: yesterday’s standard of excellence is today’s table stakes.

So what’s going on? 

Superior marketing strategies and next-level sales techniques fueled by more funding. That’s what’s going on.

In 2010, the average startup raised $1.3 million. The average seed round was 4.3x higher in 2018. And it looks like it will continue to grow.

That’s what small businesses are competing against → start-ups with venture funding, ready to spend a lot of money on their marketing. 

So how do you level that kind of playing field? How do you tip the scales in your favor if you don’t have that kind of money? 


Competitive intelligence. 

When you use competitive intelligence, you can reach your ideal customers without relying on a giant budget. You can:

  • eliminate the competition with artful positioning
  • command a higher price without adding sales objections
  • increase word-of-mouth with differentiated products customers will love

Gathering competitor intelligence was key to how I doubled an early-stage startup’s annualized revenue in just six months. And I did this using SEO – the exact tool so many marketers will tell you is a “slow” marketing channel. All because I applied the principles of product marketing and copywriting to the field of SEO. 

In this article, I’ll show you how to do it too. You’ll learn how to plan your competitive intel campaigns. Then I’ll share how to gather this information from your customers, the market, and your competitors. 

And there’s a special bonus hidden in here too ;). 

But before we dive into the details, let’s answer the big question:

What is competitive intelligence?

“Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.” – Napoleon Bonaparte

Winning is so much easier when your competitors are making mistakes. But if you don’t know what the competition is doing, could it be you are the one dropping the ball?

That’s why you should study your competition

Studying the competition will give you clarity about your competitors’ weaknesses. And more importantly, it will illuminate your strengths as you close the gap on your flaws. 

Competitive intelligence is the process of gaining key information about the products, customers, and competitors in your market.

Competitive intelligence is the process of gaining key information about the products, customers, and competitors in your market.

However, there’s a crucial thing you need to remember before you start: don’t just gather intel from your direct competitors. 

Harvard professor Clayton Christensen explains that a McDonald’s milkshake competes with Burger King milkshakes. But the milkshake also competes against “bananas and donuts and bagels and coffee and Snickers bars and probably some other things.” 

Knowing what the competition is doing can be the strategic advantage you need in the battle for new customers. And the foundation for competitive research begins by planning your campaign.

Planning your competitive intelligence campaign

“If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.” – Benjamin Franklin

Every time I start gathering competitive intelligence, I feel like I’m in a James Bond film. 

Instead of blindly copying a competitor’s strategy, I study the inner workings of their business to find their weaknesses and identify potential threats.

Just like Bond, you need a plan before you enter enemy territory. Otherwise, you’ll fail your objective. Or worse, you’ll spend all that time and money without anything to show for it. According to competitive intelligence masters Benjamin Gilad and Leonard Fuld , only 45% of companies use the competitive intelligence they collect. So let’s make sure you’re not just another statistic. 

To combat this problem, begin with the end in mind by drafting up your competitive intelligence plan. Here is the 3-step plan I use before setting off on a competitor intel mission.

1. Decide on your business goals

If you don’t have a clear goal, you’ll miss the target every time.

What should your goal be? 

That’s a $64,000 question I can’t answer in a single article. However, here are some common problems I hear from clients, and the solution competitor intelligence can provide.

If you find yourself thinking, “How do I differentiate our product so we don’t look like every other competitor out there?” … then your goal should be positioning your business in a unique, appealing way.

Or maybe you’re wondering, “Where do I best invest our resources to reach new customers?” … then you should focus on discovering which marketing channels are the most cost-effective way to acquire customers.

If you’re asking yourself, “How do I price my product to increase market share without increasing sales objections?” …then you should consider what your pricing strategy should look like.

Whatever your business goals are will determine what information you’ll want to find.

2. Choose what competitor info you want (and what to ignore)

The Internet is a treasure trove of information. It’s also a messy rat’s nest you can get lost in.

If you want to keep your focus, start by choosing what information you’re looking to collect.

For example, if you want to position your business and create a unique sales proposition, you’ll want to know:

  1. What competitors are competing for your customers.
  2. Why your customers switched to your product.
  3. What specific offer you can give to potential customers that reduces their risk.

To figure out what information you need, think about how you can fill in your competitors’ SWOT analysis

If you’re not familiar with a SWOT analysis, you’re looking to understand a company’s:

  1. Strengths: How does a company have an advantage over their competitors?
  2. Weaknesses: Where does a company have a disadvantage compared to others?
  3. Opportunities: What future potential does your company have to grow faster?
  4. Threats: What future trouble could threaten your company?

Specifically, I recommend looking for your competitors’ weaknesses and threats. This is where the money is easier to make because customers are likely dissatisfied with what your competitors offer.

Here’s an example to flesh this out further. 

Let’s say your goal is to figure out which marketing channel you should invest in to get new customers.

Start by looking at the 12 major marketing channels:

Next, narrow down to the top five channels you’re strongest in. It’s easier to start where you’re strong before moving to a new channel. Let’s say YouTube was one of your top five channels.

For a YouTube SWOT analysis, you might want to figure out:

  1. What your competition is doing – Do your competitors have a YouTube channel? How many subscribers do they have? How many views do they get per video? Are they failing to ask people to subscribe to their channel? Is their YouTube SEO weak or strong?
  2. Who else is creating content for these customers – What other YouTube channels are in your niche? How many subscribers and views do they have? Do you know any of these creators and can you partner with them?
  3. What are customers feeling, saying, and doing – What are people saying in the comments section? Do they feel the videos are missing information? Do they feel the quality is low, even though the view count is high?
  4. What you can do differently and better – How can you present the information in a different and more appealing way? Do you know how to do YouTube keyword research? Is your team able to rank videos fast? How well can you get traffic outside of YouTube?

You can apply this same thinking to any marketing channel. I asked Josh Jarvis, SEO Director at Blueprint Digital, how he applies competitive intelligence to SEO and he gave this advice:

“Competitor information is absolutely critical for SEO campaigns to be successful. Typically I look for 3-to-5 competitors in a client’s niche that are dominating the search results. From there, I use tools like Ahrefs and SEMrush to look at our competitors. This helps determine what our team needs to do to help our client start getting organic traffic.

For example, we’ll look at domain authority, a score given to a website for how easy it is to rank a page for a keyword. We’ll also look at other SEO metrics like referring domains, total indexed pages, and traffic estimates. From there, we dive deeper to see who is linking to our competitors to see if we can obtain these links for our client.

With all our competitor research, we’ll look at over 100 metrics to know how to get our clients more organic traffic faster.”

Now that you have decided what information you want, you need to figure out where to get it. 

3. Choose your inside source for competitor info

There are three places I use to get competitor information:

  1. My client’s customers.
  2. Doing market research.
  3. Looking at competitors.

Talking to your customers is your best source of quality competitor intel. 

Hopping on the phone with customers allows you to get a ton of information in a fuller context. As an added bonus, it also strengthens your relationship. Doing 20-30 customer calls is a good starting point.

Doing market research is often your best source of quantitative information.

Social media sites are also gold mines because customers are less likely to filter themselves. Searching for what people are saying about your market and your competition on Reddit and Quora can yield wonders. Twitter is great for up-to-date intel, but people don’t write as much.

You can also use a tool like Pollfish, SurveyMonkey Research, or Google Surveys to run a survey. The tricky thing about survey tools is that you are surveying folks who paid to take your survey. As a result, 10-20% of your results will often not be helpful, even if you qualify the audience correctly. Some of these tools, like Pollfish, allow you to redo these responses for free. 

Review websites like TrustPilot and Yelp are another great source for market research. If the site uses a five-star system, I find 2-and-3-star reviews are often the best for unfiltered, brutally honest reviews. But you’ll find good reviews for any star ratings. If you find reviews with more people recommending the review, the more likely the review will be helpful to your customers.

Keep in mind that reviews can become outdated quickly. A company may have fixed what a customer complained about a year ago.

You can also collect quantitative data from your customers by creating heat maps. 

Besides looking cool and colorful, heat maps allow you to:

  1. Track mouse movement through hover maps.
  2. See where customers are clicking with click maps.
  3. Watch where customers focus their attention with attention maps.
  4. See where customers’ attention drops using scroll maps.

Looking at your competitor’s websites can help you confirm what you’ve already learned.

Copying your competitors isn’t wise when you don’t know why they took action in the first place. But after talking to customers and doing market research, you can confirm what you learn by going to your competitors’ websites and analyzing them.

Now that you have your plan in place let’s look at how you’ll gather the intel to get more growth.

How to gather competitive marketing intelligence

Let’s look at how to get competitive insights from the three sources from your customers, the market and your competitors in a lot more detail.  

1. How to gather competitive insights from your customers

Your customers are your best sources of competitor info. 

When you talk to customers, their frustrations, pains, hopes, and desires are vivid, fresh, and extremely informative. They can tell you why they bought your product over your competitors’. This kind of first-hand information is research gold.

From my experience, most of your customers either:

  1. Have used (or are using) a competing product.
  2. Are aware of products which solve the same problem as your product.

And the best way to get that info is by asking. During a customer interview (like the one we discussed earlier), you can ask your customers about their past or current experience using a competitor’s products. Here are some of my go-to question groups:

  • What made you start looking for our product? What were you thinking about while making your decision? What were your expectations? 
  • How have you tried to solve {{problem}} in the past? Why did that not work?
  • What competitors have you used in the past, or are using alongside our product now? What did you like most about them? What was your biggest complaint? Was that the reason you left them?
  • Imagine you were to talk to a friend/coworker about our product. What would you say about us that you’d be unlikely to say about any other solution like ours?

How can you use this competitor intel to get new customers?

Often the easiest customers to acquire (and for the lowest price) are those who:

  1. are very dissatisfied with their current solution and
  2. would find your solution very valuable

To attract these customers, I recommend creating a comparison page using the interview data you collected. This kind of page compares your product to competing products to educate comparison shoppers.

This article is not on doing customer interviews (this one is). But here are some quick tips to keep in mind if you do them:

1. Ask about the past or the present

Only ask questions about a customer’s past or current situation. People are pretty bad at predicting future events – we overestimate what we’re likely to do. Focus, instead, on what people have already done.

2. Ask open questions

Questions like “How have you tried to solve {{problem}} in the past?” create room for the customer to share their full experience.

3. Ask one question at a time

This reduces the likelihood of overwhelming your customers. At the same time, you may need to re-word or repeat a question to get a better answer.

4. Once you ask a customer a question, stop talking. 

Your job is to listen to what the customer tells you. I recommend recording and transcribing the interview because using the exact phrases a customer uses is one of the easiest ways I’ve found to create high-converting copy.

2. How to gather competitive insights by doing market research

When you’re setting up a survey, make sure the audience you survey matches your potential customers. This is one of the most important steps to high-quality market research. 

With market research tools, you can pay extra to narrow your survey population. For social media sites, you can look up your competitors.

If you’re proactively asking the market questions, I recommend starting with the same questions you ask your customers. Surveys give you more information that you can compare against the data you get from the interviews.

You can also browse Quora, Reddit, and other social media sites by looking up your competitor names. 

I prefer Reddit because people write very detailed responses. Because users can choose to be anonymous, this means you’re more likely to get honest answers. Furthermore, you can see what comments get the most upvotes to quickly find quality information.

Lancer Review is a side project I’m using to test different product marketing ideas I have, so I’ll use it as an example. 

Lancer Review focuses on helping entrepreneurs hire freelancers by researching freelance platforms. To create the Toptal review article, I did a search for Toptal on Reddit:

As you can see, most of the results were not relevant. So I went back to the suggested, relevant subreddits:

If you’re not familiar with Reddit, a subreddit is a community for specific people. Think of it like a forum around a topic. Since Lancer Review’s primary audience are entrepreneurs, I went to the /r/entrepreneur subreddit and re-did my search:

Much better! By clicking on a headline, I can read the discussion and the comments other entrepreneurs wrote.

This information is a fantastic source for premium-grade fuel for your copy.

3. How to gather competitive insights from your competitors

Anytime you gather information from customers or social media, you should double-check to make sure that information is accurate. Make sure to look at their website to check yourself (before you wreck yourself).

Let’s say someone says a competitor is overpriced a year ago on Reddit. Verify by heading to the Wayback Machine to see what the pricing page looked like a year ago. It may be the same as today’s prices, but you want to make sure you present any information about your competitors honestly.

Not only will this reduce potential legal issues, but customers will also begin to trust you more.

Checking your competitor’s marketing channels can help inform which channel has the lowest cost to acquire a customer.

Let’s say you are an eCommerce marketing agency. You know Common Thread Collective is one of your competitors. When checking out their blog, you come across this article on cosmetic marketing

Using an SEO tool like Ahrefs, you find out the article is ranking best for “cosmetic industry revenue.” 

Given what you know about on-page SEO, you recognize this keyword phrase isn’t easy to find in the article. It’s not in the URL, the title tag, the H1, or even H2s. You’ll find different combinations of those words in the article, but not where it matters.

If your goal is to only outrank Common Thread Collective, you have a good shot. Naturally, CTC isn’t your only competition. This is why you need to manually check the search engine results page to gauge how easy it is to rank. But it is a signal to let you know SEO may be easier to rank when competing against CTC.

Final thoughts

Gathering competitor intelligence can help you rise above your competitors.

To do this, start by talking to your customers. They will have the best perspective to help you understand what’s happening in your prospect’s head.

Next, look at what’s happening in the market. You can check out what people are saying about your competitors on sites like Quora or Reddit. This will give you more insight and another data point to consider.

Finally, looking at your competitor’s website. This will allow you to verify the information you found in your research.

Yes, more-and-more competitors are competing for your customers’ wallet. But with competitor intelligence, you’ll be able to tip the scales in your favor.

About the author:

Jason Quey is the CEO and founder of Growth Ramp, a company on a mission to help 1,000 entrepreneurs get their first 1,000 customers. Get his free product marketing course with the principles he used to double (+127%) a startup’s annualized revenue in 6 months.

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