Digital marketing has changed everything. Years ago, it would have been nearly impossible to know a competitor’s marketing strategy without gaining insider information or posing as an employee.
Today, it’s a very different story.
With competitive analysis tools like Ahrefs, SEMRush, SimilarWeb, among others, you can learn anything and everything about your competitors (without their knowledge).
From the keywords they’re targeting, to the way they’re building links, there’s nothing you can’t learn from a few clicks of a mouse.
And that’s exactly what we’re going to explore today, system-by-system, step-by-step.
So, if you’ve ever wanted to learn how your competitors are acquiring, converting and retaining new customers, what email campaigns they’re sending and more, this article is for you.
How to Do a Competitive Analysis (Step-by-Step)
I struggled for years in business.
Often, I searched for articles—like the one you’re reading—to learn how to analyze other sites’ marketing strategies.
But time and time again, I found content that focused on what to do rather than how to do it.
This is NOT one of those articles.
Below are five crucial steps that will help you conduct an effective competitor analysis, steps that, when followed, are predictable and repeatable:
3. Determine their link building strategy
4. Reverse-engineer their onboarding emails
Let’s discuss each step in detail.
Step 1. Identify Your Competitors
We all have companies we’re competing with for customers.
You’re probably familiar with many of them. But chances are there’s a few you haven’t heard of.
Discovering who you’re competing against is often as easy as typing one of your target keywords into Google and seeing who shows up in the search engine results pages (SERPs).
Let’s say you’re a SaaS business building billing and invoicing software for freelancers.
Here’s what I found when I typed in “invoicing software”:
Often, you will need to narrow your search by adding a “modifier” to your search query.
Here’s what I found when I searched for “invoicing software for contractors” (it was a Google related search term):
Shortlist.co didn’t show for our initial search, but they did for our follow-up. This emphasizes the importance of trying multiple search queries until you’re confident you’ve exhausted all variations of your keyword.
If direct competitors are sites you’re competing with for customers, organic competitors are sites you’re competing with for keywords.
And if you’re investing in content marketing, you’re going to have your work cut out for you.
For example, we have a popular blog post on customer testimonials. It ranks on page one and generates a TON of traffic. And for that reason, many sites—direct competitors or otherwise—are jockeying for that position. It’s nothing personal; it’s simply the nature of the content marketing game (and we play by the same rules).
If content marketing is an important acquisition channel for you, organic competitors will require a LOT of attention. After all, if readers aren’t clicking onto your site—or they are, but they’re not finding what they’re looking for—they’re going to click on someone else’s.
Once you have an overview of who you’re competing with, create a spreadsheet and add any sites you’re going to closely monitor. Then, using a site like Ahrefs or SEMRush, include key metrics like the number of referring domains, organic search traffic, and anything else you think might be useful.
We like Airtable because there’s a feature to alternate between different “views” for your data, allowing you to specify how you look at your information:
Takeaway. Often, it’s not the Goliaths you’re competing with; it’s the Davids, the underdogs who can’t afford to make costly mistakes in their marketing. Note down as many direct and organic competitors as you can before moving on.
Step 2. Analyze Their Keywords
Today, 70% of the buyer’s journey begins online.
And that journey begins with keywords.
It’s no surprise, then, that 53% of marketers say blog content creation is their top inbound marketing priority.
In our experience, gaining an advantage in the SERPs is a game of one-upmanship: identify keywords with a high search volume and traffic potential, and create content targeting those keywords.
Now I know what you’re thinking:
“But how do I know which keywords to target?”
By “borrowing” your competitors’.
As mentioned above, if you’re investing in content marketing, it’s crucial you target the right keywords for your content.
Much of this will be influenced by your industry, your buyer persona(s) and more importantly, where they are in the buyer’s journey.
But a good part of it will also be influenced by what’s already working.
And by that, I mean what your competitors are doing and achieving results with.
This might be traffic they’re generating, keywords they’re targeting, links they’re acquiring, etc..
Remember: you don’t need to reinvent the wheel; you simply need to do more of what works.
Here’s an example:
Let’s say you’re in the CRM niche and you’re using content to generate traffic to your site in the hopes of converting a percentage of that traffic into customers.
One option would be to analyze your competitor’s top pages and identify potential target keyword opportunities.
Here’s how to do that:
First, go to Ahrefs and plug in a competitor’s URL. In this example, I’m using Pipedrive:
Then, click “Pages > Top Pages”:
You now have a 30,000-foot overview of Pipedrive’s top performing content, but let’s take it a step further.
They have an article on “cold calling scripts” that accounts for 55% of their traffic. Maybe there’s potential to outrank it?
To get started, we first need to know the post’s target keyword.
Usually, this is as simple as looking at the post’s permalink:
As we can see, “cold calling scripts” is included in the permalink.
So far, so good.
Now, let’s determine if it’s a keyword worth prioritizing.
Plug the keyword into Ahref’s Keyword Explorer:
This will give you its volume, traffic potential, and other important metrics:
With a healthy search volume and traffic potential, “cold calling scripts” is probably worth targeting.
However, what is also important is its keyword difficulty.
With only eight backlinks needed to rank in the top 10, there’s potential to not only rank well but also generate a ton of traffic in the process.
So, how could you outrank Pipedrive’s blog post (or as a minimum, rank alongside it)?
One approach, as you’re probably familiar with by now, is to try “The Skyscraper Technique”.
But here’s the thing:
Often, it’s not enough to write content that’s better, more up-to-date, better designed or more thorough. After all, anyone can build on the number if it’s a list post (which, given the number in the Pipedrive example, would be easy to expand on).
A better approach is to combine two topics. For example, we knew “email marketing” was a keyword we wanted to target. But due to its keyword difficulty, we knew it was going to be hard to rank for.
So, we added a modifier—“e-commerce”—and approached it from another angle. The keyword didn’t change, but the audience became more targeted. Incidentally, it’s now one of the most popular blog posts on our blog.
If we return to our “cold calling scripts” example, one way of skyscraping the post might be to write an article on how to write cold calling scripts of your own, rather than relying on templates.
Using a tool like SEMRush’s Content Template will give you recommendations on what semantically related keywords to include, which domains you need backlinks from, and how your competitors are using your target keywords.
Like you did in Step 1, add any potential blog post topics to your spreadsheet with important metrics like search volume, traffic potential, and anything else you think you might need.
Many sites pay for keywords. And if they do, it’s likely many of them have high search volume and traffic potential.
Granted, it isn’t always possible (especially when the majority are branded keywords), but when it works, it gives you a deeper insight into a competitor’s acquisition strategy.
To access a competitor’s paid keywords, type in a competitor URL in Ahrefs and go to “Paid Search > PPC Keywords”.
Here’s an overview for Pipedrive’s paid keywords (sorted by volume):
Authority domains (like Pipedrive), tend to have mostly branded keywords, but if you scroll down, you’ll sometimes unearth a few hidden gems:
As you can see, “sales funnel template” gets a decent search volume. Could you create content targeting that keyword?
Of course, validating blog post topics is only the beginning. But it will give you a solid foundation to build from when creating content.
Takeaway: Using a tool like Ahrefs or SEMRush, analyze your competitors’ organic and paid keywords and note down any you can create content for.
Step 3. Determine Their Link Building Strategy
We all know it by now, but it bears repeating:
You can have the best content in your industry, but if no one is linking to it it’s unlikely to have any longevity.
Link building is more important than ever. But with more than 2 million blog posts published every day, increasing your site’s visibility in the SERPs is getting harder.
So, how do you outperform your competitors (without breaking your budget)?
By analyzing their backlink profile.
Here’s the deal:
No two sites are the same.
Some brands acquire links naturally. Others work hard to build links through outreach and other link building strategies.
In truth, there are hundreds of ways to build links, each with their own degree of difficulty.
So, with that in mind, you need to determine how a competitor is building links and whether it’s something you can model.
An e-commerce site like Birchbox builds a ton of links through content (a rarity for e-commerce):
Others, meanwhile, rely on good ol’ fashioned PR (having a unique value proposition or angle is essential here). Below are high authority sites linking to Freshly, an American meal delivery service:
Analyzing a competitor’s link profile can tell you a lot about their growth and even their SEO campaigns.
For instance, let’s return to our Freshly example. If we analyze their referring domains, we can see one month saw a sharp increase in activity.
A jump like that can be due to a number of reasons. In Freshly’s case, they received an investment from Nestlé and many authority sites covered the story including The New York Times…
…and The Neue Zürcher Zeitung…
Of course, examples like the above are rare and hard to model, so let’s look at another example, one that’s likely a result of an outreach campaign.
Similar to Freshly, Ties.com also saw a dramatic increase in referring domains, only it wasn’t accidental (what is it about July?):
Around that time, Ties.com created an infographic around one of their most frequently asked questions:
“How do I tie a necktie?”
While it’s impossible to know for certain, it’s likely Ties.com did a TON of outreach to promote it, because in the months that followed they acquired over 1,000 backlinks:
So, if you’re in a similar industry (one where you, too, have frequently asked questions) you could create an infographic and build links to it from similar sites.
Speaking of which…
If you’ve ever tried to build a link to your site, you’ll know timing is everything. If a site has recently linked to a competitor, they’re more likely to link to you if your content is better, more thorough, etc. That’s why I recommend you set aside time once a week to review any new link building opportunities you can capitalize on.
Here’s how to do that:
First, go to “Alerts” in Ahrefs:
Then, click “New Alert”, type in a competitor domain, select “New backlinks” under “Scope” and “Weekly” under “Interval”:
And that’s it. You’ll now get notified weekly when a site links to a competitor.
Takeaway. Link building it HARD. That much is a given. But it’s a lot easier when you know how your competitors are building links—and who’s linking to them. Setup processes like Ahref Alerts to ensure you’re always one step ahead.
Step 4. Reverse-Engineer Their Onboarding Emails
A company’s email marketing strategy will tell you a lot about their goals and why they’re sending the emails they’re sending.
After all, each email will have a specific goal in the hopes of nudging you to become a customer.
If you’re serious about analyzing your competitors’ email marketing strategies, I recommend (1) creating a new email account specifically for collecting emails and (2) creating labels in Gmail (and have their emails skip your inbox). Without either, your inbox will quickly become overcrowded, making it harder to review competitor emails.
You might be doing this already, but if you’re not, go to a competitor’s site and opt in for a lead magnet or join their newsletter (avoid using your work email for obvious reasons).
After you’ve gone through their onboarding flow (if they have one), ask yourself:
- How frequently do they email?
- What types of marketing email do they send?
- How do they write their email subject lines?
- What are their email calls-to-action (CTAs)?
My colleague, Rikke, recently began a free trial with Squarespace and was able to go through all their onboarding emails to analyze what they’re doing.
Going through competitor campaigns and workflows like this will give you opportunities to pick up on any little details you wouldn’t have known otherwise.
For example, Squarespace number their emails for the user so they know how far through the onboarding process they are.
CoSchedule are also a good example of a site to pay attention to, especially since they send emails that look like they come from a real person:
Details like the above might not seem like much, but when added together they make a big difference.
Takeaway. Sign up for your competitors’ emails and go through them, one-by-one, to identify anything they’re doing that you’re not—and then make the necessary changes.
Step 5: Piece Together Their Remarketing Strategy
According to recent research, 96% of people who visit your site don’t convert to a lead or sale.
Worse yet, 70% of visitors that add a product to their shopping cart abandon the process before completing their order.
It’s no surprise, then, remarketing is a go-to strategy for many marketers…
And Larry Kim is no exception.
In fact, in 18 months, remarketing allowed Wordstream to increase their repeat visitors by 50%, boost conversion by 51%, and increase their on-site time by 300%.
While analyzing a competitor’s remarketing campaigns isn’t as easy as the preceding steps, it is possible, but you need to be patient because it takes time.
To get remarketed, go to a competitor’s site. In the below example, I’m using ReferralCandy as I visited their site recently (they have an amazing blog):
Shortly after, log in to Facebook and pay attention to your news feed and sidebar (note: you need to ensure you don’t have AdBlock enabled if you’re using Chrome). Guess what I found in my news feed after visiting ReferralCandy’s site?
If a competitor’s remarketing to you, it’s worth taking a screenshot of their ad as it’s likely they’ll show you different ads on different days, depending on the length of their retargeting flow. (Our retargeting flow runs for 40 days so we have plenty of time to showcase our content, our product and more.)
Click on the link and make note of where they’re directing you. Are they pushing you to download a lead magnet, begin a free trial or something else?
When I click on ReferralCandy’s ad, I’m redirected to a landing page to start a free trial:
Sometimes, clicking the URL will also hint to whom they’re targeting and why.
Compass, for instance, retargeted me because they viewed me as a potential partner for their program:
Asana, on the other hand, viewed me as a potential customer because we’re a customer of a competitor, Favro, and they’re using a lookalike audience):
Granted, information like the above isn’t always available (especially if your competitors aren’t investing in remarketing.) But if they are, and you have the patience to go through their marketing funnel, top to bottom, it might give you the advantage you’re looking for.
Takeaway. If you’re using AdBlocker, turn it off and take screenshots of any competitors ads you see on Facebook or other sites. Click on the links and try to reverse-engineer their retargeting strategy.
Doing a competitor analysis is a proven and reliable way of growing your business. And in this blog post, I’ve shown you exactly how to do that.
But it’s important to mention here analyzing your competitors will only get you so far.
You have everything you need to compete with them, that much is a given. But, to surpass them, you need to be original.
As Srini Rao says, “Don’t be the best, be the ‘only.’”
Because if you can do that, and you can secure your fair share of the market, who knows…
Maybe one day your competitors will analyze you.