Studying your competitors isn’t just about getting a leg up on them – it’s also a great way to reflect on your own marketing strategy.

Competitive research – what does it mean to your business? Do you equate the concept to “spying” and eschew it outright, or do you already have your competitors wiretapped and under surveillance? Regardless of which camp you’re in, you should know that there’s more to be earned from competitive analysis than just a direct advantage over your competitors. It doesn’t matter how inconsequential you think it may be: all SMBs can benefit from studying their competitors.

To get the most value from your competitive research, ask yourself the following questions:

1. Am I learning the right lessons?

In order for competitive research to work, it has to be both insightful andapplicable . Say you run a store that sells used clothing – it may be very insightful to know that the store next to yours ranks #1 in a Google search for “shoes”, but it’s not applicable to your business if nobody searching “shoes” is looking for used shoes.

Whenever you gain insight, you need to look at it through a critical lens and make sure acting on it will result in a win for your business. The most rewarding research gives you applicable insight and can change the way you operate – even offline.

For example, if you notice a significant number of alerts and mentions from competitors and local influencers (follow the weatherman and see who follows him/her in turn!) about “snow pants”, chances are there’s an opportunity to satisfy excess demand. You may want to stock up on snow pants and even run a promotion to edge out competition, benchmarking competitors’ previous campaigns.

2. Am I staying up to date?

Competitive research isn’t a one-and-done task. You should be building it into your routine. It’s not as difficult as it sounds – once you get comfortable with the tools available, acting on insight becomes effortless. More importantly, you’ll begin to naturally pick up insight as you go – paying extra attention and seeing things you hadn’t noticed about your competitors’ digital strategies before.

To get yourself in the habit, we suggest setting aside a few minutes each day to perform a simple exercise:

  1. Visit a competitor’s website, social media profile or other online resource.
  2. For social media analysis : write down the subject of the most recent postssince your last visit, along with the engagement they’ve received (number of likes, comments, etc).
  3. For website analysis : choose a page and pull the keywords – one way to do this is via the meta keywords field, or you can use a tool like  SpyFu  for help.
  4. Analyze your own website or social media profiles against what you’ve found – are they outranking you in an area that you really should be beating them in? Why? Take quick notes.
  5. If you can action any quick wins (e.g. changing the content of a page slightly or tweeting a new hashtag), go for it, but don’t worry.
  6. Write out a plan that includes anything that could help you succeed. This could be an extensive series of blog posts syndicated to new social channels, or it could simply be adding a new product to your online store that wasn’t previously available.

The next step is to action those items, but there’s no hurry at the beginning. You should be more concerned with getting into a good routine and growing your understanding of what your competitors are up to. You’ll need to get things off the ground eventually, but waiting a bit and doing things properly is smarter than taking stabs in the dark.

3. Am I covering all the bases?

Competitive analysis is easier than ever, but also much deeper than ever before. There’s an ocean of insight out there. Cast a wide net and worry about the big fish later.

John Jantsch (Twitter: @ducttape ) over at Duct Tape Marketing has identified what he considers to be the four key components of competitive research :

  • Alerts

Set up alerts to track how your brand (and your competitors’) is being mentioned, then adjust your plan based on what you find successful within your vertical or target audience.

  • Online Advertising

Finding out which advertisements are working for your competitors will help you decide which will work for you. Let them do the research while you maximize ROI based on the insight.

  • Content

Take a look at what your competitors are writing about. If it resonates with the same audience you’re targeting, deconstruct the piece and expand on any areas you’re an expert in. Finding subpar articles and creating something ten times better is a successful strategy when done right.

  • SEO

Dig through competitors’ keywords to see what they’re targeting. It doesn’t mean you have to compete – in fact, you may see a quick-win opportunity in optimizing for a keyword that your competitors have forgotten.

4. Am I using the right tools?

There are more tools than ever right now – a quick Google search turns up loads of results, but here are a few we can vouch for. (And no, we’re not getting anything in return for sharing these.)

  • Keyword discovery tools

SEMRush  – simply one of the best tools out there right now, with robust features and a great support team.
SpyFu  – generate loads of insight into your competitors’ keywords. Very handy if you’re not quickly able to determine what your competitors are targeting.

Google Keyword Planner  – at times frustrating, but this is from the horse’s mouth, so don’t ignore it. Not as strong as a competitive tool, but great for tracking your own progress once you’ve borrowed some insight.

  • Content analysis tools

BuzzSumo  – find the most popular articles and keep an eye on major influencers via the share tracking functionality.

Feedly  – track articles in your vertical and use advanced search to track mentions.

  • SEO factor tools

Monitor Backlinks  – it’s very likely that your competitors are being linked to by resources that would also gladly link to you. Grab some quick wins by reaching out to any “gaps” between you and your competitors.

5. Does my campaign match the means and goals of my business?

In the end, it’s up to you to decide how you utilize information from your competitors. Some will take a very proactive approach, benchmarking every little aspect and investing heavily in defeating it. Others will remain passive, using the insight to better understand their own market without directly attempting to beat the competition.

Regardless of your approach, there’s no question that competitive research is both valuable and easily integrated into your marketing campaign – no matter how extensive or conservative it is.

Sometimes it’s smart to pull in outside help, especially when it comes at a fair price from experts who perform these activities as a profession. At Spotzer , we rely heavily on competitive research in the work we do for our SMB clients. By studying local markets around the globe, we’re able to constantly hone our best practices and apply insight across markets – allowing us to advise SMBs as knowledgeable leaders in their local area.