During this 3Q Accelerate Week, we’re sharing our top tips and best practices for Challenger companies: the new competitor on the scene going up against competitors who are already established (and may have greater resources).

Today, we’re thinking about how you can stay on top of competitors across the funnel and adapt your strategies and media touchpoints to keep this in mind.

From creative to targeting and keyword selection, one of the biggest factors that can impact your digital media strategy is not just what tests you’ve run and data you’ve gathered, but what your competitors are currently doing. While we can’t necessarily find (and “borrow”) that “secret sauce” that might be working for competitors, it is always important to consider how your ad experience and coverage stacks up against theirs.

After all, users these days are more likely to research online before buying – according to the eCommerce Foundation, 88 percent of consumer pre-research their buys online before making a purchase either online or in-store. This means they’re giving off all the same intent signals for your competitor to target. When building your own media plan, you have to assume users doing their research are interacting with your competitors’ ads and messaging, not just yours.

Here are a few tools and tactics to help keep an eye on what your competitors are doing.

Your competitors might be ahead, but you can catch up.

SEMRush + SpyFu

When you’re feeling lost for new keywords, these two are here to save you. Simply search for your competitor’s URL, and you’ll see a list of keywords your competitor is known to be bidding on, as well as volume and cost estimate data. Data can be a bit scarce for smaller companies, but if you’re a David researching your Goliath, you should have enough to work with. In addition to the keyword list, these sites also estimate how much your competitor spends on AdWords per month.

However, take this data with a mighty grain of salt, especially when it comes to spend estimates; we find that the “estimated monthly search spend” field often drastically underestimates the true spend, even by as much as 10x. Instead, leverage it as a high-level diagnostic to compare multiple competitors’ spends against each other. Also not completely trustworthy? The volume and CPC estimates. Cross-reference with Google Keyword Planner – neither tool is 100% accurate, but using both can at least give you more confidence.

Pro tip: Check for more than new keyword inspiration; also include tokens/modifiers (“best,” “2018,” “near me”) you can use to expand your existing set.

AdEspresso, Moat

For all things creative, these two tools are some of the most helpful out there. AdEspresso shows you recent Facebook ads from other brands, while Moat shows the banner ads they’ve been serving. Because both serve you a lot of examples at once, it’s easy to get a high-level feel for your competitors’ recent campaigns – are they using a lot of product shots, or lifestyle? How much copy on their ads? From there, drill in deeper and look at a few individual ones that you think are likely to catch a user’s eye. Any interesting taglines? What about CTAs – anything you can “borrow” to test on your own audiences?

As with the search research sites, AdEspresso and Moat do have their limitations – the content isn’t always the newest, sometimes ads get mismatched to the wrong brand name, and it can be hard to find examples for smaller/mid-size companies. However, these can both provide some great insight into the look/feel of what your audiences are encountering as they browse online.

Pro tip: Take a look at more than one competitor here to get a feel for creative in this space overall, then try to identify what “gaps” you can fill to stand out. Are most people testing static images rather than an engaging video? Can you show lifestyle impact more clearly, while others focus on product?

Go Guerilla

Even outside the platforms I mentioned above (which can gate certain content for paid subscribers, which might not always be feasible for Challengers to tack onto their marketing budget), there are plenty of ways to creatively spy on competitors with almost no effort.

  • Raise Your Hand for Remarketing: Plain and simple, just visit your competitor’s site semi-regularly and interact like a shopper. If they’re worth their salt, you’ll be followed by their retargeting campaigns before you know it. Pay attention to how frequently you’re seeing these ads, if you can find any particular strategy to the messaging you’re seeing, or if they’re offering any promotions to retargeting audiences.
  • Join the Mailing List: Even less effort? Join their email mailing list, and their most recent marketing efforts will appear in your lap regularly. You’ll know exactly when they’re doing sales, pushing specific products/verticals, etc. See if they use any clever subject lines that might be worth imitating in an email or ad to grab attention effectively!
  • Search Regularly: Lastly, I know it sounds basic, but even just regularly doing a quick search for your top-priority keywords on Google can be useful – users are deciding between you and your competitors directly when they click, so it’s all about that ad copy. Monitor competitors for any aggressive copy, new extension ideas, etc.

Pro tip: Don’t just pay attention to the ads, but also check what landing pages they’re driving you to! Any inspiration (or cautionary tales) you can draw from this?

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Madeline Fitzgerald
Madeline joined 3Q Digital as Strategy Development Manager in September 2016. She is a Southern California native who graduated from the University of Chicago with a degree in English—then rushed right back to the sun and beaches. Outside of marketing, Madeline loves reading, enchiladas, and Oxford commas.