How to Become Your Company’s Own CIA Agent: Competitive Intelligence Analysis for Social Media and SEO
By Justin Thomas

If your company is mostly focused on your own website and social media channel’s data, you are missing a huge piece of the data-pie, and hopefully this article will help you to realize the goldmine of insight that is competitive intelligence. But don’t be too bummed out! In this article you’ll find action-items that will help you get started on the way to becoming a bona fide CIA agent. If you’re already familiar with competitive intelligence (CI) read-on, hopefully there are some tips and tricks that will help grow your knowledge in this invaluable area of digital analytics.


Preliminary CI Caveats and Disclaimers

There are a few important things to understand before you enter the world of competitive intelligence.

  1. As with all online data, you must learn to be comfortable with ambiguity and imperfection!

There are 8 sources most secondary competitive research tools use:  toolbars, panels, ISP data, search engines, self-reported, scraped/indexed, hybrid, and external voice-of-customer. Data from sources is not exact, and that’s all right because CI is not an exact science.

Because each secondary CI tool has its own “secret-sauce” for data collection (see the 8 sources listed above), no competitive intelligence tool will ever precisely match a separate CI tool. Making comparisons within a tool can be extremely beneficial, but comparing two different CI tools is not like comparing apples-to-apples. Secondary CI tools will also never match your site-analytics tool (Google Analytics, Sitecatalyst, Webtrends etc). Your site analytics, or primary data will be far more accurate than a secondary CI tool (as long as you have installed it correctly). Imagine that you are a bouncer standing at the door of a nightclub, counting each person who enters with a clicker device to make sure the club does not exceed capacity. This is similar to your web analytics tool. Now imagine you are standing on the roof of a skyscraper 100 miles away with a high powered telescope and trying to take the same count. This will be similar to your CI tool. So avoid comparing CI tools and web analytics tools. Trust me, you are only setting yourself up for disappointment and confusion if you do.

As with all analysis our goal with CI is to gain insight in context, and the important thing is that we are comparing apples-to-apples. Just choose one tool for each objective/report and stick with it. (We’ll recommend some tools we like later on but there are a plethora of others in the mix so feel free to explore.)

  1. Smaller sites may need to skip direct-competitor CI for websites.

Unfortunately, for most direct-competitor site CI tools websites with under 100,000 unique visitors per month will not produce data that is accurate enough to base your decisions on. The more traffic your website and your direct competitors get, the more accurate the data will be (sites with over 1.5 million unique visitors per month should start to see similar trends to their primary web analytics data).

Fortunately for the smaller sites, some of the ecosystem-centric CI tools are still very useful (more info on the distinction between these 2 types of tools below).


2 Types of Competitive Intelligence

There are two forms of competitive intelligence. Both are equally important and it is best to complete both if you want to see the whole picture.

  1. Direct-Competitor Analysis

This type of analysis measures performance of a company or brand against one or several of its direct competitors. This method requires building a list of competitors based on your analysis goals and business model. You should usually choose sites and social channels with a similar business model to get the best insight. These might not be the brands you think, so choose carefully.

  1. Ecosystem-Centric Analysis

This form of CIA looks at a broader range of competitors, typically all sites or social channels that fall into a specific industry, vertical or niche.


Holistic CIA for Websites

Competitive intelligence tools such as Compete and SimilarWeb help us to benchmark our website by comparing performance, identifying the impact of changes in marketing strategy, giving insight into digital tactics that are working and not working for us and competitors, giving us ideas for new potential tactics and more. Google Analytics Benchmarking reports can also help with ecosystem-centric analysis.

Following are some specific areas where CI tools can provide insight:

Behavior and Outcomes – Most CI tools will give you information on total traffic as well as behavioral metrics like time on site, bounce rate, return visit % and pages per visit. It is important to monitor the trend in performance against competitors over time, but more important to dive-in and see what exactly is causing these differences in performance.

Demographics – Many CI tools will show you a breakdown of age, gender, income and more for your site and your competitive set.

Interests – This is typically more useful than demographic data because it shows us behavior and gives us insight into intent. We can see what other types of websites our competitors typically visit.

Mobile vs. Desktop Traffic – Over 52% of web traffic is on a mobile device as of 2015 and mobile-optimization is more important than ever. CI will show you how you stack-up against the competition in terms of mobile optimization.

Traffic Acquisition – Perhaps the most important data you’ll find in a CI tool and the most accurate since CI vendors have direct-access to this information. Use your CI tools to see what sources of traffic (specific social channels, search engines, affiliate sites, email campaigns, display advertising, paid search, etc.)

This analysis should raise questions about why your website is better or worse at each marketing channel compared to the competitors. By diving deeper you will be able to recommend optimizations for your websites key performance indicators.


CIA for Search Engine Optimization

Now that we have a macro-view of our website performance against competitors we should dive deeper and look at the micro-view. Since search engines are often the biggest and best quality source of traffic we’ll start there.

Not only will CI help us measure how we are doing at SEO compared to competitors, it can actually help us effectively reverse-engineer their strategy so that we can pinpoint how and where to beat them.

Start by looking at the overall trend in traffic from organic search compared to competitors using a CI tool like Compete or SimilarWeb. Are any of your competitors beating you at search? If so, let’s find out why.

Analyze your main competitors SEO strategy in terms of 1. Keywords 2. Backlinks and 3. Landing pages

SEMRush is a fantastic tool for competitive keyword research (among other things). Type in any website URL and it will spit-out a list of top keywords. This analysis can give you an idea of keywords you might be able to compete on.

Once you have done all of your keyword research (a topic for another article) pop each keyword into the search engine to see the results page. Use tools like MOZ Bar’s SERP analysis or SEOBook’s Toolbar to help you determine how competitive each result on the landing page is and precisely why.

Dive into Open Site Explorer and Ahrefs to understand perhaps the most important piece of the picture, the quantity and quality of backlinks driving traffic to competitor’s landing page. MOZ’s page-grader tool will help you understand how well your landing pages are optimized for the keyword compared to your competitors.

Done correctly, competitive analysis will help you create benchmarks for overall search traffic as well as optimize your keywords, content, link-building and landing page strategy for SEO.


Social CIA

Social media enters us into an entirely new realm of competitive intelligence. Companies that win at social recognize that an investment in their brand’s conversational marketing will ultimately lead to long-term wins. Those looking solely for short-term wins might be better off focusing on another channel like email or affiliate marketing.

Website objectives (discussed above) are only one piece of the performance pie in the social space. Social performance can also be measured through metrics that show us how we are sparking conversation, amplifying our content and enticing applause from our social audience (For more on how to calculate these metrics see analytics guru Avinash Kaushik’s article on the Best Metrics for Social Media Success). Tools like Simply Measured and True Social Metrics are two of our favorite options for Social CIA.

Follow the below process to assess your social competition:

  1. Compare account performance for your industry and individual competitors

Look at the trend in amplification, applause and conversation performance for your brand and the competition over-time. Remember to look at totals as well as relative performance (per 1000 followers) in order to see the full picture.

Once you have an idea of where you are winning and losing, it’s time to really dig-in and find out why.

  1. Compare Content Quality

Explore your competitor’s specific channels to determine their best and worst performing content pieces. What types of content are causing your competitors to win at conversation, amplification and applause? Are there perhaps some content categories that your brand can emulate? Or dare I say execute better??

  1. Compare Follower Quality

Look at your brand and your competitors posting density. Is your brand posting too much or too little? How do you compare to the competition on this measure? (True Social Metrics’ posting density matrix is a great tool for this).

Also compare follower growth over-time with your competition. Are you gaining followers as efficiently and quickly as the competition? If not, it might be time to rethink your follower acquisition strategy.

That’s it. We hope that you now have the tools to be a CIA agent/ ninja for your company. Or at least understand that you must travel outside your own data and into the competition to see the full pie. Happy analyzing!

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