Businesses always monitor their competition. We don't exist in a vacuum, and what the other side is up to can, and will, impact your own company. So when social marketing became mainstream, companies predictably used it to track what their competitors were doing. After all, roughly 81% of small to mid-size businesses now use social media. However, because social media was, and arguably still is, so new, smaller business began to copy whatever they saw working. And while it's fine to be inspired, copying ideas outright can make you seem a bit desperate and hurt your reputation. As someone who works with small businesses, I always recommend that they take a peek at their competition's social presence, but that they do so with discretion.
Remember they aren't your enemy, and people can see you
I'll be the first to admit that business owners tend to be proud and headstrong. We live and bleed for our companies, and we will always tell you that we're better than our competitors. But we normally use those feelings to stoke our own fires. Unfortunately, I have seen far too many companies using the convenience of social media to try and openly cut down their competition. If a customer is complaining to your competitor through twitter, that is not an invitation to mock them and try to snipe their business. Openly reaching out to a disgruntled customer, or highlighting the fact that they are angry about something, is just tacky and doesn't reflect well on you. Avoid the snark. A good rule for interacting with competitors is to never do anything online that you wouldn't do in the real world.
That said, you should still keep an eye on your competition. There are loads of monitoring tools to choose from - Klout, Hootsuite, SEMrush, Google Alerts, etc. Use them to see what your competition is doing. Where are they active? What keywords do they use? What are they posting? What posts do well? Then, when you have some idea of what they are up to, figure out the merits and pitfalls of their presence. After all, just because they are on Instagram doesn't mean you have to be. There's no point in getting trapped in an echo chamber.
Try to identify their strategy
Memes and cat pictures may get tons of shares and generate solid numbers, but I think we've all come to a consensus that, in the long run, that engagement is fairly worthless. So if your competition is posting easy content like that, you have to ask if they have a wider strategy, or if they're just trying to bolster their following. If they're taking shots in the dark, it isn't worth investing that much time into following them. But if you can see a clear-cut strategy in what they post, you can look into it and compare it to your own. Are they plugging articles they've written, or do they rely on curated content? Is everything text based, or do they have a healthy mix of text, image, and video?
Modify your own
Once you know what they're doing right, you can take a good look at your own marking strategy and see if you can apply any of the lessons learned to it. For example, I saw a lot of companies both inside and outside of my industry using infographics to generate buzz about their business. They were on topic, interesting, and people responded to them, so we started making them as well, just using our own research and ideas. It is okay to borrow the broad parts of your competitor's strategy, as chances are good that they borrowed it from someone else. It's when you directly copy them that there is trouble. Just remember that your competition probably isn't doing everything right. Don't be afraid to modify and change what you like about their strategy.
I've had a few copycats, and I'll be the first to tell you it's really easy to spot when one of your competitors starts "borrowing" your better ideas. It's somewhat flattering, but it definitely shows that they are lagging behind. You don't want to tip off your competition like that. Instead, use their presence to help guide your own. There are certain pieces of advice in social marketing, like 'focus on keywords,' 'write good content,' and 'use social media to open up a channel of communication with your customers' that are useful no matter what. But every industry is different, and sometimes your competition might key in on a strategy you hadn't though of. Just use your brain and keep your marketing unique. It's fine to monitor your competition and borrow some broad strategies that you see on social media, but don't use it to snipe customers or steal ideas.