“Our competitor is doing A, so we should do it too.”
If you’ve been in digital marketing circles longer than 24 hours, you’ve likely come across that exact statement or a variation of it somewhere - in fact, the whole premise behind following blogs in the digital marketing space is, at least in part, to keep up to date with what’s working for others, and maybe what’s new as well.
As an example, in 2012, ClickTale copied a competitor’s (CrazyEgg’s) website design and parts of its copy.
Compare both screenshots:
Not all cases are that extreme, but as you can see, copying a competitor may seem a harmless proposition, but it’s not an easy or uncomplicated one. Of course, I’ll be the first to tell you that you can steal ideas for blog posts or other content, but stealing a content marketing strategy is a different beast entirely.
Here’s why you shouldn’t copy your competitors - and what you should do instead.
1. Your competitors are as clueless as you are
Wait, you think they know what they’re doing? Sometimes, your competition is just as clueless as you are, maybe worse.
It’s quite possible that your competitor is copying others in the space too, which means that when you copy them, you’re not even replicating the original, but the imitation. This has its own problems, since they’re copying blindly and don't know what’s working for the other business (but more on that later).
Also, they may be working on opinions too. Some companies work with the opinions of the most influential staff, even if they’re the least qualified to handle content marketing.
Sure, their opinions and feelings will be right at least some of the time, but do you want to gamble your resources on untested and untried opinions all the time? Certainly not. Instead, if you’re feeling adventurous, gamble on your own ideas as an alternative.
2. You don’t know what they’re doing right
Let’s flip sides. Your competitor’s content marketing strategy is working for them. They 've increased their subscribers, leads, and ultimately they’re making wads of cash.
You can see what they’re doing outwardly, at least through the content they’re creating on their site or social media channels. But how do you know what types of content are bringing greater ROI? How do they promote their content? Is it all free or are there hidden collaborations plus costs?
With a little forethought, there are other questions you need to address to determine the right aspects of their marketing strategy that you should copy.
3. You don’t have their resources
Resources here include manpower, software (tools), and money, to name a few.
I once had a client who wanted to copy a competitor’s website design, only to find out that it would cost in the vicinity of 13x their original budget to pull it off. I don’t need to tell you what happened to the “copying” idea.
Your competitors' content marketing strategy may look uncomplicated on the outside, but could actually be a well-oiled machine, manned by the best professionals in the industry and funded by tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars.
It’s hardly obvious, but I’ve seen cases where a company has had a full-time in-house content marketing team, in addition to external agencies or consultants, who also help with their content marketing. Most small businesses can't afford such costs - and your business probably can’t either.
4. Your business may need a different strategy
One of the best parts of content marketing is that you can choose to create a variety of content - you’re not stuck with blogging or written content at all. You can create podcasts, videos, or even software - they’re all content.
Copying your competitor implies that their content format will work for you too. Sure, some content formats have lower barriers to entry than others, but that doesn’t necessarily make it right for you.
Your audience may desire more visual content, as opposed to the written word, or they may revel in shorter content as opposed to longer, “skyscraper-ish” posts.
Be ready to give them what they want, and not what your competitor thinks they want.
What you should do instead of copying your competitors
You shouldn’t outrightly copy your competitors. It’s illegal and unethical as you know already. Here’s what you should do instead of copying them:
1. Create your goal
A content marketing strategy has many components - they include content creation, paid search, email, social media, SEO, and design. Ideally, you should create a goal for each component.
For example, according to iContact, the most common goals for email marketing could include:
To drive incremental sales
To deliver relevant and timely content
To drive repeat traffic to your website
When you have a goal or strategy, you’ll stick to a plan and not be easily swayed by your competitor’s tactics, which may be in conflict with your own goals.
2. Use the right tools and the right “workman”
There's a saying - “a bad workman blames his tools.” This implies that a competent worker will remain competent irrespective of the tools they use - however, that’s not always true.
Your tools or combination of tools go a long way in determining how well your content marketer fares. For example, with some email marketing software, you can't segment your email list, and that's an essential part of maintaining a healthy email list. I can go on and on, but I’m sure you get the point.
Sometimes it’s not about the tools but the workman. Seek and hire the best content marketers to help you create and execute your content marketing strategy. As noted earlier, your competitors are sometimes spending huge sums to hire and keep the best in-house marketers and freelance consultants. Pay your hires well, unless you have the time and expertise - then do it yourself.
Now, to shorten your search for the right tools, especially if you’d love to see what your competitors are using with some measure of success, read the next point.
3. Conduct proper competitive analysis
With proper competitive analysis you can pick apart components of your competitor’s content marketing strategy and see for yourself what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, how they’re doing it, and why it’s working for them. That way, you don’t copy their tactics indiscriminately.
Ghostery enables you to see what tools your competitors are using on their site. Other tools like BuiltWith, Ahrefs, SentiOne, and BuzzSumo can help you to discover more about your competitors’ content and social media activities.
Subscribe to email newsletters of your competitors. You’ll learn how they handle launches or how they onboard new customers and how you can apply it in your business.
Finally, Noah Kagan’s motto is “track it or it didn't happen.” Track everything you do so you can discover what works and what doesn’t.
Be patient, because changes won't happen overnight. However, if you’re consistent and dedicated to your own goals, you'll be on track to outperform your competitors and their tactics.