Yesterday saw the start of the World Athletics Championships at the Olympic Stadium in London. Leading athletes like Sir Mo Farah and Usain Bolt have been amongst the participants. And like all top sports people, they will have prepared for months for this event.

Part of their preparation will have been a robust analysis and assessment of the competition they are up against. To ensure they win their contests, they need to be sure they can beat the competing athletes. Hours of time is spent watching videos, looking at statistics and so on. Ask any football manager, and they’ll tell you their team spends hour upon hour watching DVDs of the teams they have to beat. No one in sport performs well enough unless they have a thorough understanding of who they are up against.

Compare that with the business I was dealing with this week. This firm is about to launch a new product, and during a discussion about how they would promote it online, I asked about competitors. I was told, “there are loads”. I asked exactly what they meant by “loads”. After all one person’s “loads” could be another individual’s “not many”. “Exactly how many competitors do you have?” I asked. “Loads,” was the answer, again. 

So I tried a different question. “What are the names of the top three market leaders in this sector?” That produced puzzled looks, some embarrassed shuffling of papers and – eventually – an admission that these business owners had no idea. 

The company was planning to sell its products through Amazon. So I wondered what products came up on the first page of results for a search. “That depends on what you search for,” I was told. “I know that,” I said, “but what are the results of all the searches you have done?” I tried to get them to tell me what the leading products were on Amazon for all of the different search terms their market might use for their particular item. 

As you will have guessed, they couldn’t answer this question either. Shamefaced, the people I was talking with realised they had to go back to the office and do some more research. 

It is an all too familiar story. Almost every week I ask companies what comes up on searches for their products and services, or who dominates the market for their particular products on Amazon or eBay, only to find that few businesses can answer the questions. These days, it is embarrassing to discover how little companies know of their competition. Which is plain daft, because there has never been so much information available about competitors. 

How can a business possibly hope to compete if it has no idea what it is up against online? Yet, that’s precisely what is happening in many companies. This is in spite of the fact that there is a plethora of tools and services which can help firms analyse the competition. Goodness, you only need to set up a Google Alert to get the basics done. It isn’t hard to find out lots of details about business competitors, yet many companies are struggling even to get the necessary data they need.

To some extent, it’s due to the rapid pace of change. Online business has a new development happening each week, it seems. It is tough to keep up. Many companies are finding it reminiscent of swimming in treacle; you keep paddling away, but you make no progress. When you are doing that, you are focusing so much on your own survival you don’t have the time, or the inclination, to worry about the competition.

So what can you do to make sure, like athletes, you are well-prepared with a solid understanding of the competition? You can use a range of tools to automate research so you can spend more time on your own business. Google Alerts is a good start to keep up-to-date with competitors, but so too is Social Mention that allows you to keep track on the competition’s social media activity. You could use the Kompyte tool for Chrome to be alerted to changes in competitor websites. If you need to know how well a competitor’s advertising is working, then take a look at SpyFu. And if you want to find out how well the company is performing on the web, you could use Similar Web. To discover more detail about how a competitor’s website is performing then try SemRush. If you want to find out how well their newsletter is doing, get an account with Owletter which will help you do that. Want to keep track of the prices charged by a competitor? Then you need Prisync. Finally in this list of tools, if you want to find out who your competitor’s greatest fans are, you need Social Crawlytics.

This is just a small selection of methods you can use to spy on the competition automatically. There really is no excuse these days for not knowing as much about your company’s competitors as possible. You are not short of data and information. Neither are world class athletes. The difference between them and many business leaders is that the athletes make sure they find the time to research the competition. If you want your business also to be world class, then there’s a lesson in that.


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