Let’s face it. We live in a dog-eat-dog world.
As soon as one store drops its prices, another is sure to follow suit. As soon as one finds success on a new advertising channel, rival brands will flock into to piggyback off its success.
Whether you’re the first mover or an emerging challenger, staying on top of your competitors offers a treasure trove of vicarious learning. A quick search can save you thousands of dollars in testing and help you immediately identify what works, what doesn’t, and what your competitors are doing that you can do even better.
And the best part? You don’t have to be 007 to deconstruct what your competitors are doing with their marketing. It just takes a few quick searches and some interpretation, both of which we’ll walk you through in the remainder of this post.
First, let’s look at how to see what your biggest competitors are promoting on the two giants of the advertising world, Facebook and Google:
How to see what your competitors are advertising on Facebook
In an effort to promote transparency in marketing, Facebook recently required all advertisers to keep a public record of all active advertisements. To access this record, simply visit a competitor’s Facebook page and click ‘Info and Ads.’
Now you can see all of the ads and promotions your competitors are running in your country. For bigger brands, you can even get a sense of how they’re segmenting their audience and sending different messages to different customer demographics—which we’ll cover in greater depth on the section on deconstructing your competitors’ advertising strategies.
How to see what your competitors are advertising on Google
With Google, there’s no public record of a business’s active advertisements—but, with a little luck, you should be able to back into them all the same.
The one big caveat here is that you’ll only see a competitor’s ads if you match the demographics they’re targeting. If you’re a thirty-something woman in an industry largely catering to older men, you’ll probably not within a competitor’s target market and likely won’t see their ads. If you suspect this is the case, try opening a seldom-used browser (not logged into Gmail) or an incognito window. If Google is unable to recognize who you are, it’ll categorize you into the ‘Other’ demographic, from which you’ll be able to see a much wider selection of ads.
Likewise, you need to be in a location your competitor is targeting. If you’re searching from Miami, you’ll see very different ads than if you were searching from Orlando. All of this just means that if you can’t find any ads for your competitor, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they aren’t advertising—it just means that your keywords, demographics, or location falls outside of their targeting.
All that aside, start by googling the name of your competitor in your incognito window. Scan the top and bottom of the results page for any of your competitor’s ads (designated with the text ‘AD’ in green). If you don’t see anything on the first page, continue to skim the second and third page of results.
If you see an ad for their name, this means that they’re not only advertising but bidding on their trademarked name. (And while you’re at it, do a quick search to see who’s bidding on your brand name.)
Next up, step into your (or your competitor’s) shoes and search using the same language your customers use. If you’re in the shoe store business, search for ‘buy shoes’ and ‘shoes near me.’ Again, scroll through the first three pages of results and take a note of all of your competitors bidding on these high-intent phrases.
At this point, you should have a pretty good idea of which competitors are advertising on Google. In our next section, we’ll walk you through what to do with this newfound information to make it meaningful.
Reading the tea leaves
You’ve confirmed your suspicion that your biggest rival is advertising online, now it’s time to learn from their strategy.
While you won’t be able to peek under the hood and view the exact targeting and bid models your competitors are using, a little competitive espionage can shed light on a few critical questions that will allow you to piggyback off of what works for your competitors and go into your digital marketing with a running start.
Here are a few questions that can save you serious time and money:
1. Does this channel work for my industry?
Google Ads isn’t for every business, and neither is Facebook, Instagram, or any other digital advertising channel.
But before you test them all to see what yields the greatest ROI, take a look at where your competitors are advertising. Unless they’re content with throwing money to the wind, there’s likely a reason why they advertise where they do: It’s bringing in sales.
To compare possible advertising channels, see how many of your competitors are advertising on each. There are some industries (lawyers, plumbers, home services) that rely almost exclusively on Google search ads because that’s where their customers turn when they have an immediate need. Other industries (e-commerce, fashion, lifestyle) rely largely on social media sites like Facebook and Instagram. And if you find your competitors flocking to one particular channel, it’s a safe bet that they’re getting a good return on their investment.
Of course, that’s not to say that a channel with less competition won’t yield results. It’s just a little less tried and tested. If everyone else is using Google while you’re using Facebook, you’ll benefit from a cheap cost per click (a metric heavily determined by competition in the marketplace) and may be able to capture a customer segment your competitors have turned a blind eye to.
2. What offers or calls-to-action are the most successful?
When you’re fighting for clicks in a competitive marketplace, it’s essential to have a message that immediately resonates and appeals to the viewer. If someone sees three ads at the top of the Google search results page, they’re going to click on the one that looks like the best deal - which is why so many ads include a “hook,” like a seasonal sale, new member discount, or free consultation.
To see what hooks resonate with your audience, take a look at what your competitors are offering. Today, the vast majority of law firms offer a “no-risk free consultation” and “no fees unless you win,” while insurance companies offer a “free rate quote” and e-commerce stores offer incentives like “free two-day shipping.” And as much as you don’t want to cut into your margins with such offer, you also don’t want to be the only one not offering an incentive and lose out on those valuable clicks.
If you still don’t want to match what your competitors are offering, think about what you can uniquely offer that would still entice first-time buyers. Instead of free shipping, maybe it’s 10% off your first order over $100. Instead of a free consultation, maybe it’s a home visit and a detailed quote.
3. What are the untapped opportunities?
Now that you’ve seen what your competitors are advertising, how about what they aren’t advertising?
Are there product lines or services that your competitors aren’t focusing on? Are there search phrases that no one in your area is bidding on?
Identifying gaps in your competitors’ ad campaigns can help you discover untapped opportunities to differentiate your own marketing. If you’re a fitness studio with competitors boasting about their late hours and state-of-the-art equipment, consider pushing a different angle (say, small group classes and friendly trainers). If you’re a law firm and see that no one else is tailoring their ad copy to a specific case type, create a separate ad group to corner the market on that one case — not only will this help you stand out; you’ll also be rewarded with a cheaper Cost Per Click as Google incentivizes advertisers that tailor their ad copy to narrowly clustered keyword groups.
Get a running start
Researching what your competitors are advertising is a great way to learn vicariously from the months of AB testing and experimentation that carefully informed their present-day strategy. It’s a way for beginner advertisers to piggyback off of industry best practices, and it’s a way for marketers to identify blue oceans of untapped opportunity.
At Spatially, we’ve made it easy to tap into competitive insights. Our self-serve advertising platform features personalized insights for over 300 business types, along with ad copy and keywords honed over hundreds of successful campaigns.