How to Use Competitor Research for Content Marketing

One of the biggest blindspots that most marketers have is what their direct and indirect competition is doing, especially when it comes to content marketing. 

It’s easy to forget that our competitors will directly impact our own success, because we aren’t marketing and selling in complete isolation. If a competitor swoops in with products just as good and for half the cost, there’s a good chance it’s going to steal away a solid chunk of customers. Similarly, if we’re not keeping an eye on what our competition is doing with their content marketing, it could hurt our campaigns as a result.

Because of this, competitor research for content marketing should be an essential part of your overall strategy. It will keep you up to date on everything that’s going on, and it can also help you identify new keywords, strategies, and even topics that your audience responds to most. This information is all actionable, and you can use it to improve your own campaigns, making sure that you’re staying ahead of the competition instead of falling behind it.

How to Conduct Competitor Research for Content Marketing 

I’ll break the bad news to you now: Competitor research is a relatively involved process, with a few steps involved. Trust me when I say, though, that you want to take each individual step, because each one will give you key information you need to see the big picture.

There is good news, too, however: Once you do this, you have the actionable information at your disposal, and people don’t make shifts in content strategy as often as they make shifts in other marketing fields, like PPC or email. This works to your advantage. 

Let’s take a look the 5 key steps of competitor research for content marketing, how to conduct each one, and what you can learn from it. 

Find the Top Performers In Your Space 

Before you start analyzing your competitors, it makes sense that you need to actually find the best competition to analyze.

Keep in mind that your competitors in content marketing may be a little different than your immediate sales competition, and you want to expand your reach accordingly.

If you’re a bakery, for example, who only caters to a local zipcode around you, it may be tempting to only look at direct competitors– bakeries and maybe ice cream shops in the immediate zip code near you that are trying to reach the same customers. In reality, though, it may be your indirect competition that’s writing the best content, and it’s a bakery over in London that’s writing the killer blog posts that’s snagging your SEO traffic (and that you can learn from).

This works when you’re in the same immediate industry and location but targeting different niches of customers, too. A customer who is intentionally planning on buying an engagement ring from a small, trusted jeweler isn’t going to interested in a major corporation like Jared’s and vice versa, but online,  it all comes down to whose “The 4 C’s” diamond guides are best when you’re looking at who gets the click. 

To make this easy, there are a few tools that I recommend using.
The first is SEMrush. They have a great new tool that will identify the top competition in your niche, which is called the Market Explorer. It’ll show you your top competition for online traffic, what percentage of that traffic they’re getting, and what sources they’re getting it from.

competitor research for content marketing

You’ll want to double check that your competition here is doing well with their content marketing campaigns overall, but this is a good way to find some top names to get started with.
You can also use their Position Tracking tool to see where you’re falling in the SERPs for certain keywords or topics. You’ll immediately see who is ranking above you for multiple different keywords, which can clue you in to who has a similar strategy as well.

content marketing competitor research

If you don’t want to pay to use a tool, you can always search for what you believe will be top-performing keywords (Google’s Keyword Planner is free and can help you here), and see who is ranking on the first page consistently. While paid tools like this one will certainly help speed up the process, you can opt for the manual route to keep it low cost.

Look at the Keywords & Topics They’re Focusing On 

You’ve got a list of your top competition– excellent. Now you want to take a look at the keywords they’re using and what specific topics they’re focusing on. 

This is a two-pronged approach. Understanding their use of keywords will help you gain insight into their SEO strategy, but you can take a million different angles on a single keyword, and understanding how they’re doing that is important, too.

Let’s look at an example. A fashion site may write an article for the keyword “what watch is best” that talks exclusively about which is most stylish right now. You’ll see a lot of expensive watches making the top of that list, function be damned. A watch manufacturer, however, may write about the durability and functionality of the watches; which one can stand a drop or two, and which ones have extra features like the ability to tell you the day of the week.

Understanding what does well will help you moving forward.

For keywords, I like SEMrush if you’re using a tool, though SpyFu is also great and works the exact same way. Enter in the domain on the tool of your choice, and it’ll show you all the organic and PPC keywords that brand is currently targeting.

content marketing competitor research


Seeing the keywords your competition is choosing may clue you in to a few high-performing phrases you hadn’t used yet yourself, and it can give you insight into their strategies. Are they opting for question-based keywords, or for short-tail keywords and using them for massive guides? Take some time to dig deep here.

You can also use BuzzSumo at this point. Search for a competitor’s name, and this tool will pull up some of their top performing posts. You can look for content that’s recent, that has a certain word count, or sort by highest engagement. This will help you discover which content is benefiting your competition most. 

Check Out Their Off-Platform Efforts 

Content marketing isn’t always about what you’re doing on your own site. In many cases, it also involves off-site activity, too, including guest posting or using third-party platforms like Quora. 

Link building is going to be a big point of focus, here, because it’s a priority for a large number of brands in terms of their own content marketing. Getting more links to your site from other third-party sites can increase your site authority and your positioning in the search engines.

Take a look at what guest posting your competition is doing on third-party sites, and what link building efforts they’re making. You can use SEMRush once again to check a link profile of any domain using their Backlink Audit tool. It will show you all the backlinks the site has accumulated, which can give you insight into what third-party publications your competition is focusing on.

By doing this, you might discover a few new guest posting opportunities you hadn’t considered, and you can start getting your pitches in line to get a few of those backlinks yourself.

Review Their Strategies Manually 

While all of the above steps were relatively quick and easy, this last part will require a bit more effort.

Sometimes sheer metrics and surface-level information isn’t quite enough to give you the detailed look you need at your competitor’s strategy, and those details are valuable. You need to know how all the puzzle pieces fit into place, so to speak.

Identify your top five competitors. These can be big names and small brands alike. See who seems to be engaging your audience the most, and go check out their blogs while keeping in mind what you’ve learned from the keyword research, the backlink profiles, and everything else you’ve looked at so far.

Look at how they’re writing– is it formal, or casual? Is it broken down into simple sections? Are they opting for educational expository content, or how-to actionable blog posts? See if they’re using images, or videos, or infographics. Are they including links to their own site, and what CTAs are they using? How often are they posting, how long are the posts, and do they seem to make use of pillar content?

Unfortunately a tool can’t give you all this information, but taking the time to review this manually will give you incredible insight.

You might see that some of your competition seems to be using webinars or free coaching calls as a lead magnet instead of ebooks, or that some of their most-shared articles are actually short how-to guides and tutorials. This information shouldn’t be overlooked.

Assess Their Distribution Strategies 

There’s one last factor in content marketing that’s forgotten about constantly: The distribution strategies.

A great blog post might not ever be found if you aren’t making efforts to get it seen by your target audience, after all, and that’s both a tragedy and a waste. 

Different distribution strategies may include sending out recent top articles in an email newsletter, promoting it through PPC campaigns, sharing it on social, guest posting, and SEO. There are a lot of options, and in many cases using a multi-platform approach is best.

Take some time to comb through your competition’s online presence. The tools we’ve discussed earlier can show you how well they’re doing for SEO and if they seem to be promoting their content through keyword-based PPC campaigns. The backlink audit can tell you about their guest posting distribution strategies, if they have one. You’ll also want to hop onto their social media sites, particularly Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest. 

competitor research for content marketing

Review how they’re sharing their content, and whether or not it seems to work to get people to click. Are they featuring statistics, or asking people what they think? Are there certain hashtags that seem to work? Look at the details here, and search for trends that correlate with higher or lower engagement.

Conclusion

Content marketing can be wildly beneficial to businesses of all shapes and sizes, but for best results you need to be diligent and strategic. Keep in mind that there are more than 4.4 million blog posts published every single day. Sure, most of them aren’t trying to engage your audience, and the vast majority of them won’t be very good. But even if you’re only competing against 5 new super-amazing, super-relevant blog posts published daily, that’s still a big challenge.

Competitor research for content marketing will help you stay at the top of your game, and the top of the SERPs. Take some time at least once every year (and ideally once every six months) to do some research and assess your own standing and strategies after the fact.

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