What Are Your Competitors Up To?

Evaluating your competitors’ behavioral targeting strategies takes a concerted effort. You must have the right tools, some history of their online marketing efforts, and a comfort level with making what could be far-flung assumptions. Lots of the data are publicly available. Collecting those data is a science. Divining the motivation, intent, and strategy behind the activity is an art.

Document Competitive Activity

Start by gathering data on historical media activity and investment online. If you keep a consistent format, over time you’ll simply add the most recent data points. We use Evaliant (TNS) as a media tracking tool. It provides great insights into placement as well as investment (full disclosure: I sit on the TNS Interactive Advisory Board, though we were using Evaliant well before it was bought by TNS).

Go back at least one year. Deeper is better, especially if you’re in a seasonal business, like retail. First review the big-picture trends. Have your competitors’ investments increased or decreased quarter over quarter? Year over year? Understand that media budget numbers from tools like this are derived from rate card and observed ads. The data don’t reflect negotiated rates or capture all the spend. Don’t think of these numbers as absolutes. Limit their use to relative comparisons in a time sequence or against other spenders in the category.

Look for placement repeats. If competitors are making rational decisions, they’ll reinvest in vehicles that have historically performed for them. Look at the media mix. Do you spot the tell-tale signs of network activity? How is the activity weighted across channels and tactics? Has the media placement changed during the period studied in volume and character? Does this change reflect what you know about any business or environmental changes, or does it feel like an Internet strategy emerging or being played out? Can you isolate any testing behavior in short-term spurts in advance of any seasonal lockdowns? What made it to the big show after testing?

Review Messaging

Pull creative samples and match them to the placements. Are they generic, or do they focus on specific products? Do they selectively offer discounts or promotions? Do these more specific ads reappear in the same places? These approaches could be evidence of retargeting ads, especially if those ads reoccur on specific network lists or on sites or portals that offer that service.

Enter Their World

Visit competitive sites so you can be cookied. Choose a category or product, and visit several pages in a shopping clickstream for that product. Do this for different categories or products by competitor if you can. Then check out larger sites and portals, and note the ads you’re served. Follow through to the landing pages and see how specific they are.

Perform some product-specific queries on search engines for items your competitors sell, but do not visit those pages on their sites. Watch for ads promoting those products or categories in the coming days or weeks.

Keep track of the results you expect and those you encounter. In the old days, and perhaps today still, direct marketers would code mail pieces to ascertain response. Online you can leave a digital trail of crumbs for your competitors’ programs and see what they follow. But the matrix can get out of hand if you aren’t explicit in your questions and process.

Imperfect Data Is Still Valuable

Now what? At best you have sample data with unknown significance. Be careful how far you extrapolate from this data, and keep in mind that small numbers are likely unreliable. Plus, too many marketers pair media plans with bad or badly matched creative that can mislead this type of investigation. Even if you assume reliable, rationale behavior from competitors, the data are merely a snapshot in time on the day you collect it. The stuff you gather manually will be spotty. Still, even directional information can be really valuable to companies trying to establish a competitive landscape.

Choose Critical Questions

Choose only questions that will lead you to immediate action or that document behavior for future critical questions. If you knew your competitors target certain behaviors or searches or focus promotional efforts in certain categories or product lines, what would you do with that information? Would you change your strategy to meet them head on? Advocate for more budget? Introduce new elements into your mix? If the answer is “nothing,” why bother? I’m certain you have more productive ways to use your time.

It’s interesting to include your own business or that of your client in this review process. What could the world at large determine about your strategy from public information? Do your digital breadcrumbs represent a true picture of your intended approach? If they don’t, you’d better explore whether it’s a data sampling issue or if you’ve executed well on your intended strategy.

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