No matter which vertical your startup is in, you’re likely to have competitors hot on your tail or advancing out ahead. Whether it’s the sharing economy, fintech, entertainment or even the health sector, chances are you spend a lot of challenged by others in the market.
Of course, aspirational companies will also be on your radar. These are the firms you aspire to match. While we all can’t be the next Uber or Google, there are definitely tactics you can put in place to beat your close-range competitors and snatch a growing slice of the market.
I’ll kick things off with a real-world example of how our team boosted a funded startup’s search ranking performance in a highly competitive industry, and later I’ll outline some broader tactics that you can apply.
Capitalising on competitor gaps
Big budget startups will have big budget competitors, some of which being long-established stalwarts with a solid identity and customer base. But with the advantage of an agile approach, dynamic startups can target the gaps, hitting areas that their competitors aren’t exploiting. This provides a foothold in the market and enables fast, sustainable, growth.
This was particularly pertinent to one of our clients, who wanted to make an impact in a competitive environment; the automobile industry.
Over the course of three months, we improved organic rankings for valuable keywords by two positions on average, we increased overall traffic by 110%, and improved overall conversion rates by 55%.
How we did it
There were two key parts to the approach. Firstly, organising keywords and tracking performance. Secondly, we have the link-building strategy and execution.
The first step is to ascertain how much our competitors were relying on backlinks in their digital campaigns, and how they were performing for particular keywords. We used a combination of AWR Cloud for rankings, SearchMetrics for volume, BuzzStream for outreach and influencers, and Ahrefs for the competitor check. Of course, there was the customary Excel spreadsheet for recording our results.
AWR Cloud enables daily, weekly, or on-demand rank tracking. We used this to ascertain competitor rankings for our list of keywords. We then conducted keyword analysis using SearchMetrics and backlink research through the Ahrefs tool. Remarkably, we found that competitors were not focused on building links whatsoever, in general terms or for particular keywords. This opened up a huge opportunity.
Thereafter, our link-building and outreach activities were conducted using BuzzStream and MixMax, which is an email management tool.
Overall, this was primarily a link-building campaign. It worked in tandem with conversion-led landing page creation and on-site keyword optimisation. In line with best practices, we kept the approach mixed and genuine, conducting outreach to publish high-quality articles on reputable domains – all of which were in line with our client’s audience.
The most important element of its success was arguably the research stage, which enabled a more targeted and informed approach. This delivered tangible SEO results that directly impacted our client’s position in the market.
Additional tip: If budget allows, always run an Adwords campaign alongside your organic SEO efforts. According to some studies, this is likely to positively impact indexation. At the very least, it’ll ensure targeted traffic arrives at your startup’s website during the (often lengthy) process of building organic rankings for specific keywords.
The remainder of this article will explore some key strategies that you can adopt to stay ahead of the game, while simultaneously benefiting your fast-growth startup in other areas.
Research and monitor competitors
As I’ve already mentioned, there’s no substitute for comprehensive competitor research. This is the key to understanding how you can defeat them in battle. Luckily, there’s a wealth of tools available to help you in the quest to dig into the detail.
While as a matter of course all companies should have identified a number of main competitors, you may not be monitoring them to keep abreast of their progress as well as you should be. There’s no need for it to be an arduous or time-consuming task, however.
Here are several ways you can keep an eye on the competition, without breaking the bank or spending decades on manual research and investigative reporting. Here are some top tips.
Social media monitoring
Using free tools such as Tweetdeck to add a column in of your competitors’ updates is a great way to keep an at-a-glance eye on the industry. You can also add Twitter accounts to private lists, as well as check up on what accounts they are following and who follows them to garner some related followers of your own.
By using Moz’s Followerwonk platform, you can gain an understanding about Twitter profile demographics and activity for particular profiles, or the followers of a particular profile.
Tools such as SimilarWeb, which offers a free and paid-for version, means you can compare your analytics and site stats to those of a competitors’ in a range of different areas, which is extremely useful for understanding their performance and campaign targeting.
Checking where your competitors are in terms of keyword rankings is similar to the above, but more focused on SEO performance as opposed to just website statistics. Use tools such as AccuRanker to check keyword rankings, which will enable you to investigate how and why a competitor may be ranking for particular search terms.
Create alerts for particular brand names, including your own. Cross-reference these with important keywords and monitor whether your competitors are performing in this regard.
As you can see, there are a multitude of ways of keeping track of the competition. But research is only one half of the battle when it comes to beating your competitors. You also need to set yourself apart as a brand and build an irresistible identity.
Establish an edge
Sainsbury’s, Lidl, Aldi, Tesco, Waitrose and Asda all provide more or less the same service; they are all grocery stores. So why do people choose to shop at one or the other? It’s simple: each of these has a unique brand identity that gives them an advantage over one another when targeting particular audiences.
For Waitrose, it’s the aspirational brand quality and range of products. Lidl and Aldi are highly affordable supermarkets, and Tesco and Sainsbury’s have wide product range across various price points, a presence on the high street, and a strong advertising investment.
In the startup world, the brand USP is of course essential. Whether it’s quality, price, speed of delivery, customer service, usability, an ethical or charitable connection, or penchant for controversy. This is equally pertinent for B2B and B2C brands.
Establish the unique edge, and communicate this consistently throughout all channels, digital and otherwise.
Testing new approaches
Keeping tabs on your competitors will mean you can identify any gaps they have left within their own approach. It’ll also mean that when they inevitably slip up, you’ll be ready and waiting to reap the rewards and forge ahead.
Giving your organisation space to be experimental will set you apart from larger, older competitors, whose hierarchical internal structure ensures a slower and less entrepreneurial ability to respond in an agile manner.
Take cloud accounting firm Xero, for example. When they first appeared in the UK market from New Zealand, legacy company Sage was the older, dominant company. But with some slick advertising focused around their “beautiful” software, including targeted Google AdWords campaigns and a limited offer to convert Sage customers to the Xero software for a low price, they succeeded in growing their subscriber base in Britain.
Of course, there were far more elements at play here than just good marketing; they also created consumer advocates, as well as having a strong presence on social media and in relevant online forums – and a solid product to back their messaging up.
You may choose to target competitor’s keywords in your PPC advertising, as this article from LunaMetrics explains how to do. Similar advantages can also be found through paid social media promotion. Some of these platforms place limitations on bidding for brand names, so you’ll benefit from consulting an expert before setting up campaigns to this end.
We’ve already seen how in-depth competitor research can uncover opportunities to beat your competitors’ SEO efforts, or at least hit areas that they’re not exploiting.
There are many tools you can use to check how a competitor is doing in this context, such as SimilarWeb, Moz, Moat, and SpyFu. But what to do once key discoveries are made is another kettle of fish. Whatever way you are approaching SEO or PPC, you’ll need to have a well-considered strategy to challenge others in the market.
Essential to competing is the regular stream of high-quality written content – whether this be in the form of articles, landing pages, or copy expansion. This should be in tandem with slick visual design and careful UX and UI considerations.
The technical considerations for best-practice website structure are vast. Again, research will suggest areas in which you can make an impact over competitors, by ticking the boxes that they don’t. Google will reward you for mobile optimisation, site speed, and a healthy backlink profile. This involves a combination of on-site optimisation, research (industry, keywords, and competitors), and off-site outreach, link-building, and social media promotion.
SEO activities are bolstered by email marketing, paid social promotion, and PPC. As we outlined earlier, your PPC strategy should work in alignment with the SEO campaign, boosting traffic and working hard whilst you wait for search engine indexation.
Chances are, most of your competitors will be working around a similar set of keywords. One way to get ahead is to take a look at a different portion of the market, geographical region or language and go granular with long-tail keyword targeting.
SEO is a broad field that has extremely technical elements, but it’s possible to achieve in-depth research on what the competition is doing in the back-end of their website. Some useful tactics to do this were outlined recently by Search Engine Land.
Of course, strong branding is central to marketing success, and something that plays a big part is your startup’s leadership team. Depending on your vertical, it’s highly beneficial for a CEO to develop a strong personal brand to drive the business and outsell competitors.
For example, how many people can name the CEO of Facebook, compared to the CEO of Twitter? Chances are, far more for the former than the latter – and that’s down to having good visibility not just in the media, but also within the product itself.
Aside from personal branding, the startup’s brand image is of utmost importance when it comes to making an impact in the market. Clearly communicate what it is you stand for, and give customers a reason to affiliate themselves with you, instead of another brand.
A brand doesn’t just mean a logo and a pretty colour-scheme. Your brand should be your ‘Why’ that permeates throughout the company. Larger, more well-established organisations may be old fashioned in their concept of branding, and slower to adapt to changing audience behaviour and attitude. This is where younger, fast-growing startups can make an impact.
In his excellent Huffington Post article that examines the world of startup branding, Dr. Alexander Haldemann says;
“Branding is every experience a consumer has with a product. It’s a conversation. It evolves. It’s alive. Branding is also one of the most widely misunderstood and underutilized tools. But when it’s used correctly, it can drastically increase growth, profitability, marketability, and ultimately success of the new businesses…
Develop a clear understanding of why your audience needs you. When communicating with your audience, begin by understanding where they are, not where you are.”
Fundamentally, in order to beat the competition you must understand the competition. Comprehensive research is needed, both in technical aspects of their online performance, but also in the identity that they’re presenting and the followership that they’ve acquired. The tools outlined earlier in this article should help with this research stage.
A fast-growth startup must find the gaps and exploit them. This may involve targeting valuable keywords that have been neglected, or capitalising on competitor errors to do what they do, but better. This is pertinent to PPC and organic search engine optimisation.