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UB Insider #58: Keep Your Friends Close And Your Competitors Closer

About this episode:

How can your competitors help you get ahead? Paxton Gray, vice president of operations for 97th Floor, shares how small and young companies can mine their competition’s customers and build a better business along the way. Gray’s remarks are based on a lecture he gave at the Utah Business Marketing Analytics Bootcamp, held August 9 at The Leonardo. This podcast was recorded on-location.

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[The following has been edited for grammar and clarity.]

Lisa Christensen: Hello and welcome to UB Insider. I’m Lisa Christensen, online editor at Utah Business magazine. You’ve heard the saying, “keep your friends close and your enemies closer,” well the same applies to your competitors in business. Paxton Gray, vice president of operations for 97th Floor talked about competitive research and how to make it work for you at the Marketing Analytics Bootcamp held last week at The Leonardo. Welcome.

Paxton Gray: Thank you.

Lisa Christensen: So generally tell me what you mean when you say competitive research.

Paxton Gray: So for me it’s really about gathering information. The more information you can gather, the better insight you will have into what your competitors are doing and what you can do to beat them. So the idea is to kind of catch your competitors on their heels and find out things about them that even they don’t know.

Lisa Christensen: One of the things that you brought up a few different times during your presentation was making sure that you really nail your content.

Paxton Gray: Yeah. So content is a huge thing. Everyone is producing it but not enough people know what they should be creating. I think if they would spend some more time gathering information and data it would help to inform their content strategy. So things like analyzing the Twitter bios of your followers or figuring out what kind of content Google prefers for a given SERP can be beneficial. There are lots and lots of different things that you can do to gather information to help produce content rather than just going off of what your gut feeling is.

Lisa Christensen: One of the things that Google uses is keywords. Having the right keyword cocktail helps you make sure that your content is being given to your desired audience. How do people go around doing that?

Paxton Gray: Yeah, so it’s called TFIDF analysis or term frequency inverse document frequency analysis. Basically all it’s doing is counting every single word in a set of documents or the top ten search results and finding out how many times each of those words exist. Then you can take your page and do that same analysis on it and easily find all of the words or topics that everyone in the top ten talk about that you don’t. The reason that’s important is because Google wants to provide their users with really comprehensive, quality content. One of the ways that they do that is through this TFIDF analysis.

If, for example, I want to write an article about Apple Watch and I want it to rank well, Google knows that I should be using the words “space gray” and “rose gold” a number of times if my article is comprehensive. The way Google does that is through this TFIDF analysis. You can kind of do that yourself and uncover those topics that you should be talking about that maybe you’re not.

Lisa Christensen: So you have to consider when you’re writing it that you are making a comprehensive post about a topic. You can’t just glide across something if you want it to be meaningful for your audience.

Paxton Gray: Sometimes you can. It depends on what your strategy is. What we’re seeing more and more is that Google is favoring comprehensive content. So if SEO is a big part of your strategy and ranking is really important, then you maybe might want to take a look at some of your pages that are what we call “thin.” Those pages are devoid of a lot of deep content. Beefing those up will often result in drastic improvements in rankings.

Lisa Christensen: Which sounds like it’s going to make a better product for the consumer anyway.

Paxton Gray: Right. It provides better information for the searcher and helps answer their questions.

Lisa Christensen: You also talked about how metrics can shift.

Paxton Gray: Yeah, what I was referring to is that comprehensive analysis of all the pages that rank well on a given SERP or Search Engine Results Page. What you can do is gather that data from week to week or month to month and instead of taking a snapshot of what’s ranking on a given day and why they’re ranking, what you can kind of do is see changes over time. You’ll see a certain result will start to pop up in the top three. Then you can go back and look at the date and say what data changed? That will help inform you as to why that result popped up, which can help you change your strategy so that you can be the site that pops up. So it kind of goes back to that same idea that the more data that you can gather and analyze, the bigger edge you can get over your competitors.

Lisa Christensen: You mentioned this both in your presentation and then just a few minutes ago on this recording, that you can use your competitor’s audience to understand your own audience better. You can also use that information to understand how you can better serve them. You mentioned Twitter bios and such. How do you get that information and how do you use it in a meaningful way?

Paxton Gray: There are lots and lots of different ways to do this but I’ll talk about one. If you’re a newcomer in a given industry, one thing that people often struggle with is that the information that they get from their current following really isn’t enough. Sometimes it’s a brand new business so the only people that follow you are your friends and family and analyzing their information probably isn’t valuable. Or you’ve been in business for a year and you’ve got 500 or 1,000 followers and it’s just not enough information. What you can do to get around that barrier is analyze the followers of your competitors – the people that you would ideally like to pull away from your competitors.

In the example that we talked about, Acorns and Betterment are kind of the incumbents in the micro-investing app industry. And this company called Clink is very small. They have 500 followers and Betterment and Acorns have tens of thousands of followers. So you could easily pop that information into any kind of tool that will analyze Twitter followers and their bios and we can see that by and large, the people who follow both Betterment and Acorns are fathers and they’re husbands. They mention that in their profiles. So it would be a good idea for Clink to create some content targeted specifically to fathers and husbands. What do fathers and husbands care about that maybe other people don’t? How can we speak to just that demographic and create content just for them? That would help Clink to potentially draw some users away by talking directly to the hearts of that market. That’s not something that’s being addressed right now by those bigger companies.

Lisa Christensen: You mention using a tool to get that information and you’ve also mentioned several other tools that companies can use to better understand their audience and to better target their audience. What are some of those tools and how can people access them?

Paxton Gray: I think I went over maybe seven or eight tools in my presentation. But just for that Twitter analysis, this company called Moz produces a tool called Follower Wonk. I love the tool but they’ve said that they’re going to stop supporting it so it probably won’t be around for very long. There are others that do similar things though. So that’s a great one.

Another of my favorite tools is provided by a company called Hot Jar. They produce software that allows you to watch how users interact with your website and make design and UX changes based on the data that you see. It’s free for up to a certain limit. It’s a great tool and there are awesome insights that you can gain from that.

Another tool that I like is Google Survey. It just recently came out. It allows you to not just create a survey, which you’ve always been able to do through Google Docs, but with this tool you can then send out your survey to Google’s panel of survey takers to get information. So not only are you creating the survey, you then don’t even have to worry about distributing it. You can just send it out to their audience. It allows you to select demographics like age, gender, location, language, so that you can hit up your target market exactly. It’s actually really inexpensive to use and get great data.

One last tool that’s within that same vein is UsabilityHub. That’s It allows you to create some interesting tests that are more geared around user experience and design. But if it’s a toss up between two logos, you can throw it up on UsabilityHub and create a test. The cool thing about them is you can pay to use their panel or if you want to do it for free, they’ll just give you a link and you can send that link to whoever you want and run your own test. So you have access to their entire testing database for free, essentially.

Lisa Christensen: So you get the information from these tools, but then how do you turn that around to make the most out of it in targeting your audience?

Paxton Gray: The answer to that is unique in every scenario. The overall objective here is to find the chink in your competitor’s armor and go after that. Whatever message they’re not sending to whatever audience they’re not targeting, that’s where you need to go. It’s really difficult if you want to go head to head against these heavy hitters with huge budgets that can just spend and spend and spend. The key is to figure out where they’re not touching. Who are they not talking to? What message are they failing to send? How are they failing to connect with their audience? And you can find those answers by analyzing data.

I’ve always said and I say to my new employees, that the answers kind of present themselves if you gather enough data. If you have data and you still don’t know what to do, chances are that you need more data. Once you know enough, it will be obvious what you need to do to kind of turn that around into a strategy to win.

Lisa Christensen: So as a young or smaller company you can use that information to find the audience or needs that are falling through the cracks. And it sounds like it also applies to larger businesses to make sure that they’re reaching that full customer base and meeting all of their needs.

Paxton Gray: Yes. The tragedy and the opportunity is that at so many large companies, marketing in the digital space is vastly understaffed. So it’s a huge opportunity for agencies and people entering the field. There are lots of cool opportunities popping up. But for those big companies it means there are a lot of blind spots. That’s going to be an opportunity for those new guys coming into the field.

Lisa Christensen: Well great, thanks you so much for coming in today.

Paxton Gray: Thank you. It’s been fun.

Lisa Christensen: Thanks also to Lynnette Cloward for help today. You can find out more about upcoming events on our website, You can also follow us on social media at @utahbusiness. Thanks for listening.