Every company’s online acquisition strategy is out in the open. This post shows you where to look, and how to reverse engineer their growth tactics.
Why is this important? Competitive analysis de-risks your own growth experiments: You find the best growth ideas to adopt and the worst ones to avoid.
First, a warning: Your goal is not to repurpose another company’s hard work. That makes you a thief. Your goal is to identify other companies who face the same growth challenges as you, then to study their approaches for solutions to draw from.
As I walk through uncovering a competitor’s tactics, keep in mind which competitors are worth looking at: For instance, you should rarely over-analyze early-stage companies. They’re unlikely to be methodical at growth. If you blindly copy their site and their ads, it’s possible you’ll be copying tactics that are not actually responsible for their growth. ****Their success may instead be from network effects or other hidden factors.
Instead, it’s safest to get inspiration from companies who’ve sustained high growth rates for a long time, and who face the same growth challenges as you. They’re likely to have sophisticated growth operations worth studying deeply. Examples include:
If these aren’t your direct competitors, don’t worry. You don’t need to audit a direct competitor’s tactics to get valuable insights.
You’ll gain useful insights from auditing the user acquisition funnel of any company who has a similar audience and business model.
Examples of audiences:
You want to audit a company whose audiences is similar to yours. Audiences matter because their behaviors and needs differ wildly. Each requires its own growth strategy.
Second, you want to ensure the company shares your business model. Examples include:
Each model may necessitate different ads, landing pages, automated emails, and sales collateral.
Never implement another company’s tactics blindly.
There’s an effective process for growth analysis, and it looks like this:
Let’s pretend we’re a SaaS company offering consumer banking tools, and that we’re struggling to get users to onboard our app. Our hypothesis is that visitors are bouncing because they don’t trust us with their sensitive information.
Our first step is to define both our audience and our business model:
Our next step is to look for companies who share those two aspects. (We can find them on Crunchbase.)
Once we have a few in hand, we look for how they handle customers’ sensitive information throughout their funnel. Specifically, we audit their:
Let’s learn how we audit all that.
Here’s why it’s hard to see a company’s A/B tests: Once you’re bucketed into one, it’s all you ever see. To get around this and see the gamut, switch to your browser’s incognito mode. That’ll clear your cookies, which will reset the A/B variant you see.
Repeat this process until you see the page visually change. (Sometimes you can tell you’re in an A/B test when a string of parameters is automatically appended to the URL, e.g. ?abc=123.)
If you see an A/B test is running, screenshot every variant you encounter. (You can use this Chrome extension for easy screenshotting.)
Next, compare the variants: Use them to reverse engineer the hypothesis the company is testing.
Ask yourself whether it’s worth testing those same assumptions for your own company.
Seeing which A/B tests are being run doesn’t help if you don’t know what pages they’re running on in the first place.
Where should you be looking on their site? This is where sitemaps come in. For most domains, you can see every page — even those that aren’t linked to from the homepage — by appending sitemap.xml to the end of a url, like this:
Go through the sitemap and look for landing pages the company is sending ad traffic to. These pages are the most rigorously A/B tested on average.
Alternatively, you could use a paid tool like Ahrefs or SEMrush. They’ll reveal the landing pages associated with the company’s Google search ads.
Tip: Landing pages are often segmented by value propositions and audience types, which provides you new ideas for how to segment your own marketing campaigns.
To see any company’s Facebook or Instagram ads, visit the Facebook Ads Library and search for the name the company uses on their Facebook Page.
Here’s an example for the Robinhood stock investing app. The Facebook Ads Library shows their actively running ads.
The Facebook Ads library doesn’t identify which ads are running most frequently. Frequency is a useful signal of efficacy: Companies most frequently show the ads that convert best.
And half the battle is knowing which ads actually work well for your competitor.
The solution is to visit the company’s site (without an ad blocker) and head over to Facebook (also without an ad blocker) and wait for their retargeting ads to hit you.
Keep an eye on retargeting ads with the highest number of comments and reactions. Those signal high frequency, which may be indicative of an ad that has worked very well for the company over time.
Study what’s good about it. Identify the copy and creative hooks that compel the right people to click.
And, while you’re at it, read ads’ comments to learn what questions and concerns audiences have about the product. Then directly address those concerns in your own ads!
Use Ahrefs to audit your competitor’s paid search keywords. You can find their click costs, search volume, and associated ads.
If you see that a company has spent a lot of money for a long time on the same keywords, that’s a signal those keywords likely work. And that you may want to reverse engineer their strategy.
Conversely, keywords they only briefly spent money on may be ones to avoid.
You can see how frequently the company’s name is Googled using Google Trends.
Let’s say we see that Robinhood’s search volume declines from its peak, but is otherwise stable. That means Robinhood is not a fad—yet.
You can use that chart as a rough proxy for how well a company is doing: If searches for a company’s name are steadily declining, their awareness may be declining, which in turn might mean their growth efforts are failing.
And so perhaps this shouldn’t be the company you’re getting all your growth ideas from.
That said, if they’re bombing hard, this might make a useful cautionary tale: Try to identify what they’re doing wrong, and stay away from that.
(For the time being, that is. Over the long-term, you should test everything that’s reasonable. Successes and failures can be unique to each company’s hidden, underlying factors.)
You can sanity check Google Trends data by cross-referencing it with the web traffic the company gets, as reported by Similar Web (not always accurate).
If a site’s traffic is tapering off, it doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t doing a great job growing. Maybe they ran a lot of acquisition experiments and killed those that were low ROI. Or maybe they’re a mobile app. And that’s our segue to the App Store!
If a company is exclusively (or primarily) a mobile app, website traffic may not be a meaningful indicator of growth. Because many mobile apps direct their traffic to an app store—and bypass their website altogether.
In that case, you can use Sensor Tower to see the app’s top ranking keywords and estimated install volume.
Ahrefs, the SEO tool mentioned earlier, doubles as a tool for auditing the organic keywords a company’s blog relies on.
With Ahrefs, you identify their highest-volume keywords and associated blog posts. Then you can cross-reference that data with BuzzSumo’s stats on each post’s social media shares:
We see which content went most viral from their blog and we use this as a proxy for which posts readers most enjoyed.
In other words, if you identify the overlap between high-volume blog posts (from Ahrefs) with highly enjoyed posts (from BuzzSumo), you can find a sweet spot of topics you might want to write about too.
That’s just one way to think about all this data. There are many ways to splice it. Explore and experiment.
Everything you need to build a high-conversion funnel in a matter of weeks—not years—is right in front of you. The problem is no one wants to look. Their ego and their laziness get in the way.
Not you. You’re going to humbly roll up your sleeves and get dirty. For every company with a similar audience and business model, you’re going to:
In the process, you’ll pay attention to every attempt they make to reach out to you: their emails, their ads, their sales outreach—everything.
As a final tip, explore Built With to figure out which tools a company is using to streamline their onboarding flow:
Why is all this competitive analysis work worth it? Three reasons: