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Calling George Smiley! My 5 Best Strategies for Spying on Your Competition. John Le Carré's famous character isn't the only one peering around corners. You should be doing the same.

By Sujan Patel Edited by Dan Bova

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Here's a mind-blowing fact: My competitor saved me tens of thousands of dollars.

Related: 3 Reasons You Should Spy on Your Competition

I'll tell you how shortly, but first I want to emphasize how important it is to monitor what your competition is up to.

These days, after all, it's easier than ever before to start a business. All you need is a website and a payment processor -- and both of those can be set up in 30 minutes or less. As a result, the competition online has never been greater. So, if you don't have a strategy for standing out based on solid competitive research, you risk falling behind in today's saturated digital landscape.

That's where spying on your competition comes in. The strategies I'm suggesting are neither evil nor illegal (I'm looking at you, WeWork). So, think about this. Choose the one or two I list that would work best for your situation, and get your spy gear ready today:

Strategy 1: Read their websites.

To be clear, a lot of my advice is basic. It's straightforward. But, as easy as that may sound, most people don't follow through. Don't be that guy (or gal).

When I say read your competitors' websites, I want you to do two things:

  • Make a note of the specific features or benefits they're advertising, and

  • Monitor any changes they make to these things over time.

Related: The Drone Industry: Thoughts From an Outsider

This will tell you not just how your competitors compare to your offering, but will give you insight into their strategy. If their language shifts all of a sudden, to focus on a new feature, a new prospective customer or some other new angle, there's a good chance they've made that move because they're either testing it or have already determined it works.

Strategy 2: Watch their social profiles.

This is the strategy that saved me five-to-six figures: When I was first launching my cold email tool, Mailshake, I was testing different customer-acquisition channels to see what would stick. I was about to move into PPC . . . when I saw a blog post shared to a competitor's Facebook page, talking about how the channel wasn't effective for the competitor.

This company was a major player in my space, boasting $20-plus million in funding. If this company couldn't make PPC work, there was a good chance that I -- working with far fewer resources -- would fail as well. Because I kept an eye on what my competitor was up to socially, I was able to save myself the time and money I'd have otherwise put into my campaign.

Strategy 3: Monitor their reviews.

Another great source of competitive insight is your competitors' reviews. Visit Amazon, Google business listings, Yelp, Facebook and any other relevant source; then look specifically for both one- and five-star reviews.

Make a note of what your competitors are doing well (because competing based on features they've already executed successfully will be more difficult). Then look at what they're doing poorly (as these problems represent you with opportunities to differentiate yourself).

Again, monitor competitors over time to understand what changes your competitors are making in response to consumer feedback.

Strategy 4: Sign up for their mailing lists.

Here's a quick and easy strategy: Join your competitors' public mailing lists. Not only will you be clued in to the promotions they're running or any new releases they're pushing out, but you'll get an "up-close-and-personal" look at the language they use while doing so.

Strategy 5: Test their products or services

Depending on your budget and the level of transparency required, try signing up for your competitors' offerings.

I did this when building Mailshake, and it was eye-opening. On the surface, our software offers the same basic outcome as dozens of other tools in the sales and marketing space -- meaning the ability to send personalized cold-sales emails.

But when I had the chance to see how other companies handled this process, I was able to see where we could set ourselves apart by offering a simpler onboarding and training experience. We might still offer the same basic functionality, but because I took the time to fully understand my competitors' products, I was able to find my own niche to carve out in the marketplace.

Of course, there are also competitive monitoring tools you can pay for, whether you're looking to understand your competitors' market share, organic search visibility or some other aspect of their business. Startups #NoFilter and Startup Grind both have suggestions for free and paid options that are worth checking out.

Related: 3 Reasons to Start Copying Your Competitors Today

Just don't think it's expensive to do proper competitive research. As the strategies above prove, you can get all the insight you need for free, by putting in a little elbow grease.

What other competitor research strategies do you use? Leave me a note below with your tips and tricks:

Sujan Patel

Entrepreneur and Marketer, Co-founder of Web Profits

In his 14-plus years as a marketer and entrepreneur, Sujan Patel has helped hundreds of companies boost online traffic and sales and strengthen their online brand reputation. Patel is the co-founder of Web Profits and Mailshake.

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