There are many processes you can follow when creating a content marketing campaign.

You can sit down with your team and brainstorm a campaign and strategy.

You can adapt a campaign that worked well for you in the past.

Or you could reverse engineer a campaign that’s been successful for your competitor.

That last one has worked well for me with a number of different brands, most recently Mailshake.

I’m going to walk you through the process I follow in just a moment, but before we get into that, let’s just go over what reverse engineering actually is.

Reverse engineering is the process of working backwards from the conclusion of something to understand how that end point was reached.

In the context of a content marketing campaign this means taking a successful campaign (probably from a competitor, but it doesn’t have to be) and working backwards to establish the steps involved in making that campaign a success.

This is the process I follow to find and reverse engineer successful content marketing campaigns.

Step 1: Google your primary keywords to identify your competitors

Begin by searching Google for five or so of your most important keywords. Do this, even if you think you know who your competitors are. You might be surprised at what you find.

Quick tip: remember to sign out of Google and go “incognito” before you search. This will prevent the results from being affected by personalization.

Write down all the sites that appear on the first page of the SERPs for each keyword. This will allow you to cross-reference the results and remove duplicates (i.e. sites that appear in the top 10 results for multiple keywords).

Repeat this for all the keywords you’re researching. When you’re done, you should have a reasonably chunky list of potential competitors to explore.

Next, go through the list and remove any that you know aren’t competitors. If you’re in e-commerce, for instance, there’s a good chance sites like Amazon and eBay will appear for some, if not all of your keywords. They are not your competitors. Ignore them. You will struggle to learn anything actionable from their marketing.

In addition to this, bear in mind that a top ranking on Google does not necessarily mean that the site in question is doing everything right and is the one you should be mirroring.

There are many reasons a site might rank well that don’t involve running great content campaigns.

  • The company might be a household name that ranks on the strength of their brand, not their online marketing.
  • They might be using black-hat SEO strategies that have artificially, and temporarily, elevated them to the top of the search results.
  • Their position in the SERPs might be fleeting. Google’s SERPs are always changing – just because a site is on page one today, does not mean it will be there tomorrow.

So what can you do to establish whether a “competitor” really is a competitor? And more to the point, whether they’re doing anything worth mirroring?

  1. Assess how closely their offering matches your own. Avoid paying too much attention to “department store” style sites that offer many different product types.
  2. Establish whether their target market is in line with your own. Sites like Similar Web and YouGov Profiles are useful for this.
  3. Look at their content. At first glance, is it any good? Are they creating content regularly? Are people interacting with it?

Sites that tick all three boxes may be worth reverse engineering. Add them to a document which you’ll use to record the strategy as you go along. You’ll be exploring these sites further in Step 2.

Step 2: Look at their backlinks

The goal of this step is to identify which two or three competitors are performing best. These are the competitors you’re going to want to mirror.

I recommend using at least two – ideally three – different tools for looking at backlinks. This is because each tool has its own way of finding links and other information. Relying on a single tool means you’ll only uncover a portion of each competitor’s links.

My go-to tools for checking backlinks are Ahrefs, Open Site Explorer and Buzzsumo.

Both Ahrefs and Open Site Explorer offer limited link data for free, but you’ll need a premium account to use the backlinks feature in Buzzsumo. Thankfully, all these tools offer free trials. If you’re only going to follow this process once (and you don’t have access to link data within any other marketing tools) it’s worth signing up for free trials with these sites (just don’t forget to cancel your subscriptions before you get charged!)

Alternative tools for checking backlinks (bearing in mind I can’t personally vouch for all of them) include:

So what are you looking for when checking backlinks?

Quality, and to a lesser extent, quantity.

This is because link building is much (much) more than a numbers game. Sure, so long as the links aren’t “bad” more generally = a good thing. But it’s not that simple.

Put it this way – would you rather reverse engineer the content strategy of:

  1. A site with links from 10,000 poor and average domains, or
  2. A site with links from 1000 good and great domains?

The right answer is number 2 of course – quality totally trumps quantity when it comes to link building.

“The more links you have pointing to your website the better, right? There is a big misconception that more is better.

No matter how many links your competitors have, you shouldn’t focus on quantity. You should focus on quality. A link from a site like CNN, assuming it is coming from a relevant section and article, will carry much more weight than 10 links from mom and pop sites.” Neil Patel, QuickSprout

The same logic applies when using links as a metric for assessing the standard of a competitor’s content strategy.

So what’s the quickest way to assess the quality of a competitor’s link profile?

In most cases it’s by looking at the authority of the linking domain.

On Open Site Explorer this is called “Domain Authority”:

And on Ahrefs it’s “Domain Rating”:

You can make life even easier for yourself by organizing your exported data in order of authority.

That said, authority isn’t a perfect metric. You will need to analyze the data yourself to interpret it properly. For example, links from .wordpress and .blogspot domains will display the DA of the host domain – i.e. WordPress or BlogSpot. This doesn’t mean the site in question is any good or will pass any value to sites it’s linking to.

You might also spot links from things like feeds:

Curation sites like scoop.it:

Or user-generated content platforms like Medium:

Despite boasting high domain authorities, links from these sources, and sources similar to them, are not reliable indicators of the quality of a site’s content strategy.

Instead, scan the links for names of reputable websites. While you’re at it, keep an eye out for signs of spam links.

Anything that looks like a directory or has a meaningless URL could well be spam.

Bear in mind that most sites will have some “spammy” links – and the bigger the site is the more likely this becomes. This is normal. So long as the “bad” links are outweighed by the good, you’re golden.

Remove any sites that don’t meet this criteria from the document you’re using to record your strategy. If all the sites you analyze have decent backlink profiles, rank the sites accordingly and knock those with the lowest scores off your list. Keep only the top 2 or 3 sites for further investigation.

Step 3: Analyze the content of your best-performing competitors

So now you should have narrowed your list of competitors to the best 2 or 3. The next step is to analyze their content.

Your primary goal here is to identify their very best content – that 10x, anchor content.

10x content is content which is “10 times better than anything I can find in the search results today.” Rand Fishkin, speaking for Whiteboard Friday

You can do this using the link data you collected during step 2.

If you haven’t already, you’ll need to export the data to a spreadsheet.

Look at the column that displays the pages the links are pointing to, and organize it in alphabetical order. You should now be able to quickly figure out which pages have lots of links pointing to them.

This may well be that competitor’s top content. Make sure to note the URLs down.

Buzzsumo is also pretty awesome for this. Better yet, it ranks content based on a number of metrics – not just links.

You’ll need to head to Buzzsumo’s Content Research section and from there, Most Shared. Avoid the Content Analysis tool. Based on its name it should be ideal for this sort of research, but the feature is far less useful than it ought to be.

From here, paste the domain you want to analyze into the box and hit “Search.” If you haven’t adjusted the default settings, you’ll be presented with a list of top content on that domain from the last year, organized in order of total shares.

On the left of the page, you can adjust the time period Buzzsumo’s pulling data from. You can also change the metric that determines the order those results are displayed in. A drop-down menu for this will be visible just above and to the right of the results.

Bear in mind that all Buzzsumo will show you is how many shares each piece of content has received, and how many other sites are linking to it. These are important metrics, but there’s one more thing that can help indicate how successful a piece of content has been:

Comments.

Unfortunately, you’ll have to visit each piece of content and check the comments yourself. That’s a bit of a pain, but at least your research so far will have helped you narrow the list of articles you need to take a look at.

Once you’ve identified each competitor’s best-performing content, again, make sure you’ve recorded the URLs alongside all relevant metrics.

Before you move on to Step 4, you’ll also want to gather some information about each competitor’s overall content strategy.

There’s no easy way to do this. You’ll have to visit each competitor’s site and manually collect the information. Specifically, you should aim to:

  • Find out how frequently your competitor’s publishing content.
  • Find out how long they’ve been consistently creating content.
  • Find the average word count of your competitor’s content.

This information should help you gauge a few things:

  • The frequency at which you’ll need to create content in order to replicate a competitor’s success.
  • How long you can expect to wait before seeing similar results to those of your competitor.
  • How to match the length and depth of a competitor’s output.

The research you’ve carried out during this step should also help you figure out how often your competitors are publishing content vs. how often they’re getting “wins” (by this I mean that the content’s getting consistent engagement – that it’s generating a steady return for the business – it doesn’t have to have gone “viral” to be considered a “win”).

If a competitor’s creating content every week, but has only ever had one or two “wins,” that’s a bad sign. You’ll want to ask yourself if you really want to reverse engineer their campaigns.

A one in three, four, or even five hit rate? That’s not so bad. Then again, it’s all relative. Some industries will get more “hits” than others.

Ideally, keep competitors that are getting a higher than average number of “wins” on your list. Scrap those that are falling below the bar.

Step 4: Analyze your competitors’ other marketing campaigns

You’re not looking to reverse engineer your competitors’ other marketing campaigns, but analyzing them can help you piece their content campaigns together.

It can also teach you about a critical part of their content campaign: promotion.

These are the key things I do when analyzing other elements of competitors’ marketing campaigns.

Sign up to their emails

This will reveal whether they’re promoting content via email marketing and if they are, how they’re doing it, and how often.

It’s probably best to keep yourself hidden from your competitors, so avoid signing up with your company email address. Make sure to retain all emails for reference, too. The easiest way to manage that is to set up filters which will send competitor emails directly to a designated folder.

Want to learn even more about your competitors’ email strategy? There are a number of tools which can help you with that.

Owletter stores and analyzes competitor emails to help you learn about “your competitors’ email behavior.” It’s cheap, too – from just $5 a month.

MailChart’s another – albeit pricier – option (subscriptions start from $42 a month). In addition to analyzing your competitors’ email habits, MailChart can show you how they segment their email list.

Check their social profiles

Look at how they’re using them (if at all) to promote their content. If they are, is it working? Are people engaging with what they post? If not, where do you think they’re going wrong?

If you’re not already, you’ll probably want to start following their profiles so you can keep track of what your competitors are posting. Better yet, use a tool like Hootsuite to track all relevant social streams in one place.

Track their brand names

Set up alerts for your competitors’ brand names so you receive notifications when mentions of them appear online. Brand24 is great for this. So are talkwalker and trackur.

If you don’t want to pay for brand tracking, there are always Google Alerts. It’s lacking in features and delivers less alerts than the aforementioned tools but for the price (free) you can’t complain.

See if they guest post

If they are, you should find evidence of this in their link reports. Track their brand names and you should also be alerted to any new posts as they appear.

What you’re primarily looking for here is a pattern.

Do the same sites keep popping up for different competitors?

Chances are, if multiple competitors are all engaged in guest posting, they will.

Note these sites down. When you start to put this all into action you’ll want to ensure you’re targeting these sites too.

Unfortunately, though, that’s not enough.

Appearing on the same sites as your competitors only levels the playing field. It doesn’t put you in first place.

This is a problem I’ve faced (and overcome) myself.

I target the biggest sites in my industry, but so do my competitors, so I don’t expect amazing results from this strategy alone.

This means in order to get ahead I make sure to secure guest post spots on sites they’re not on, as well.

Find out if they’re working with influencers

And if they are, find out who they’re working with and what those influencers are doing for the brand.

The idea here isn’t to find out which influencers your competitors are working with, and target those same influencers yourself. You’re unlikely to get a great response with that approach.

Instead, you’ll want to pay attention to things like:

  • The personality of the influencer.
  • The size of their audience.
  • The sort of promotion they’re carrying out for your competitor, and
  • Whether the campaigns are actually working.

This will help you find someone who – all being well – will resonate with your audience in a similar way.

On the other hand, you might find out that influencer marketing isn’t working for your competitors – that it’s just not a fit for your target market, or that your market is too saturated with influencers and your audience is tuning out their messages.

If that’s the case, influencer marketing is unlikely to work for you, either.

You can save yourself a lot of time, money and effort down the line by deleting influencer marketing from your strategy now.

Again, remember to record all relevant information. This may include:

  • The login details of the account being used to monitor competitor emails.
  • A list of all relevant social profiles (or if you’re using it, the login details for Hootsuite).
  • Login details for your choice of brand monitoring tool, as well as details of the email account brand mentions are sent to (it might be a good idea to use the same account you use to monitor emails).
  • A list of sites your competitors are guest posting to.
  • Names and social profiles of influencers they’re working with, and links to examples of promotions that the influencers have executed on your competitors’ behalf.

Step 5: Establish which keywords your competitors are targeting

This can help you identify phrases you might want to target in your own content – phrases that they’re ranking for, but you’re not (yet).

It can also help you pinpoint phrases that your competitors haven’t yet targeted (which should mean easy wins).

Let’s run through a few different strategies for finding your competitors’ keywords.

Manually analyze the content

Keywords are frequently contained within a page’s meta title, H1 tag (which will usually be the title of the post), the URL, and any subheadings (which are often H2s, H3s and so on).

You can find most of this information on the page itself. Anything you can’t find will be in the source code.

Right click on a web page and click “View Page Source” to see this.

A meta title should look like this

An H1 should look like this

It’s also worth looking to see if your competitors are using the meta keywords tag. If they are… well, they shouldn’t be.

It doesn’t count for much of anything (especially in Google). The only purpose it really serves is to show competitors which keywords you’re targeting (which is great, if you’re the competitor).

You can also find this information using the MozBar. You’ll find it in the “On-Page Elements” section.

Crawl the site

Use software like Screaming Frog or Moz’s Crawl Test.

This will save you tons of time compared to the method above. Instead of gathering information manually, page by page, you’ll be able to scan through relevant data like meta titles and H1 tags.

To save yourself (and the crawler) even more time, don’t crawl the whole site. Crawl only the subfolder or subfolders of the site than contains content you want to analyze.

Check what they’re ranking for

If you’ve got access to a tool like Sistrix or SEMrush, use it. They both collect ranking data for millions of keywords, meaning you can enter any domain and view a spread of the phrases it’s ranking for.

Unfortunately, gathering this data isn’t easy, which makes the tools that offer it pretty pricey (if you know of any cheap or free alternatives, please let me know in the comments).

It’s also worth noting that just because a site’s ranking for a keyword does not mean they’re actually targeting it, or that it’s in any way relevant or valuable. That’s why it’s still worth following one of the processes listed above.

Once you’ve gathered this data, make sure to copy any keywords of interest into the document you’re using to develop your strategy. It’ll come in handy when you come to implement it – both when generating ideas and when creating the actual content.

Step 6: Decide what type of content you’re going to imitate (and how you’re going to stand out)

By this stage, you should have a solid idea of your competitors’ content strategy, including:

  • The type of content they’re creating.
  • What content’s performing best for them.
  • How they’re promoting it.
  • What keywords they’re targeting within it.

Your job now is to decide what sort of content you’re going to create and how closely you’re going to imitate your competitors’ efforts.

I say this because what works for your competitors won’t necessarily work for you. If you’re up against brands that live on domains with a lot of history and high authority scores, matching their results using their exact strategy won’t be easy.

I found myself in that position when using this approach to create a content strategy for Mailshake. The competitors I analyzed included brands like Close.io, SalesLoft and Yesware.

What I discovered was that I couldn’t replicate their content strategies like-for-like because a lot of what’s working for them works because they’ve been doing this for years.

Their domains are older than Mailshake’s and their DA is higher. We were entering a space that had been around for a decade by that point – so how could we stand out? What would be our unique hook?

To figure that out, I had to look at their content.

Our competitors were all creating things like “10 Cold Email Templates” or “7 Cold Emailing Strategies.”

That’s all fine – it’s working for them – but we can’t compete by covering the same ground. People have already been inundated with that information. We had to find our own space in the market, carve a path through that noise with a topic that hasn’t been done to death.

So instead we decided to look at relationship building, and how this is the key to success when starting a cold email campaign.

The result has been blog posts like this:

How Sol Orwell Used Cold Outreach to Connect with People & Secure Guest Posts

As well as a single piece of “10x content” – an outreach ebook.

Why have we only created a single piece of 10x content?

Because we’re still promoting it and as it stands, we can get a better ROI promoting this one piece than we would get if we were to create and start promoting a second piece alongside it.

Would we like to create more 10x content?

Sure.

It’s just not worth the investment at this time.

The important thing is that we have this piece of evergreen content that will age well and generate increasing ROI as time goes on.

This is critical, especially when you’re up against high authority domains with history. They can create content and it doesn’t have to be 10x to rank well and drive traffic. It will rank simply because search engines know and trust the domain.

If you don’t have that luxury, you first have to reverse engineer your competitors’ content strategies, but then you have to figure out what you can do differently to make sure your own content can compete.

Pulling this all together

By now, you should have a document that contains the following:

  • 2 or 3 competitors with content strategies worth imitating.
  • A list of their top pieces of content.
  • Relevant login details – i.e. accounts for monitoring emails, social media profiles, and brand mentions.
  • A list of sites your competitors are guest posting to.
  • Details of influencers your competitors are working with.
  • A list of keywords your competitors are targeting in their content.
  • Some ideas for the sort of content – both type and topics – that you want to create.

You should also have a pretty solid idea of how your competitors are promoting their content – whether they’re using email marketing and social media, or leveraging influencers – and if they are, how they’re using these tools.

Your job now is to put together a simple strategy that you can use to imitate your competitors’ campaigns.

This should include:

  • Creating content that covers new ground [different than what your competitors cover].
  • Incorporating keywords your competitors are targeting – and some that they’re not.
  • Promotion strategies your competitors use. Look at where they’re promoting their content and the wording and imagery used to accompany it. You might not be able to mimic their promotion strategies to a T, but being aware of what they’re doing gives you a running start.
  • Mirroring their other marketing strategies. For example, if they’re guest posting, follow in their footsteps. Begin by targeting the same sites they’re appearing on, then branch out and target sites they’re not.

Have you ever created a content campaign by reverse engineering a competitor’s wins? It’d be great if you left a comment to let me know how it went and whether you followed any steps I’ve not covered here:

Comments
  1. Thanks Sujan for another thorough and informative structured article.
    We are at the stage of creating our content form a totally new website and of course want to stand out from the crowd.
    Your steps are helpful as are the various tools that one can use…many I am aware of, but as you mentioned, there are always some “nuggets” of info in the comments that people leave below such articles….I hope that this article also gets such tips from your followers.

    I just watched a webinar done by Brad Keys @ 180fusion.com about the 10 main points of SEO…again very useful for us at this stage of our online development…no sales pitch, just genuine info sharing, as you do.. Thank heavens that there are people like that to assist those that follow along the marketing road !!
    Thanks again..I love all your content.

  2. Thank you for this complete guide. I was really excited to test this for our website. But then… our most successful competitor has basically no content marketing. There are only a few landingpages for some, but not even all, of the important keywords. No blog. No really useful content the customers. At least we will have less difficulties to create new content.

  3. I’m breaking into a competitive niche (data storytelling) and am going to use a similar strategy to the one you describe for Mailshake. I’m going to start off with one epic piece of content while looking at my competitors’ promotion strategies and blind spots.

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