Web monitoring yields competitors' info

Keeping track of what is said about others in a client's space can help inform PR strategy. By David Ward

Whether it's setting up Google Alerts or a far more extensive program that leverages sophisticated, keyword-based artificial intelligence, most companies now realize the value of tracking what is being written about them online.

But, increasingly, many firms and brands are expanding those efforts to keep track of what's being said about their competitors as well. “It's something we advocate for all our clients, even in this tough economy,” says Steve Shannon, EVP at BurrellesLuce. “It really brings perspective to your own online coverage and helps you better define the success of your marketing and communication.”

Most competitor monitoring programs often track both paid and earned media, using complex algorithms to determine interest and reaction to a rival's products or announcement.

But Brooke Aker, CEO of Expert System, says these programs can often yield a lot more than just who's winning the online awareness war between companies. “What you often find out is the advantages your client perceives to have over a competitor may not be what they think they are,” he notes. Analyzing complaints or praise regarding, for example, a com-petitor's customer service can provide a better understanding of the customers' purchase process from initial interest through actual use, Aker adds.

Separating out the mere mentions of a client's competitors from the online rants and raves that truly influence a brand's image is getting better thanks to software that takes into account semantics and tone.

Yet Jim Waggoner, president of VMS' professional services division, says that it's still important to have a human eye look over some of these placements so that a client isn't obsessed with the quantitative amount of competitor mentions at the expense of the quality.

“You can really be led in some bad directions if you just look at the numbers, so you need to make sure you're also having discussions where you can qualify things, like sentiment,” he adds.

Shannon agrees, adding that any competitive monitoring program also needs to be planned out well in advance. “You need to begin with the end in mind instead of going out and capturing all this coverage about competitors and then trying to figure out what to do with it,” he says. “You can't just be looking at snapshots, so even if you start small, make sure you start with what you want to do with this information and then put a measurement program in place.”

One of BurellesLuce's clients is the construction materials supplier Lafarge North America. Louise Muth, director of external communications for Lafarge, says she likes to keep an eye on what kind of media traction competitors are getting with their local green and sustainability initiatives.

But Muth stresses that monitoring the competition online should not be all consuming or a daily chore.

“We have options to get reports on our competitors on a daily basis, but personally I find that too much to read,” she says. “What I find most useful are the quarterly reports we get, because it gives us a chance to step back and look at our messaging versus our competitors and make sure that we're differentiating ourselves.”

Technique Tips
Do
  • Have a plan in place before you collect your competition's data
  • Remember that it's what's being said about a company online that's important, so leverage tools to determine sentiment
  • Stay consistent – adhere to metrics and goals that gauge the competitors' media placement long term
Don't
  • Become obsessed with quantity; instead focus on the placements that influence decisions
  • Make this a daily chore – often monthly or quarterly analysis gives a clearer picture of the marketplace
  • Just look at the competition – set up monitoring that looks at industry as a whole

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