A great competitive intelligence program can and should inform many aspects of your organization's marketing strategy. And that includes content.

There's a great deal to learn and compete against when it comes to search engine optimization (SEO) and PPC competitor analysis. Search engine rankings for high-volume keywords are a finite resource in high demand. As such, they're battlegrounds for some furious competition.

To help out, Erik Mansur, VP of Product Marketing at Crayon, talks with Ryan Law, VP of Content at Animalz, in another episode of Into the Fray: The Competitive Intelligence Podcast.

They discuss all things content marketing, and Erik grills Ryan on his experiences on the other side of the competitive intelligence transaction.

Key talking points include:

Knowing your nemeses

Erik Mansur: My name’s Erik Mansur, and I’m the VP of Product Marketing at a company called Crayon. I am so fortunate to work with a group of incredibly talented digital creators and content marketers every single day – shout out to Sheila, Connor, Madison, Amy, and Allie, my content hive.

Why am I bringing this up? Well, today's guest doesn't do product marketing for a living, he's not an expert in win-loss analysis, and competitive intelligence isn't something that he lists as a skill on his LinkedIn profile. He’s Ryan Law, and he's the VP of Content at Animalz, an authority on all things content marketing.

I wanted to hear from the other side of the competitive intelligence transaction about how Ryan receives and internalizes his great insights about rival solutions and the ways he uses that data to his advantage.

‎Into the Fray - The Competitive Intelligence Podcast: The Pen is Mightier: How competitive intelligence can influence a content marketing strategy | Ryan Law, VP of Content at Animalz on Apple Podcasts
‎Show Into the Fray - The Competitive Intelligence Podcast, Ep The Pen is Mightier: How competitive intelligence can influence a content marketing strategy | Ryan Law, VP of Content at Animalz - 31 Aug 2022

Animalz is a content marketing agency. They've coordinated efforts and delivered results for hundreds of companies all around the world – names like Zuora, Wistia, and Appcues, as well as some tiny little upstarts called Google and Amazon. You may have heard of them.

But when Ryan thinks about rival solutions, he's usually not thinking about his own, but those of his clients. In fact, he's written about this idea using, well, comic book terminology. He says that every company needs a “nemesis” because having that villain makes you, the hero, look better. So I asked him, walking into a conversation with a new client – the hero in this analogy – does he know who those potential villains actually are?

Ryan Law: Probably not. There are lots of different ways you can have a competitor, and making them into a nemesis is a particular flavor of that. It's a marketing strategy that companies are not always willing to do because it's slightly adversarial and doesn't always align with their brands.

I do think that every company has competitors in some form or another. It's just a question of how willing those companies are to admit that and change their strategy to accommodate that or potentially use it to their advantage.

Erik Mansur: Interesting. So when you walk into a pitch, are you putting together an initial scope of work that includes their competitors, or do you wait until a subsequent conversation to gauge their willingness to be competitive?

Ryan Law: That’s something we’ll always evaluate before we recommend anything to a customer. To recommend a strategy that works, we need to find an area of leverage, and a potential source of leverage for some companies is competition.

You get the classic 1:N products, like CRM software. They’re entering a very established market; people know what a CRM does, and they have a set of expectations. There, the idea of competition is quite well established in the company's brains.

For those types of companies, competition normally comes up as a topic of discussion very, very quickly. They want to emulate what these guys are doing, beat them in a certain dimension, or go after a topic that they're going after. On the other side of the coin, some companies don't even acknowledge that they have competition.

Even if companies feel they don't have competition, they're still competing against legacy processes, spreadsheets, and the manual processes their software automates.

We have the category of zero-to-one products. They’re the ones that are ostensibly doing something new. They offer features and services that you won't find in another product. In those instances, sometimes companies feel like they don't have competition because there are no established products, but even then they’re still competing against things like legacy processes, spreadsheets, and the manual things that their software automates away from.

Even in those situations, I think competition is a fruitful source of content and discussion because you're choosing to defend yourself against the status quo and what has happened in the past.

Competing as a disruptor

Erik Mansur: You mentioned that companies that come to you looking for content strategy think about themselves in two different ways. They're either an industry disrupter, perhaps trying to disrupt an existing manual process, or they're punching up into a market that already has an established hegemony. Do you come at them with two different competitive strategies, or do those strategies overlap?

Ryan Law: I think they’re different. The big benefit of being a disruptor is that you can reference manual processes, stuff that people have done before, to provide an access point into what you do and make it more familiar. That way, people can begin to think about your product in a way that makes sense to them.

Erik Mansur: It’s like, “This thing you have to do sucks. With us, you don't have to do that anymore,” and you build a content strategy around that.

Ryan Law: Yeah, I think Airtable and Zapier are great examples because what they've done with a lot of their content is position themselves against the individual use cases they’re competing against.

All of Zapier’s content is about different apps and how you can connect them, and Airtable shows thousands of different use cases you could build with a database or a spreadsheet, but the point is that you can do all of those things within this one platform. It’s competition in a different sense, but a really fruitful way of talking about it.

For other companies, sometimes the idea of having a nemesis is a more interesting approach. Basecamp do this all the time – their entire marketing is them positioning against industry giants like Apple or Gmail.

The whole point is that there are similarities between what the products do, but you're generating excitement and creating a narrative around the competition. You're creating this whole new surface area for marketing by saying, “These are the bad guys. We’re the good guys. Get on board with us.” It appeals to people’s ethical and emotional decision-making, rather than just highlighting the feature set, which may be quite similar in a lot of cases.

Competing for keywords

Erik Mansur: A lot of the companies that are going up against the giants are probably walking into Techstars or Y Combinator, looking for their initial round of funding and saying, “You know what sucks about X? We're going to do that better.” So when you have that initial conversation with them, they already have a notion of what castle they're trying to attack, right? They just want the tools by which they can bring on that attack.

Ryan Law: Yeah, I certainly agree with that, and that can be used to influence content strategy in different ways. We've talked about positioning, which is a big part of it – a lot of these companies are positioning themselves against competitors in terms of the feature sets they choose to promote, obfuscate, or overlook – but there's also this idea of topic competition, which is interesting.

We deal a lot with search content, for example. You want to go after this set of keywords because you think that will reach the right audience and bring them to you. In a lot of cases, the other companies that are competing for those keywords will be direct product competitors. But there's this interesting situation where lots of indirect nonproduct competitors will compete with you on those terms too.

Think of Wikipedia, for example. It ranks for pretty much every topic imaginable, so in some ways, your content can be competing against a company like Wikipedia. So not only do you have to think about who you’re competing with in terms of messaging and product features, but it's also about who you’re competing with on the discourse around the topics that your company is interested in.

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Erik Mansur: That's interesting. If we take Airtable as an example again, they're going to be trying to rank for specific keywords related to project management software, but as a result of their content strategy and who their primary buyers are, they're also trying to rank for other parallel or even tangential keywords that appeal to a product or project manager.

So what you're saying is, understand who your direct competitors are and anyone else who’s competing for the same eyeballs, and take aim for those as well. Am I reading that right?

Ryan Law: Absolutely. Lots of like organizations have very educational content strategies, and they want to rank for keywords just to get in their audience’s headspace, even if they don't offer products that will directly benefit those people. You can have a blog, for example, with lots of product management topics.

If you're trying to reach people at the awareness stage when they're just trying to solve problems, that is as much competition for your article as a direct Airtable competitor would be. So you always have to think about what you can add to the discourse, above and beyond what other companies are talking about, even when those companies are not necessarily direct product competitors.

Erik Mansur: You said “add to the discourse,” which is a great term of art in content marketing. You mentioned that companies may try to establish a more consultative content strategy, and adding to the discourse is either zagging when everybody else is zigging or adding a layer onto something else that already exists.

Are you looking at competitors' content strategies and trying to find where that zigzag moment is? And if so, how are you doing that?

Ryan Law: We definitely do. If you take an element of what we do, SEO for example, there's a set of keywords we want to compete for because our competitors are already competing for them.

It's very easy to look at the top-ranking content and create your own version of that, which basically consolidates the existing information without adding anything new. As a result, when you look at most competitive search results, the articles are pretty homogenous in terms of the information they contain and the way in which they're written.

They’re very utilitarian, and quite often they read like Wikipedia pages. That’s because somebody's using their keyword research spreadsheet, finding the top-ranking articles, and saying, “They talk about these eight topics; let's talk about them as well.”

We're always trying to find not only want to outrank ... but also to leave some lingering artifact of the company and its messaging and positioning.

In those situations, even if you manage to outrank that content, it's probably not going to have much of an impact on the thing that matters, which is people remembering you, trusting you, and actually buying the product. What you’ve written doesn’t matter because your audience could have read the same thing on your competitor's website.

With that in mind, we're always trying to find not only ways to outrank that content, but also to leave some lingering artifact of the company and its messaging and positioning. That begins the process of building trust and differentiating your content from other articles on the topic.

Beating your competitors with engaging content

Erik Mansur: How challenging is it to both earn trust and differentiate yourself through content marketing?

Ryan Law: It’s very hard. In the niche Animalz inhabits, we try to reconcile those two aims. There are still some industries where content marketing is quite nascent, so you can do very generic old-fashioned things like publishing ultimate guides and top 10 software listicles and still get good results. However, because of ever-increasing competition in every industry, that’s becoming less and less successful.

Many industries are hugely saturated and contested by dozens of companies with great brand awareness, huge budgets, and incredible domain authority, so you have to be very deliberate about not only ranking, but doing so in a way that looks and feels different to what other companies are doing. That is a very hard thing to do.

You talked about zigging and zagging, and I think that’s one of the natural consequences of the increasingly marginal returns of search. We're having to find new dimensions in which to compete with other companies, and I think that’s one of the reasons we're seeing this influx of media content becoming more and more important.

There was a time when having the best product was the ultimate marketing differentiator.

Erik Mansur: Sure. Just having the best thing to sell was going to help you rise above the rest, right?

Ryan Law: Exactly, and you can still do that. You can build a better product, but that becomes much harder when 50 other products are trying to do the same thing. That’s how content marketing became the new frontier for competition. The criteria for success was not just who had the best product; it was who had the best product and the best content marketing.

We're now at a point where even that approach has become so saturated that another dimension has come into play. It’s about who has the best product and the best content marketing and can best entertain the audience at this early stage of the process and earn that headspace before other companies do.

Erik Mansur: What you're alluding to is the rise of companies that have their own podcasts and video channels and are on TikTok. Content has gone beyond informative blog posts that I can reference when I'm doing my job.

Now it’s about X, Y, or Z personality who works at Gong or ZoomInfo, and I want to consume their content because they're an interesting person, and what they're saying appeals to me. It goes far beyond traditional content marketing and becomes more like old-school content creation, where you're the star of your own show. Am I getting that right?

Ryan Law: Yeah, exactly that. It's the natural consequence of the incentives created by marketing. If you enter into a new marketplace, and you have the best product, why would you spend time on media content? You can just talk about how great your product is, and you'll probably generate a lot of business on the back of that.

But obviously, once other companies are doing that, and the advantage has waned, you have to find more creative ways of getting into that buying process before other companies. I think that is a natural consequence of how competitive most marketplaces are today.

How to position yourself against your competitors without being adversarial

Erik Mansur: You wrote a blog post for Animalz two years ago that I think was really seminal. It goes against what I, as a product marketer, would normally think is the right strategy. The title of the article is, Yes, you should talk about your competitors.

You make the claim – and data has backed this up – that companies who are punching up or have named competitors in the space should be creating content that provides a direct comparison between their solution and another. That’s because it's informative, and you want the consumer to be more informed of your point of view on something, but also, that in and of itself becomes a competitive content tool that's going to drive a lot of interest.

There are probably some companies that bristle at that. They want to stay above the fray. They don't want to provide an “us versus them” comparison. How have you broken through those objections with your clients and persuaded them to give this strategy a shot?

Ryan Law: I think the most important thing is distilling it back to the first principle, which is the idea that this decision-making process is happening, and you can't change that. People and companies are evaluating you against your competitors.

It's a very natural inclination to not want to get messy and throw mud at other companies, but I think it behooves companies to become an active part of that decision-making process, and you can do it in a way that is not adversarial.

You don't need feature parity ... Your product doesn't have to be the best; it just has to be different.

The most common objections we hear are that clients don't have feature parity, or even that they’re worse than the competition, so why would they want to bring that up? The way we always talk about that is that you don't need feature parity. You don't always need to be objectively better, as long as there are defensible reasons behind the way you've built your product.

Your product doesn't have to be the best; it just has to be different. There is always some subset of the market that will value different criteria and different feature sets. Maybe they want something incredibly extensible or something with a very managed workflow. There’s no objective right or wrong there. You’re just serving different portions of the market, so I think you can talk about that.

You can even have comparison tables that point out the fact that you don't have a bunch of these features. That can be a selling point because not everyone wants the broadest feature set possible.

You don't have to be mean. You don't have to say that these other companies are terrible, and you should never buy from them because look at all the awful things they've done. Just lean into messaging the fact that your product is different. It's for a different type of person that values different things, and if you like how we operate, you should buy from us. If you don't, by all means, try out that other product, and we'll be here waiting for you if your desires change.

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