This playbook will show you how to perform distribution research to unlock super helpful insights about the ways in which your competitors distribute their product. Think traffic sources, positioning, community vibe, tone of voice, content strategy etc. In short, distribution research is the tool in your expert marketer tool-box that will help you better understand the competitive landscape.
Our advice? Be curious and adventurous, you really can learn a lot from your competitors. Be aware, distribution research will not serve silver bullets on a silver platter. But it will give you better growth ideas and help you better prioritise them. And that is actually a silver bullet in itself.
With this playbook, you will be researching and comparing yourself to 3-5 competitors you admire and want to beat.
It will involve collecting a huge amount of data. To help you keep an overview, we have created a template, where you can gather all your data for each traffic source. Exploring different traffic sources will give you better ideas for growth activities instead of basing your ideas on another “mind-blowing” growth hacking article.
“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” - Abraham Lincoln
Once you have all these new ideas, the next job is prioritising which to do first using an activity matrix. More on that later, plus hacks for how to get started executing these activities with Founders Growth Machine. Let’s get started!
The first thing you need to do is to get an overview of your competitors’ website traffic. You can do this by researching which traffic sources drive the most traffic to their website. Alongside that, create the same traffic overview for your own website to compare.
There are various tools that can give you insights about your competitors’ traffic sources. We use SimilarWeb’s free version. It’s pretty simple to use.
Using the template
Bigger picture: This traffic overview will help you get an overall idea of how much traffic your competitors get from different traffic sources compared to you. For example, all LifeX’s (a co-living space in Copenhagen) competitors get a lot of traffic from social platforms. By looking at their social media platforms, we can try to figure out what they post to drive that amount of traffic.
Detailed insights: In SimilarWeb, you can also explore each traffic source more in depth. For example, under ‘social traffic’, you can see the top five social platforms driving the most traffic to your competitors’ websites. Under ‘search’ you can see the search traffic divided into organic and paid search, etc.
Identify patterns: Once you’re done with this step you will have a bunch of numbers for each competitor. It’s a good idea to always start out by highlighting the top three traffic sources, to see if there is a pattern. For example, if they all get most of their traffic from Facebook, you should explore why by researching how active they are, what kind of content they post, etc.
Less guesswork about your product: In general it’s also important to research the traffic sources that drive traffic to your own website. For example, when we did the organic keyword research for Founders, we realised that we needed to step up regarding SEO. We didn’t rank for any relevant keywords. When doing the distribution research, you will not only learn about your competitors, you will also learn something about your own business.
When you have the traffic source overview ready, it’s time to explore every single corner of the competitive landscape and find all the good stuff: new growth ideas!
The next few sections will walk you through each step of how to research the traffic sources in depth to find new growth ideas without falling straight into the red ocean. We’ll show you why and how to get closer to the blue ocean by researching each of the following key traffic sources:
By looking at the traffic overview in the template, we already know how much search traffic comes from organic and paid. The purpose of this deep dive is to explore competitors’ organic and paid keywords (ppc).
Time to put some money behind it. SimilarWeb provides you with the overview of total search traffic divided into both organic and paid. But to get data about all the organic and paid keywords, you need a paid account.
We use Ahrefs, a tool you can use for exploring almost all the traffic sources in the distribution research - and it’s worth every penny. We will show you how to use it for researching both organic and paid keywords.
In Ahrefs you can see all the organic keywords that drive traffic to your competitors’ website when searching for a specific domain. You will get an overview like this:
In this overview you should look at the keywords’ volume, competition, traffic and position for the keywords relevant for you - remember to ignore the first company related keywords, you won't be optimising for them anyway. Ahrefs by default lists the keywords by those that drive the most traffic to your competitors’ website.
Get smart about what keywords to optimise for: When looking at the keywords that drive the most traffic to your competitors’ website, you should pay attention to the search volume, competition, and position.
Geo-targeting: Distributing your product for a specific market? You can also filter by countries to see which keywords competitors rank for or if they even rank for keywords in that country. For example, LifeX’s competitors in the Danish market don’t rank for relevant keywords in Denmark. This is an obvious opportunity for LifeX to optimise for these keywords as there is no competition as such.
Work out if your competitors know what they’re doing: Overall, looking at organic keywords can somewhat give you an idea of whether your competitors have a clear SEO strategy or not. For example, if the total amount of organic search traffic is high, they might have a good idea about how to SEO-optimise their website.
When looking at paid keywords (ppc), you are pretty much looking at the same metrics as for the organic keywords to find relevant and potential keywords to pay for. The only difference is that you also will be looking at the cost per click (cpc).
In Ahrefs, you get this overview for paid keywords:
To compete or not to compete: You’ll find out which keywords drive most paid traffic to competitors’ website and how much traffic they exactly drive.
See how competitors are positioning themselves: Another really cool thing in Ahrefs, is that you can see your competitors’ ads. In that way you get great insights about how they are positioning themselves, which paid keywords and ad copy are generating traffic, what kind of CTAs they use etc.
Get a headstart in paid search: Not all competitors’ have paid search traffic. If paid search traffic is 0%, it probably means that they are not running ads. You can double check in Ahrefs under “PPC keywords”. Even though your competitors’ are not running ads, it’s still relevant to look at paid keywords. The purpose is to find out why they are not running ads.
In general: The list of competitors’ organic and paid keywords can give you inspiration for keywords to double down on:
If you discover a great growth opportunity when looking at organic and paid keywords, you will, of course, have to do a more in depth keyword analysis. I recommend this great guide by Ahrefs on how to do keyword research.
Ahrefs is also a great tool for understanding your competitors’ referring traffic. It provides you with a complete list of all your competitors’ referring domains and content. You can also use SimilarWeb’s and BuzzSumo’s free accounts, but the data you will get is very limited, as you are only able to see the top five domains and top five pieces of content.
## Referring domains
These insights about your competitors’ referring domains and content can give you ideas for new ways to distribute your product as well as getting more referring traffic by:
Today most companies are on social media. Researching your competitors' presence and how they distribute their product on social platforms will help you identify their social media strategy.
There are not that many free tools out there to research social media platforms and the free versions only give you limited access. If you can recommend a great tool, we would love to know (email@example.com). We prefer to do it manually because you have to visit their social media page anyway to see the specific types of content they posts etc.
To get an idea about competitors’ social media strategy, you can look at metrics like:
Unsurprisingly, the best way to keep yourself updated on your competitors’ social media accounts is to follow them. For example, on Facebook you can also add the function “see first”, so you will see posts from your competitors at the top of your news feed when they post something new. In that way, you can easily keep track of what they are doing.
Decode your competitors’ social media strategy: If there is a social platform where they post less, you can consider being more active there - if it’s relevant, of course.
Inspiration for content: By looking at their posts and the engagement, you’ll get an Idea of what followers engage with.
Positioning insights: Another thing to explore is whether they are using ads on Facebook or not in order to see how the positioning themselves. But it’s a bit more difficult to find out. You can use AdEspresso or find out by liking their page and visiting their website via their Facebook page. If they are running ads, you will most likely be exposed to their ads on Facebook shortly after (if they use a Facebook pixel).
The key purpose of this deep dive is to generate new content ideas by looking at what performs best for your competitors. You can do this in three different ways.
Find top content on your competitors’ websites (e.g. their blog) using Ahrefs.
See all the backlinks, referring and anchors for each content piece. You can use this for seeing what your competitors link to. You can also see the number of social sharings, which can give an indication of what type of content is most shareable.
Popular content ideas: Another way of getting ideas for content to write is by using Ahrefs’ content explorer. Simply enter a relevant topic, for example, customer support tools, and you will get a list with the most popular content within this topic. For each content piece, you get info about backlinks, referring domains, anchor and a list of all the organic keywords. This you can also use for inspiration for SEO optimisation or AdWords.
Inspiration: The third, and maybe most interesting way to find inspiration for content topics is by using Quora. Search for specific topics and find the related questions and answers. By looking at what people ask questions about, you can write a blog post that focuses on answering these questions. If it’s relevant to your product, of course!
A final way to get a better understanding of your competitors is by researching your industry’s community. It’s not specifically traffic-related and it’s also done more manually, as there is no specific tool to use for this. The purpose is to get insights about how people speak about your competitors, how they perceive their product etc. You can use this to differentiate yourself and improve your positioning.
Researching the community can be done in many ways, but we start off by looking at the following:
Understand competitors’ positioning: Product Hunt launches reveal a lot about how companies position themselves and what people think of their product.
How people talk about your rivals: Facebook reviews provide insights about how people are talking about your competitors, what they like/dislike about them if they are complaining or recommend them etc.
Stay on top of industry trends: Another part of the community research is to explore what people are talking about within your industry by doing some research on Quora, Facebook groups etc.
By now you should have a pretty good understanding of how your competitors distribute their product. You have probably also generated a bunch of good ideas for new growth activities to run - but where to start?
Distribution research is one more tool to add to your expert marketing tool-box. It will not only give you a great understanding of how your competitors distribute their product, it will also help you identify untapped growth opportunities and show you how to execute them.
NB. This is the first version of our distribution research playbook and all kind of feedback is more than welcome! Just send them in my direction: Janni@founders.as