As a self-appointed lifelong student of economics I have found myself acting as an apologist for competition in many conversations. The latest activity in my defense of competition has taken place in the freelance writing and blogging sphere.
The consensus, at least from what I’ve found, is that freelance writers and bloggers abhor the idea of competition. Instead of competing, they seek to be inclusive and to rely on the act of collaboration in lieu of competition.
It was my queries into what types of competitive research freelance bloggers and writers like to do that got me to write this article.
My findings: none.
Upon my research and after many conversations, I have found that freelancers seem to have a few misperceptions about what competition means from a business or marketing context.
Overall, I believe that there is a general perception problem among the freelance writing and blogging community about the market research sub-field of competitive research.
In an effort to introduce the freelance writing and blogging community to what I believe are novel competitive research tactics (tactics borne out of my experience in military intelligence), I first wanted to present an article that helped clarify my feelings about competition: that competition is actually a good thing, that with competition everyone gains, and that competition should be used as a tool as much as collaboration.
More than just an introduction to competitive research, however, I am interested in showing freelance writers some ways they can earn more money by being more selective about the content they write. As the Freelance Writers Academy tag-line goes, my aim is “Helping Freelance Writers Earn What They Deserve.”
In this post I am going to do the following:
• Introduce how most of my conversations have gone when talking to writers and bloggers about competition.
• Explore what I feel are two misperceptions of competition.
• Explain my view of competition (using the economic perspective as my launchpad).
• Show how, not only should competition be accepted; but, it actually improves content.
• Provide an introduction to competitive research for freelance writers and bloggers.
• Play Devil’s advocate and take a slight stand against competition.
How Most of My Conversations Go About Competition
Usually I’ll say something like “Competition is great for business; it’s as good as collaboration!”
And then I’ll get a “But, . . .
Two Misperceptions of Competition: Avoiding Competition is Good and Competition is Worse than Collaboration
For a freelance writer or blogger, competition is a taboo word of sorts. In the online world in particular, freelance writers and bloggers have felt much success with the practice of “collaborating” and not “competing.” Thus, for many freelancers, it stands to reason that collaborating is better than competing and the act of “competition” becomes something to avoid.
I disagree with this perception, and I disagree, therefore, with avoidance of competition.
First, I don’t think one is better than the other–I think both competition and collaboration have their purposes in every business. Let’s not forget: freelance writing and blogging are for-profit businesses.
The way I like to look at it, then, is that collaboration and competition are two tools in a business owner’s tool-belt—both of which have the potential to help a freelancer earn money.
In the world of freelance writing one has to somewhat excuse acts that we could easily classify as competition because these competitive acts are inherent in the work of being a freelancer. That is, because there are so few gigs and so many writers looking for gigs, most freelancing involves the act of “pitching” (a freelancer action) or the act of “bidding” (a client action).
Alas, the acts of pitching and bidding make up what behavioral economists would call a zero-sum competitive game (meaning: if one freelancer wins a gig another freelancer necessarily loses it); but, one won’t usually hear a freelance writer complain about this process.
Competition is embedded in the way a freelance writer gets paid; so, freelance writers learn to take rejection with a smile and move on to the next thing. Those freelancers who quit because they don’t like the inherent competition involved or who can’t move past rejection won’t keep querying and therefore will never win a gig.
By telling another freelance writer that you are their competitor you are, in
effect, saying, “I am going to try and take jobs from you.” While this is pretty
much assumed, it’s never talked about–lest the freelancer be reminded that they
are in such overwhelming competition being in the sphere of writing for money; competition becomes invisible and the word becomes taboo.
The idea that competition is worse than cooperation originates when competition in the freelance world becomes tacitly accepted and invisible. Because so much success has been seen in collaboration (particularly with regard to guest blogging) and only negatives have resulted in competing (even though we’re supposed to smile, rejection still suuuucks), we create a veritable straw-man out of competition to bolster our approval of collaboration.
Again, I disagree with this perception of competition.
The Economic Perspective: Shedding Light on Competition
This is my view of competition:
Let me explain. There are two perspectives: the Usual Perspective and the Economic Perspective.
In the Usual Perspective, individuals see competition much like they view two rams fighting or a two person sprint. That is, competition is head to head action where someone must best another person, leaving the loser to feel worse for it (or, in the ram’s case, possibly dead).
In the Usual Perspective, people see cooperation as being better than competition because, as the figure indicates, one person helps another person (blue helps red, red helps blue) so that they can both move forward.
Unfortunately, the Usual Perspective is wrong about the act of cooperation. When one begins to examine the true nature of how the freelance writing and blogging community works, they begin to see that (as stated above) freelance writing is a zero-sum competitive game. There is always a winner, even in collaboration. In the graph this is represented by the Usual Perspective’s view of cooperation initially, but begins to deviate when blue rises to the top in the Economic Perspective (note: it could be red that rises, but only one possibility is shown graphically for symmetry).
What’s really being shown in the Economic Perspective is the idea of what economists call emergent behavior. Because the life of a freelancer involves taste and taste is randomly distributed, there is no good way to determine who wins and who loses a gig. When two people who are in a collaborating environment pitch the same client, only one of them will get the gig.
Because selection of the winner is chosen on taste this selection is completely separate from the relationship between the two collaborators. Or at least should be. Unfortunately, what actually tends to happen in a collaborative environment is what psychologists call “groupthink.” Indeed, all one has to do to see groupthink in action is visit any freelance writing blog to see all the “oooh, this is so great” comments. (Though it’s beyond the scope of this paper, I hope to eventually explore how groupthink as a result of cooperation is the root cause of a lot of terrible content circulating the Internet.)
The view of competition under the Economic Perspective also assumes randomness and emergent behavior. But, because the two individuals (red and blue) are competing with one another, there is an unexpected orderly result: only the individual who produces the best content will be chosen.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that this last view of competition is what actually occurs (remember, someone is going to win the gig).
“OK,” you say, “but if both competition and collaboration lead to one winner in the economic perspective, why should we compete? Competition is mean and collaboration is nice; so, competition is worse than collaborating and, so, should be avoided.”
Well, there’s one reason competition is actually better in this case than collaboration: competition produces better results.
Competition Should Be Accepted
Though it hurts during the time of rejection, competition is actually a good thing. Competition raises the quality of one’s work and allows for the figurative “cream” to rise to the top. If it weren’t for competition in the world of freelance writing and blogging, a lot more questionable content would get through–content that is not well researched or well thought out would begin to dominate the online world because, well, people love taking the easy way.
Not only does competition raise quality and limit the crap that we have to wade through to get to the good stuff, it associates a cost to the production of content, which prevents work from being produced.
Face it, there is already too much content out there.
The importance of this fact cannot be stressed enough. How much time do you spend creating content versus consuming it?
Because there’s so much content out there to read, if you’re like me, I’d guess you’re on an 80/20 ratio–and not in the good way. You’re probably consuming 80% garbage to 20% excellence (obviously the world isn’t that black and white, but either way—it’s not all puppies and baby kisses).
If you’re like me you’re probably consuming an ass-load of content every day. Even on your days off and away from technology you’re probably consuming more than you’re producing. And if you’re a writer, blogger, or in the Internet marketing space, this is not a good scenario.
The nice thing about competition, though, is that it means most of what you’re consuming–if you’re doing proper research–is high quality. There are so many filters and gate keepers these days that usually only the highest quality content will ever make it to your eyes.
That said, this is a double-edged sword. If only the highest quality content gets through then that means you’d better be busting your ass getting that content out there. But, if you’re spending the vast majority of your time consuming content, then you’re probably not working hard enough to produce a large amount of quality content.
Does this sound familiar? What it doesn’t sound like is a winning strategy.
Competition Can Help You Create Great Content
Because we live in a world that is governed by certain immutable economic laws (namely, that people are mostly self-interested), you can be sure that someone out there who is a direct competitor to you is looking at everyone in your niche and trying to fill holes.
I mean, why wouldn’t they be?
When it comes to business (and freelance writing is certainly a business) it’s important to place the customer first. One of the best ways to serve the customer is to find either what’s not out there or what’s out there and could be improved.
All this means, then, is that by filling the holes in the current content library you are better serving the customer. What’s wrong with that?
Besides trying to fill a void, if we’ve shown that competition isn’t a bad thing after all. And if we’ve shown that competition provides the highest quality content. And if the highest quality content is that which gets through the filters and into our brains . . .
doesn’t it make sense to want to know what the competition is doing that is so “high quality?”
A long time ago I made the following statement about my “be”: “I want to be read; not just reading.”
It turns out, if I look to what my competition is doing (or better yet not doing), I will be able to better serve the customer and more likely find eyes to read my stuff.
Enter: Competitive Research.
If only to better determine how we can get our words to people’s eyes, a little competitive research can go a long way.
Let’s imagine for a second that you’re not a freelance writer or blogger. Let’s imagine that you want to run your own auto-body shop. If you find out that a direct competitor is landing more customers than you are, wouldn’t you want to know why?
The answer is always going to be the same: for whatever reason, customers have determined that your competitor is providing a greater value than you are. And, until you prove otherwise, the customer is always right.
Competition is Essential and Research is Primary
My argument is that competition is essential to the survival of your business and the best way to compete on the web is through competitive research. If you never compete, you’re either lying to yourself or you’re on your way down. If you never do competitive research, you’re probably on your way down.
Competitive research can be as simple as comparing prices and perusing a competitor’s blog or website or it can be as technical as using specialized analytical tools to analyze a competitor’s traffic. Either way, you are competing through research. In the end, the goal is the same: to understand who your competitors are and what they are doing.
Now, the questions you probably want to ask yourself are, are you doing enough competitive research and are you doing the right kind of competitive research?
An Introduction to Competitive Research
Since time is a limited resource, you will really want to think deeply about how much time you spend doing competitive research–that is, how much time you spend analyzing what you’re competition is up to.
Trade Offs of Competition Vs. Collaboration
When one talks about the time spent doing competitive research, it might cause one to stop and wonder about the trade-offs associated with competition and collaboration. That is, if you’re collaborating X amount and you are competing Y amount, what’s the net effect?
I think were I to compare competition and collaboration I might find some pros and cons for each. That said, there’s a factor that needs to be addressed at once–a factor that, really, negates the need to ever do a pros and cons list.
In fact, I argue that there’s no need to compare the two duties because competition and collaboration are different from each other in one fundamental way.
First, let’s just accept that competition is essential. Now, if I told you that you could perform all of the necessary competition — that is, competitive research, without your competitors ever knowing, wouldn’t you feel less need to argue whether one is better than the other.
In the world of collaboration, you must be transparent. But, in the world of competition, I don’t see any reason why you need to be transparent at all.
I’m not talking about doing anything outside the bounds of ethical business practices; but, like the auto-body business example, if your direct competition is taking potential clients from you, you really have an interest to figure out what it is that they’re doing–your business depends on it. And if you DO find out what their special ingredient is, you really don’t need to tell them about it–they already know what it is anyway!
How to Go About Competing
So, I’ve sold you on the fact that you want to know what the competition is doing. And you now know that you can do all the competitive research that you want without your competition ever finding out; so, the next question is: where do you start?
The first thing to remember about competition is the same thing you must remember about creating content: i.e. what purpose are you trying to serve?
If you are trying to figure out how receptive the audience is to your competition’s products, for example, this type of research requires a lot different approach from, say, trying to determine which of your competition’s products are converting.
Both of these purposes have value; but, you need to determine which is more important to your goals because, like anything, both of these purposes also have costs.
Here are the tools that I use for competitive research:
Google: more than just a search engine (though the search engine is probably the tool you’ll use the most), Google comes with a whole host of tools for competitive research.
By using Google AdWords’s keyword planner, you can find interesting information on what others are doing in your niche. As a freelance writer, this might be good for researching interesting and under-covered topics or it might be good just to find ideas about which to write.
A less technical competitive research tool of Google’s is Google Trends. Google Trends will show you the popularity of search terms over time (e.g. the trend for “Freelance Blogging” shows that the search term peaked in 2009 and has been on a downward slope ever since—interesting!).
Though it really falls under the tool of “email,” one of my favorite research tools from Google is Google Alerts. By setting up alerts for specific search terms I receive daily (or weekly) emails summarizing content that Google has found that contains those specific search terms. Often this is a quicker way, for example, to find out about a blog post than waiting for the post to work its way through social media.
Moz: Formerly known as SEO Moz, Moz is pretty much the industry leader in SEO analysis, competitive marketing research, and putting a nice-guy smile on a nerdy industry. With paid tools such as Open Site Explorer and Fresh Web Explorer you can look at a competitor’s back links, link building methods, and recent content. Though Moz Analytics is a bit pricey ($99/month), there isn’t really a better tool for competitive research out there (that I’ve found).
Long Tail Pro: I use LTP (another paid tool) in two different ways. First, to generate keywords (much less tedious than Google) and, second, to conduct competitor analysis.
The keyword generator in LTP runs on Google AdWords (you actually have to link your AdWords account for LTP to work) and allows you to limit searches by volume, uncover advertiser competition for given keywords, and find related keywords to any keyword list you input.
The competitor analysis in LTP allows you to quickly determine the chance that a keyword (or your website) will have in ranking within Google. If through research, for example, you find that there is very little competition on page one of Google for topic “X” you have a great chance of ranking for that topic should you begin to produce quality content using keywords related to that topic.
Facebook: Really, all social media platforms can be used for competitive research. But, Facebook presently has the most users, so I’ll talk a bit about how one can use Facebook for competitive research. There are three ways that I’ve found to do competitive research on Facebook:
1) Groups – By joining groups related to your niche you have easy access to a lot of the conversations going on in your niche’s community. You can leverage these groups by looking at the most active members’ websites or blogs or even by posing your own questions within the groups to see how your thoughts resonate (this is actually how I first saw that there might be a need to introduce the up sides of competition to the freelance blogging community).
2) Hashtags – Based on the Twitter method of putting a “#” before a term to filter for that term and see everyone who’s talking about the same subject, Facebook now has a similar # function. So, if you want to find what people are saying about snorkels, all you have to do is type #snorkels into Facebook’s search box.
3) Profiles and Pages – Profiles are for people and pages are for businesses or institutions. By “friending” people you have access to their profiles and by “liking” pages you have access to a business or institution’s posts.
Email: Just subscribe to the newsletters of people in your niche. You’ll be able to see what they’re up to, find out what they’re reading, and even get insights into how they market. Because I’m open to subscribing to as many newsletters as possible (and have developed a good email management system) I’ve learned more from emails than I would have ever expected.
Competition May Be Hideable But It’s Almost Never Free
OK, so in this article, my goal was to introduce how competition isn’t really the bad guy that a lot of people think he is. In fact, because competition motivates us to create our best content there are solid arguments for how competition is a good thing.
At the very least I hope I’ve shown how competition is but another tool in the freelancer’s tool-belt and, therefore, isn’t necessarily worse than collaborating—just different.
The final note that I’d like to make about competition has me playing Devil’s advocate.
I’ve already mentioned the fact that there is too much content out there. Likewise, there are also too many things to “do” in order to operate an online or freelance business. So, unless you’ve got the interest and time available, spending a lot of time on competitive research likely carries greater costs than benefits.
That said, if you’re looking to find a quick way to determine holes or gaps in your niche, there really isn’t a better way than competitive research. Though collaborating is great for networking and building relationships, people can’t tell you what they don’t know. Even so, the adage that killer content is what matters most is not any less true than before.
A person who spends minimal time conducting competitive research and maximal time creating killer content will inevitably be much better off than someone who does the opposite.
So, take what I’ve said, know that competitive research is just another tool, and keep creating killer content—whether we’re talking the Usual Perspective or the Economic Perspective, the cream always rises to the top.
If you’re interested in talking more about competitive research or have any comments on this post, please leave a comment below!
Anton is a freelance writer and blogger. When he’s not doing amazing shit
(http://www.doamazingshit.com) he can usually be found hangin with his 7 month old or at the library.