Pat Reese, Chief Media Strategist, Rooster Strategic Solutions

I’m a big fan of competitive reviews. Most media people are. In fact, we’d probably run competitive media reports even if our clients didn’t ask for them, which is good, because most companies don’t ask.

Why don’t they ask? A comprehensive review takes a lot of time, for one. And, depending on how accurate you want it to be, it can get a little pricy. And it’s nearly impossible to identify how much competitors actually spend, which is what most marketing managers really want to know.

So, why am I such a fan? Because a competitive review gives me an insight into what competitors are doing that is second only to being a fly on the wall during their annual marketing meetings. It helps me build a media schedule that takes advantage not only of my clients’ strengths, but of their competitors’ weaknesses. It allows me as a buyer to purchase more media, often at lower prices.

Here are the three most important things I can learn from a competitive review – and the actions I can help my clients adopt once we have this incredibly valuable information.

What is their share of voice? In a perfect world, you’d know exactly what your competitors’ market shares are. Unfortunately, few of us live in that world. Share of voice is a good substitute; it’s a measure of the market your brand owns compared to your competitors – including competitors that don’t always jump to the top of your list. Knowing share of voice helps you identify the products, services, or topics of interest that appeal most to your customers and prospects. Maybe you need to get a little louder in some areas. Or you may be making a lot of unnecessary noise in other areas. Focusing your message in key areas is an efficient, cost-effective tactic.

When are they most active? Do they spread their messaging over the year or cram it all into the fourth quarter? How active are they in pre-season versus use-season? And how does this compare to the schedule that you’re running? Knowing the seasonality of your competitors’ schedules can help you put your assets to work where they’ll be most effective. You may decide to thwart what your competitors are doing, or to spend your dollars in the gaps where they’re not saying anything at all, so you can dominate the conversation.

What is their media mix? Where are they putting their dollars? Are they heavy in traditional print or have they gone completely digital? In addition to the different media they’re using, I like to pay special attention to where they’re running their messages and where they aren’t. You can start with their national messaging, and drill down to the state or even local level to identify gaps in their schedule you can exploit.

It also tells me which publishers and broadcasters are doing well and who’s hurting for business. This gives me a lot of leverage when it’s time to negotiate my clients’ media spend.

And, as an added bonus, competitive information gets even more valuable over time. A single competitive review will give you incredibly useful information. But when you’re able to look at year-over-year performance, the insights multiply exponentially. You may notice that a competitor cut their spend in half this year compared to last year. Or that they completely abandoned a key state. Or that they moved all the money they spent in print last year into digital. I’ve seen all this and more, and armed with that knowledge, I can help my clients take advantage of key opportunities.

So now, hopefully, you’re a believer. Where do you start? If your company is large to super-large, it might make sense for you to subscribe to a reporting service that aggregates all this data, such as Kantar or MediaRadar. These services aren’t cheap though – plan on spending up to $10 thousand per year or more, depending on your needs, and know that there’s a pretty steep learning curve.

A cheaper option is to do it yourself. Start by reaching out to your publishing reps and ask them what your competitors ran last year. Most are happy to tell you the number of pages or spots that were run; they obviously won’t tell you what the companies spent, but you can use the rate cards to get an apples-to-apples comparison. For digital, they won’t tell you the number of impressions or spend, but you can ask to get the percentage spent by month, which will help you identify seasonality.

Gauging SEO or social activity is tougher to do on your own. If you’re active in search, you have a pretty good idea on what competitors are bidding based on what you have to spend. If the keyword is $1, it’s popular; if the cost is 10 cents, it’s not. But you won’t really know which competitor is bidding it up. Likewise, if you’re active on social, you’re already following your competitors and have a good idea who’s active and who’s not, although you’re likely only seeing their organic posts and a small part of their paid efforts.

The best alternative? Tell your agency to run a competitive review for you. Like I said, most media folks are already doing it, or should be doing it. And, if that’s the case, it shouldn’t be that expensive for them to share it with you. Or, if they’re not able, or you’d like to get an unbiased opinion, let’s start a conversation.