How much time and effort you need to spend on marketing depends partly on what your competitors are doing. Are they doing something that you aren't, and that might work for you? Are they getting a lot of visibility online, and you need to catch up fast? Or are they relatively clueless, and you just need to keep on doing what you're doing?
Here are some areas you can easily look at and see how your competitors fare. All you spend is some time at your computer.
How effective is your website versus your competitors? It's time to find out.
Search results: What are they keywords that matter in your business? What keywords are your competitors trying to rank for? (Look at their title, heading and keyword tags and most importantly, at the copy they use to describe their services.) Now do a search for those terms and see how you rank versus them.
Third party ratings: There are various services that will rate a website for you, based on its popularity, authority or other factors. Some common measures are PageRank, Website Grade from Hubspot, MOZ Rank, and Alexa rank. I especially recommend the Website Grader because it also gives you suggestions on improving your site.
Observations: But don't just rely on others' assessments of a website. Look through it yourself: what do you think it does well, and what doesn't it? You might find a cool sign-up or error page, a good collection of ebooks, or a site riddled with copy errors or bad links. All of these indicate your competitors' marketing competence. If you can get some of your customers to review the website for you and tell them what works or doesn't for them, all the better. (Offer them an incentive, like a gift card or an hour's worth of free services.)
Directory listings: Are your competitors listed on common business directories where prospects are likely to search?
PR isn't less powerful because the world has gone online. It's still a great way of getting visibility, and it provides great links to your website and therefore helps your search rankings.
On website: Look on your competitor's site for presence of news releases. Do they issue press releases frequently? Are they well-written, interesting and informative? How do they compare with yours?
Visibility in media: Did your competitor's press releases appear when you were looking at search results earlier? (Did yours?) Does searching for their brand name bring up bad reviews from customers?
3. Blogging and social media
Blog: How does your competitor's blog rank and how many comments and retweets do the recent posts have? Do they have a blog at all? Do they guest-blog on respected industry sites?
Other social media: How many followers does your competitor have on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and other popular social media? (Do they have profiles on all these sites? Do you?) How often do they post? Do their followers interact with them on these sites? Are they using promotions or special offers to drive new business? What about industry forums and other sites relevant to your business?
Third-party endorsements: Do reviews of your competitor show up on other blogs or on social media? Do they get referenced as a case study or called out for getting it right? Do their employees post bad reviews on say, Glassdoor.com?
Does your competitor have ads on search engines, or on social media like Facebook and LinkedIn, or on sites that are relevant to your industry? Are they paying for visibility that they might not otherwise get and thus competing more effectively? (This might be a little more difficult to find out, especially for social media ads, as you can target them to specific interests and job roles and other criteria.)
Aside from using your computer to gauge how well your marketing compares to that of competitors, you should be asking new customers how they heard about you—in email, on the phone and in person. This will let you know what is working for your business.
And even if you are head and shoulders above your competition, using these tips will help you make adjustments and improvements, as well as try out some new ideas such as improving search engine optimization for relevant keywords. It will also ensure you know what is being said about your company.
Once you become comfortable conducting these competitive reviews, it doesn't take very long (about 30 minutes) and you should plan to do it at least quarterly. You'll get powerful information that will help you better reach current and new customers and grow your business.