You’ve heard it before.
Sage wisdom delivered with just a touch of Machiavellian guile.
“Keep your friends close, and your enemies even closer.”
Naturally, that’s good advice for life.
But … it’s absolutely essential advice for content.
Because creating content alone is excruciating.
Even worse, by “alone” I don’t mean just you.
What I really mean is you and your entire in-house content creation team: you and your “friends.”
Sure two heads are better than one. But the problem is that friendship -- whether personal or professional -- has a tendency to merge those multiple heads. It’s what psychologist call “groupthink.” And groupthink is death to the creative process.
So if it feels like you and your team are just grinding gears, stuck in neutral, or like you’d rather get a tooth pulled than sit down to churn out one more fresh piece of content, where should you turn?
That’s right … your enemies.
In truth, your enemies -- or, to be a bit more polite, your “competition” -- should be the brightest spot in your collective drive to create truly engaging content. They should be your motivation, your mine, and your muse.
Creating competitive content comes down to two steps: capturing and co-opting.
1. Capturing Your Competition
Don’t get the wrong idea.
Capturing doesn’t mean kidnapping or anything quite that aggressive.
Capturing simply means collecting … with a purpose.
The point is to make capturing your competitor’s content as easy and predictably awesome as possible. After all, the only way to iterate new ideas from existing ones is to first find them.
Two simple methods exist to help you do this.
Google Alerts is your big-picture, competitive capturing tool.
Alerts scans the web and gives you -- well -- an alert whenever a keyword you’ve flagged goes live, whether it’s on a blog, news story, website, video, or even a discussion thread.
Set alerts for searches you frequently complete. For example, I searched “marketing conference” and set an alert so that when news is released, I’ll be among the first to know.
Source: Google Alerts
Bear in mind that to really make Google Alerts valuable for your content-capturing process, you have to get detailed.
Instead of just creating an alert for “marketing conference,” drill down into the type of sources you’re after as well as the region. If you want updates on “calls for submissions,” add that as well. If you’re after agendas -- to preview the most popular topics and upcoming trends -- Google Alerts can be updated with additional alerts focused specifically on that too.
Chiefly, I use Google Alerts -- and it’s close cousin TalkWalker Alerts -- to monitor both clients as well as competitors. By specifying brand names or niche products, I’m able to identify not just if someone’s been mentioned … but keep a close eye on where and by whom.
That takes care of the web. But what about social media?
Here’s where Mention comes in. Mention is a social media alert system. Just like Google Alerts, you can create keyword alerts that exhaustively monitor all the major social media channels for -- well -- mentions.
However, Mention’s most helpful feature for capturing is their Competitor category.
Simply enter the name of your top competitors one by one. For example, I’ve used Buffer’s Kevan Lee (no offense, I’m a huge fan):
You can then specify “Priority Pages” connected to that competitor, that is, their website, Twitter handle, and Facebook page.
Lastly, once you’ve created your competitor profile, you can access not just their own social media activity, but any activity associated with them. Often this can be overwhelming, so rather than sorting through the activity chronologically, filter your Mention reports based on “Influence”:
Mention will also send you emails distilling your chosen competitor’s most influential interactions. This is precisely where one of my examples under co-opting came from, which I’ll dig into later:
Unfortunately, while alert tools are a great first step in monitoring your competition’s content, they do not provide you with detailed information on how engaging or popular that content is.
To determining the popularity -- or virality -- of your competitor's content two tools stand out.
The first is BuzzSumo. I use this tool constantly both to determine my competitor’s best, most co-opt-worthy content as well as to beef up my topic knowledge when writing.
With one query you’ll know what’s being shared, what’s trending, and the top authors for either a specific site or a specific keyword.
For instance, in preparation for a recent Crazy Egg article I wrote -- “16 Helpful Copywriting Articles To Launch You Into Web Writing Greatness” -- I simply ran the word “copywriting” through BuzzSumo and isolated the best posts from 2015:
Instead of bouncing from site to site, blog to blog, manually locating and noting the number of social shares, BuzzSumo does the heavy lifting for you.
The second tool is Moz. Moz is to SEO what BuzzSumo is to social.
However, while Moz offers a full-scale suite of SEO tools, the most helpful feature is their Moz Content search. Again, you can enter either keywords or a URL. The results can then be prioritized based on either the raw number of backlinks, social media shares, or what Moz calls Reach: “a measure of both social sharing and link activity on a 0-100 scale.”
This is the second tool I used to find the most popular “copywriting” articles from 2015:
After you’ve set up your alerts and used either BuzzSumo or Moz to determine popularity, create a simple spread sheet.
Here’s exactly what I built:
That spreadsheet formed the backbone of the article I eventually wrote as well as my go-to resource for reaching out and promoting the article via social media.
But -- and this is a massive “but” -- if you’re going to do more than just capture your competitors best content, you need a second step in your competitive process.
In other words, to go beyond curation into creation, you also need to co-opt.
2. Co-opting Your Competition
Now we enter the meat of this post.
To correctly co-opt your competitor’s content, you have to be skilled and tactful. Moreover, you have to have a plan of attack.
Luckily, there are two proven methods you can employ: (1) skyscraping and (2) simplifying.
In a nutshell, skyscraping is the practice of outdoing your competition.
Say, for example, the top three competitive posts you captured in step one were on average between 1,500 and 2,000 words.
Your task in skyscraping is to write at least a 2,500-word post -- preferably closer to 3,000-4,000 words -- double the number of examples, cite the very best from the other leading posts, identify their weak points or missing elements, and leave those so-called “bests” cowering in your post’s shadow.
Neil Patel chronicles this approach as the first of 7 Ways to Find Better Content: “Take good ideas and make them great.”
Case in point, consider Jacob McMillen’s insanely detailed article How I Used ConvertKit & SumoMe To Get 600 Email Subscribers With 2 Blog Posts. Having only been posted in mid-December, those two blog posts have now generate over 1,000 new email subscribers, 3.8 thousand social shares, and 141 comments.
Here’s what’s so interesting, in the post Jacob details exactly how he skyscrapped the topic of “hell”:
This topic couldn’t be further away from the marketing niche.
I wrote 7,316 words over two posts on the topic.
I probably spent 25 hours on these… easy. My primary goal with this blog wasn’t to get views; it was to provide exceptional theological content, so I did everything I could to make this the most researched, most exhaustive, most well-written post on the topic of Biblical Hell that I could find online.
And while I probably didn’t accomplish all that, you won’t find a longer post on Hell that isn’t a published book.
That last line is the point: “you won’t find a longer post on [insert your own topic] that isn’t a published book.”
For a more marketing-oriented example, take a look at Brian Dean’s Backlinko post Link Building Case Study: How I Increased My Search Traffic by 110% in 14 Days.
Brian’s instructions -- just like Neil Patel’s and Jacob McMillen’s -- come in three parts:
Step 1: Find link-worthy content
Step 2: Make something even better
Step 3: Reach out to the right people
By going back to that final spreadsheet from step one, the tasks of finding “link-worthy content” and “reaching out the right people” are already sown up.
Now all that’s left … is to write it.
If skyscraping feels too intimidating or time-consuming, then consider approaching your co-opting strategy by simplifying instead: basically, going in the exact opposite direction.
This method requires that you take something that’s in-depth, all encompassing, and gargantuan and distill it into it’s most basic form.
BoostBlogTraffic’s The Quick and Dirty Guide to Creating Your “Bribe to Subscribe” in Record Time is build on the principle of simplification: “Instead of trying to tackle all of your audience’s problems, you’ll narrow them down to just one specific problem.”
In fact, Jenna identifies this lack of problem-specificity as the primary mistake creators make when building content meant especially to entice sign-ups:
They go too broad. They try to tackle a high-level topic with their bribe, like “weight loss” or “blogging” or “happiness.” Or they consider so many different topics that they become paralyzed by all the possibilities and end up agonizing for weeks or even months over picking the “perfect” topic.
They go too big. They think they have to create an epic, world-changing bribe. A 100-page e-book, or a 20-part email series. That seems like a ton of work, so, quite naturally, they procrastinate and don’t get it done. And the longer they go without a bribe, the better the bribe has to be to justify all that waiting, right?
What’s the solution?
Less is more.
And here’s the secret: using your competition's content as a starting point, create a PDF, checklist, or infographic focused on solving or address just one problem.
For example, in contrast to Jacob McMillen’s success going big, Philip Morgan had equally massive success -- doubling his opt in rates from 1.5% to 3% and finally breaking the 1,000-subscribers benchmark -- by transforming his own massive e-book first into a three-page, 620-word PDF and then into a six-part (individually bite sized) email sequence.
The inspiration for these changes was a single question:
What list opt-in offer will deliver a lot of value without requiring a lot of work to unlock that value and will appeal to people who would make good consulting clients?
Notice the key phrase: “deliver a lot of value without requiring a lot of work.”
Along with a PDF, you can also do the same thing by way of infographic.
Naturally, Joanna’s infographic as well as both Philip’s PDF and BoostBlogTraffic’s advice are actually examples of repurposing your own content through simplification.
However, they contain the very same principles that you should follow in co-opting your competitor’s.
Jacqueline Jensen, the Community Evangelist at Pikotochart, does this regularly, taking other people’s posts and boiling them down into their visually based essence.
From Groove’s roughly 1,500-word piece on The Most Common (Bad) Arguments Against Remote Work, she created this:
And from Kevan Lee’s 1,700 word listicle, 189 Powerful Words That Convert: Write Copy That Gets Your Customer’s Attention Every Time, she made this:
As Jacqueline explains:
I read so many great pieces of content everyday that I’m bound to forget some of the big ideas.
That’s why I started creating simple visual summaries, first for myself, then for my teammates via Slack, and finally for my followers on social.
I find tweets that include a summary visual along with the URL to the content tend to have more engagement. It's a more reader user-conscious way to share.
I couldn’t agree more.
However, I’ve saved my favorite example for last.
Back in 2014 I put together my own massive post for Copyblogger: The Ultimate Copy Checklist: 51 Questions to Optimize Every Element of Your Online Copy.
Copyblogger took up the simplification mantel first and created a printable poster of the entire checklist to accompany the piece.
Then -- and here’s where the co-opting-meets-simplification principle shines -- David Arnoux from twoodo took both that post and poster … and went the extra mile to build his own utterly awesome interactive checklist that anybody could download, replicate, and use:
Here’s the point: you can take the exact same approach with your competitors, co-opting their best content through the power of simplification.
With all these examples, in content as in life, it’s best to keep your friends close… and your enemies even closer.