How to see what your competitors are selling, and why

One marketing strategy all online retailers should use

Whether you're a small business or an enterprise eCommerce store, you should know what competitors' sales are (in real time), find out what marketing and advertising they use, and leverage that knowledge to boost your own sales.

Unless you are selling an item so unique that no-one in the world has anything like it, you're going to have competitors who are doing everything they can to capture market share and pull sales away from you.

But, by monitoring how and why competing products (it doesn't matter if they're books, games, electronics, clothes, gadgets, or anything else) are selling well, you put yourself in a uniquely strong position because you are able to capitalize on the innovation and creativity of all your competitors.

It's super simple to do too. Here's a step-by-step guide to set things up (don't worry, it's quick and easy enough for anyone to do it in a few minutes).

1. Start tracking real-time sales

There are a number of services that offer varying qualities of tracking for online products. But for our purposes, we need to make use of RankTracer Enterprise, which provides on-the-hour sales rank tracking and sales estimates, as well as graphing, reports and alerts.

Create a RankTracer Enterprise account

Once you have an account, you can add items to track in real time (from as little as $5 per month). This will give you a product sales overview, like this:

Track competitors online sales in real time

This gives you quick access to a number of sales stats about the product, including some quick graphs that show the sales rank over time, as well as the estimated sales for that product over that period.

Here's a graph showing the sales rank (with sales estimates) over the last week for the LEGO Dimensions start pack:

graph online sales and get sales estimates

Ideally you want to track your own products along with their main competitors. If you are tracking a large number of items it is possible to group items into easy to manage categories to make things easy:

Categorize tracked products into groups

Note that it can take up to a few hours for data to appear on newly tracked items, so once you have added all the products you want to track initially, it's a good idea to take a break and come back to step 2 a bit later.

2. Set up automated sales alerts

Once the account has built up a bit of data it is possible to get a feel for how products sell in general. Most commonly, products will be bound within a range, which dips when there is a sale and slowly drops back when there isn't, like this:

Graph showing range bound sales

As you can see from this graph, the best sales (i.e. the lowest sales rank values - be cause a sales rank of 1 means it is the best selling item in that category) for the period graphed here occurred around September the 16th (with a rank of 481 - not shown in the graph), and then slowly dropped back.

As a competitor, you might be interested if this book's rank dropped below, say 450, as that would indicate higher than average sales. Setting that rank alert is super easy using the Sales rank alert boundaries section just below the quick graphs:

Setting a automatic sales alert

The system will then fire off an email alert to you if, as and when this product breaks through that boundary. Sales alerts are updated on the hour every hour, which means you are never more than a few minutes behind on the absolute latest developments.

3. Research and analyze

Once you've received an alert you are now aware that a product is experiencing high sales. Of course, it's important to know why.

Let's say, for example, that my alert on The Hobbit fired off and I wanted to now understand what led to the increase in sales which I deemed (by studying the general sales performance of the book in the previous step) to be noteworthy.

Logging into my account, there are three research/analysis type features that let me discover what, if anything, led to the increased sales volumes:

  1. Reviews
  2. On Google
  3. On Twitter

Reviews

The reviews button (shown in the left hand column of each product overview) provides quick access to all the Amazon reviews of the product:

Quick access to Amazon product reviews

It may be that a few well-timed 5 star reviews helped generate sales, or maybe not. But, at the very least you might find some useful people who are interested in reviewing your product too (especially if you are in the publishing industry).

On Google

Clicking the on google button brings up all mentions of the product (that Google can find) in the last week. If someone did a radio interview, a TV interview, some sort of promotion or advertising stunt, you should be able to find out about it here.

For example, this is what the results look like for The Hobbit - there and back again:

Product buzz on Google in the last week

Not bad coverage for a book that is older than all of us, right?

What's nice about the way RankTracer implements this is that you are able to control the title of the tracked products using the 'Nickname' dialog in the overview. What this means is that you can give any item a name that makes it easy to find the right information on Google and Twitter.

For example, I have a number of books on Drupal. But, if the title of my book is Drupal I'm going to get a whole lot of fluff in the results. What I really want to search for is something like 'Drupal by David Mercer'. So, I simply change the nickname of the product to exactly that, and lo and behold the Google and Twitter results are spot on.

On Twitter

Social media is steadily becoming more and more important as a tool to market and promote goods, and to exchange ideas and opinions about stuff you buy.

That's why you are able to share all your tracked items sales stats socially via RankTracer - it's nice to be able to tweet something like 'My book sold 32 copies today. Woohoo! Powered by RankTracer'. It's social proof, credibility, interest & engagement, all in one.

But what if we couldn't find the root cause of the competitor's sales spike in Google? Well maybe, instead of a news article, a leading social influencer tweeted about a product leading to a spike in its sales.

In this case, simply click on the on twitter button to bring up all the latest tweets about the product (remember, for best results, give the item a meaningful nickname):

Get instant access to the latest product tweets

If it happened online, Google and Twitter are going to now about it almost as fast as RankTracer can alert you to it. But how can we use this information?

4. Leverage insights

Think about the situation now in comparison to how you operated before monitoring competitors' sales. If their sales skyrocketed overnight, you might find out about it via the grapevine or you may not know about it at all. In fact, you may only realize that someone else is outselling you because your own sales are in decline.

Not knowing what's going is never a good space to be in. The old 'ignorance is bliss' adage is not a great strategy when it comes to driving online sales.

So you are now in a position to know what's happening in your industry pretty much in real time. How can that be used to your advantage? Well, I'm sure you can think of plenty of innovative and creative ways to benefit from this info, but I have a few suggestions:

  1. Build a marketing mix database: If competitor A is rocking radio interviews and killing it in the sales, add that strategy to your own mix. If competitor B ran a competition that generated plenty of engagement... in the mix it goes. Basically, whatever they do successfully, you can find out about and emulate/improve on.
  2. Find strong new influencers: Knowing that a certain writer/journalist wrote a story/article/review on your competitor means that they might be a useful contact down the line. Knowing everyone your competitors know is a great opportunity to be a more effective network marketer.
  3. Piggy-back on trends: Is something trending that one of your competitors happens to be lucking out on? Turn the tide by recognizing that trend and get ahead of the wave. You might be able to steal the day before anyone else even knows what's happened.
  4. Source better products: If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. It may be that the products you chose are simply not as good, cost-effective, or exciting as other products on the market. At the very least, you are in a position to make an informed decision to change. This can help avoid wasted time, money and effort selling items that aren't ever going to be popular.

Hopefully you can see that there is a huge opportunity to stay ahead of curve by monitoring sales to understand which products are selling well, and why. Can you afford to stay in the dark, knowing that there are already several thousand retailers using RankTracer for exactly this purpose?

What else would you use this information for? I'm sure you guys can come up with some much smarter waste to analyze and leverage the insights provided by RankTracer and its sales rank alerts. Share your thoughts and ideas in the comments.

Take an innovative approach to marketing

If you're in the business of making and selling unique stuff then the marketing strategies you use should reflect the creativity of your products in order to reach out to the right people.

Fortunately the Internet is full of the "right people" just waiting to place an order. But your message has to find them in the right place in the right way.

That's why it pays to think creatively about marketing instead of following the pack and doing the same old "tried and tested" things.

Great marketing ideas that don't involve press releases

If you have been tempted into using an online press release distribution service (free, or otherwise) then I'm here to warn you about the risks.

Search marketers used pr distribution services to quickly spread "news" and articles of dubious quality around the Web. This lead to a huge increase in targeted backlinks that improved organic traffic listings and PageRank in Google.

Essentially, press release distribution services became a great black-hat SEO strategy that worked well - until Google caught on.

Marketing hacks that worked. Pic by Steven Depolo

Every company in the world is obsessed with marketing and sales - trying desperately to get in front of potential clients, gain visibility, join the conversation, and generally drum up new business in order to grow.

Competition is fierce these days (regardless of size and industry), so it's not that surprising that innovative and creative people are out there trying to find new and interesting ways to market and promote themselves.

But which marketing strategies actually work?

Influencer marketing leverages relationships gain trust and reach

Imagine you could hire a Jedi to sell your products and reach out to new people using their famous mindtricks. Seems almost unfair, right? But that's precisely what brands are starting to do with influencer marketing.

Why getting people talking is great for business

So many companies focus on sexy marketing strategies like paid advertising (PPC), social media likes, tweets & follows, and organic search traffic from Google, that far too little attention is given to good old fashioned word of mouth.

I thought I would contrast the huge differences between traffic to my own businesses and compare and review the benefits that I have noticed arising from people making natural recommendations to their friends, families and colleagues.