When it comes to online businesses, competitive research has taken on a new guise: "social listening." While the term sounds harmless, some merchants we've spoken to about this subject call it by another name: spying.
Whatever you choose to call it, one thing is for sure—you need to get up to speed on what social listening entails because many of your competitors are probably already doing it.
In Part 1 of this series, we'll focus on what social listening involves and how one company—Mason Eyewear —goes about it. In Part 2, we'll explore the subject further and discuss some surprising things you can "hear" through it.
You know you face fierce competition, especially when we're all fighting for rank in Google
Competition is intense
As an online seller, you know you face fierce competition, "especially when we're all fighting for rank in Google, and the search engine results page," says Michael Kleinman, co-founder of Mason Eyewear.
He provided some insights on how his company overcomes competitive challenges and how it's managed to get a beat on its biggest competitor, Warbyparker.com, using the data it unearths.
First, some background. If you've ever shopped for prescription eyeglasses, you know they can be expensive. A basic set of specs doesn't have to cost an arm and a leg, but it's those little extras that make glasses costly.
Need bifocals? They'll cost you big time, especially if you prefer to avoid the telltale line that announces to the world that your sight is far from what it used to be.
Afraid you'll scratch those lenses and have to look at the world through those scratches? No problem, but no-scratch lenses will cost you. Add a no-glare coating and a warranty, perhaps, and it's easy to spend several hundred dollars on a pair of glasses.
And, as you know, you'll pay extra for those designer lenses! The eyeglass industry has many of us accustomed to paying for licensing fees. Ralph Lauren isn't going to let just any frame manufacturer slap its name on frames, and there are other types of markups that drive prices way up, too. The perception that eyeglasses are a medical accessory has many of us going along with the program.
Company sees an opportunity
Warby Parker is a tough competitor, but more than 95 percent of prescription eyeglasses are still bought offline, so there's room for new companies
Warby Parker allowed you to buy prescription glasses online for just $95. It also recognized consumers wanted to try on their glasses before purchasing, so you were able to—and still can—upload a photo of yourself to "virtually try on" your new specs, as co-founder Neil Blumenthal recently told The Wall Street Journal.
Realizing that's not a perfect solution for everyone, the company will also send you up to five different frames so you can choose the ones that are right for you. Postage both ways is free.
Warby Parker has competitors, some of which compete on price. One company offers its glasses for just $39, for example. But Warby Parker claims it's the only company in this space that can sell a $500 product for just $95.
Warby Parker is a tough competitor, for sure, but more than 95 percent of prescription eyeglasses are still bought offline, so there's room for new companies to get into this space.
That's where Mason Eyewear comes into play. Its prescription glasses are also $95, and it also offers a "virtual try-on."
But without any real competitive advantage, how can newcomer Mason Eyewear hope to compete with Warby Parker, which was founded in 2010 and is so successful it's distributed more than 1 million pairs of glasses just to "people in need" through its nonprofit partners?
Social listening vital to newcomer
One way Mason Eyewear stays in the game is by using "social listening tools" to observe its competitors. Through these software tools, Mason Eyewear can see who is driving traffic to their competitors by way of "backlinks" and "anchor text."
One of the company's main tools is Hootsuite, which Kleinman calls an all-in-one-portal. Hootsuite, a social media management and analytics site, enables the company to observe, in real-time, what's going on with its competitors.
Mason Eyewear has a Hootsuite profile set up, of course, but it also has a second profile for Warby Parker. This allows Mason to monitor tweets, for example, to see what people are saying about its products. It also uses Hootsuite to plug in relevant keywords, say "eyeglasses, " then join the conversation.
Hootsuite, a social media management and analytics site, enables the company to observe, in real-time, what's going on with its competitors
Kleinman says 90 percent of Mason's business comes from such social listening. For example, when people tweet about their broken glasses, and the high cost of replacing them, he then responds and tells them about their $95 "cool-looking vintage glasses."
As many merchants do, Mason Eyewear keeps a close eye on their SERP on Google. While Kleinman says Warby Parker is No. 1, appearing on the first results page, its SERP is five. But it's moving up.
Mind backlinks and anchor text
Mason Eyewear also looks its competitors' anchor text (the text that sends people to your company's site, such as a blog article mentioning you) to see the keywords used. So if "buy eyeglasses online" is used, the company makes sure it's using that language and similar language.
It also looks at a competitor's backlinks (sites that somewhere include links to their own site) to see where traffic is coming from. Once the company has that information about competitors' backlinks, it works to establish relationships with those companies.
You can use a number of free and paid tools for this investigating, but Mason Eyewear uses the basic version of Majestic SEO, which is free.
"It gives you the best advice," Kleinman says. "There is no advantage in a paid tool."
Kleinman says he does all this work himself since Mason Eyewear is a new company, and he couldn't manage this without using a tool such as Hootsuite.