Competitive Research Posts
About this category:
The competitive landscape online is huge but it also affords you the opportunity to do a lot of research on everyone else. Learn what they’re doing well, so you can try to execute it better, and learn what’s not working well, so you can avoid committing resources to a potential failure. This category collects every post that deals with this type of market research.
During World War 2, the prevailing military strategies believed that the key to victory would be sustained bombing of industrial and political infrastructure, as well as military targets. Bombers would play a huge role in the war as they were one of the most effective units in causing massive damage to this infrastructure.
Photo: D. Biller – B17 Flying Fortress & B24 Liberator at Airventure 2006
Throughout the German advance in Europe, air power played a huge role as sustained bombings pushed many governments to surrender. The Luftwaffe would eventually turns their sights towards Britian and heavily bomb British towns and cities during July and August of 1940, in advance of Operation Sea Lion and The Blitz.
The British RAF Bomber Command would bomb Berlin in response and Berlin was just within range of British bombers. These bombing raids would go frequently between 1940 and 1945 and dropped an estimated 46,000 tons of bombs, about twice the tonnage of the United States Air Force, in Berlin alone.
As one would expect, the British were suffering losses of their bombers from German anti-air defenses. So, they commissioned a study of their surviving bombers to decide where they could reinforce their bombers to increase survivability.
The British RAF Bomber Command recommended that they increase the amount of armor on the places that were being hit, not a bad conclusion, right?
In fact, it’s illustrates a common logical error – survivorship bias.
What is Survivorship Bias?
Survivorship bias is a simple logical error where you concentrate too much on what you can see with people, businesses, or things that “survived” a process. You miss what you can’t see because it’s not immediately in front of you or was excluded because it no longer exists.
In blogging, it’s easy to see the successful bloggers in a niche and look for a commonality among them. While that’s good to start with, it’s dangerous to finish there. You need to consider who was popular four or five years ago (or longer, depending on the niche) and if they no longer exist, investigate why. Research what made them peak 5 years ago but a shadow of their former glory today. Compare that with what works today with current successful bloggers in that niche and do your comparisons with the “dead” included.
I don’t want to name names but some of the most popular frugal blogs from five years ago are a shell of what they once were. A blog that used to get 50+ comments on each post (sometimes hundreds) now get less than five or ten. I don’t know about its traffic numbers but I know the community that used to exist on that site is gone (and it’s kind of sad).
If you sit it next to arguably the most popular “frugal lifestyle” blog today, Mr Money Mustache, there are plenty of similarities. Both talk about a simpler lifestyle, both give actionable advice on how to save money and live a life of wanting less, and both have a clearly articulated mission.
What does MMM do better? Among many other things, it has way more personality. Pete is far more interesting and he’s more up front than the other site’s author. The other site had more personality five years ago but over time it went away. It became diluted, with staff writers, and people lost that connection. Readers don’t build relationships with staff writers, they build relationships with people whose faces they see over and over again.
MMM is also far more focused. It’s perfect for a smaller number of people than the other site, but that “smaller number” of people is still a very large number. It is still the internet after all.
Why is this significant? Because blogging strategies have changed the last 5 years. Five years ago, it was about producing high quality SEO-optimized content so that Google and other search engines would rank you higher and send you traffic.
It’s different today. You still need high quality but it’s about being specific, about having a personality and making a connection. Your biggest traffic wins will come from social media and word of mouth. Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest are the cake… and Google is the icing.
People share shareable content, they don’t share encyclopedias.
If you were to study just the popular blogs of today, you may not notice the change in trends because very few of the older blogs survived it (or are a fraction of what they used to be, and you just don’t notice). You would see what makes MMM popular but you might not see what’s missing in the other other blogs.
Regardless of the conclusion, it’s crucial to study them all, not just the ones that are still around. That’s the point of understanding survivorship bias.
In 1943, Abraham Wald, a Jewish mathematician from Romania, published a series of memoranda while working for the National Defense Research Committee in the United States (I learned of this via Douglas_Reay on the site LessWrong).
In it, he recommended that the planes be reinforced in the areas not hit in the surviving planes. The returning planes survived the hits they sustained, so they are less critical than the areas that weren’t hit, and it’s presumed that the ones that were lost were hit in critical areas. You can read Wald’s memoranda here.
Also, neither of the two beautiful aircraft in the photo are British. They’re the B17 Flying Fortress and the B24 Liberator and awesomely American.
What if I told you that your favorite bloggers, the ones making buckets of money, are giving away all their secrets? Every single month they are publishing what is working on the sites and how they do it?
You’d probably think I was crazy right? Even publicly traded companies are only required to disclose numbers quarterly and even then they don’t share insider secrets.
But that’s exactly what a lot of bloggers are doing.
They’re called blog income reports.
This level of disclosure isn’t anything new. Back in the mid to late 2000’s, personal finance bloggers had “net worth reports.” Each month, bloggers would share their net worth in posts, in tickers, on their sidebar, etc. It would include the headline numbers, a little commentary on the past month, and a little mention of what was on the horizon.
At first, I didn’t participate. It felt tacky. Eventually, after seeing so many of my contemporaries doing it, I started publishing net worth posts on Bargaineering. I have those posts to thank because it was the reason I was featured in the New York Times.
Back then, as is the case now, people ogled over the numbers.
The headline number was sexy.
It’s totally natural.
As it so often happens, history repeats itself. Today, net worth posts are out but blog income reports are in.
In November 2013, Pat Flynn made $55,202.74.
Lindsay and Bjork cooked up $10,812.76.
John Lee Dumas recorded $86,625.77.
Robert Farrington netted $6,750.25.
Mike from Maine put an extra $1,786.69 into his pocket.
The list goes on and on.
Here’s the kicker… if you read blog income reports and just look at the number, you’re reading them completely wrong.
I know that seeing Pat Flynn take in $55,000+ is impressive (it is). John Lee Dumas got nearly $90,000 in November (dude is a machine, deserves that times two or three honestly). Depending on your mood and temperament, it can be inspiring. It can also be morale crushing.
Today, I’ll teach you how to study a blog income report so you can take away useful strategies that will make you more money.
In my post about checking your stat tracker’s privacy settings, I explained why you want to obfuscate your site’s most valuable data. I also shared one of the competitive research tactics I used several years ago, which was made obsolete (and then relevant) by many tools later on.
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One of the big ethical issues I had with it was that I felt bad doing research on my “friends.” (at the time, I’d never met them so I hesitate to call them real friends… they were internet friends :)) My solution was to tell them that I was doing it, that they should lock up their stats, and I’d have to use more conventional means to find out what worked and what didn’t.
Competitive research is a must, regardless of your business, and I feel like it plays an important role in blogging. It’s important to see what works and then try to execute it or out-execute the competition.
But turnabout is fair play. Just as I was researching other sites, others researched Bargaineering. Once tools made it easy to see what a site was ranking well for, you could see every blog come out of the woodwork on terms that I swore were well hidden (there were some long tail ones, like six words, that were surprisingly effective… yep people found those too). It’s all part of the game and, most importantly, you shouldn’t take it personally. It just forces you to adapt and evolve, which is a good thing.
Here’s the key to competitive research, you can’t just study the leaders in your niche. You can start there but you have to be learning from the leaders of as many areas as possible. Try to implement what they do well and bring it home. Use them as inspiration so that you can start leading.
I studied a lot of mommy/family/frugal bloggers to figure out how they kick ass with sweepstakes (and how they have 50,000 fans on Facebook!). They do social well and use social media the way personal finance bloggers used to use search.
Do you conduct competitive research and, if so, how do you to do it?
A few years ago, I was part of a blog network called the Money Blog Network. The network consisted of half a dozen personal finance blogs and we banded together to try to secure group advertising deals. Many of the network’s members make up a list of the oldest personal finance blogs around and we did some fun things together. We sold a few advertising deals, we had forums that were pretty popular, but we eventually disbanded over one issue. (more on that in a second, first some background)
We joined forces so we could better sell ads. This was before the days of bigger brand-name aggregators, like Federated Media, partnering with a lot of smaller bloggers and trying to sell big blocks of ads. We were all relatively small and so creating a network was the quickest way to get bigger. Back then, we would split advertising revenue based on traffic. Our ad deals weren’t necessarily based on traffic but we felt that the split seemed fair since traffic is a good quantitative way to split revenue. A site with 200,000 pageviews a month should get more than a site with 100,000 pageviews, right?
As part of that split, we used a common hitcounter, Sitemeter, and left our statistics public. This help the person managing the advertisement deal keep track of traffic and split the income properly. After about a year, I realized I didn’t want Bargaineering’s traffic statistics public. Leaving my overall traffic statistics public wasn’t the issue, it was the referrer data that concerned me. As I explained my reasoning, which I’ll elaborate below, a few other members joined me and it created a fracture in the group, one that ultimately proved fatal.
It also marked the first time I began using competitive research to improve my blog.
So, why did I want to hide my Sitemeter data?
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