How to Learn From Your Competition (without Copying or Stealing)

by Derek Halpern · 28 comments

The most efficient way to build a blog is by learning from your competition.

The problem is that most people don’t know what to look for…

…So they end up copying and stealing ideas—wholesale—with hopes and dreams of blog success.

Naturally, that often doesn’t work.

Yes, it’s possible to experience “some” success, but breakaway growth? I wouldn’t hold my breath.

So how can you learn from your competition without copying, stealing, or wasting your time?

The Pebble in the Pond

A few years ago I read a fantasy novel by Terry Goodkind, and he introduced me to an idea that he called “the pebble in the pond.”

It’s a simple idea, but the meaning behind it is remarkable, and when you know how to take advantage of it, you’re golden.

First, what happens when you throw a pebble into a pond?

A small splash, and then some ripples emanate from the contact point.

Now when you’re looking to create a blog, or do anything worthwhile, you want to be the pebble thrown into the pond.

You want to be the rock that causes the ripples, successfully altering the state of your world…

Because when you’re not the pebble, you’re simply surfing another pebbles’ wake, and the best you can do is pick up the scraps.

But, “Derek…”

What does the “Pebble in the Pond” Have To Do With Blogs?

When you look at what your competitors do right, and copy them, you’re not the pebble in the pond. You’re spotting your competitor’s ripples, and picking up the scraps.

That’s not learning from your competition. That’s copying them, getting sub-par results, and wasting your time.

However, it doesn’t have to be that way. You don’t have to settle for the scraps. You can become the pebble that creates the ripples, and it’s easier than you think.

How?

The simple solution is this:

Look For a “Thread of Discontent”

Right now it’s easier than ever for people to air their opinions about other people, blogs, and companies. With blog comments, social media, and review sites, it’s almost impossible to escape them.

Now most people skip over these comments without giving them a second thought.

However, when you want to learn from your competition, you can read their comments and look for a “thread of discontent.”

What’s a “thread of discontent?”

It’s a problem that a majority of people have with one specific blog or company. It’s a chink in their armor, and it’s an opportunity for you to convert them into loyal subscribers and customers.

Why?

Remember, your competitor has created some ripples in their pond. When you find this thread and discontent, and solve it, that allows you to become the pebble that creates the ripples in the marketplace.

But now let’s look at some real life examples:

How Threads Of Discontent Helped Me Grow Social Triggers

As you read about in “reason why” article, when I launched Social Triggers, I did so by taking advantage of threads of discontent.

Back last year, people were complaining about blogs that would post fluff content with no data to back it up. I cured that by citing data in every article of mine.

People also complained that people were writing about the same ole stuff. I cured that by talking mainly about how psychology meets marketing (and I even quoted the psychology studies and researchers to back it up).

But even most recently, just a few weeks ago, I took advantage of another thread of discontent.

There are loads of podcasts in the world, and people would complain that they’d see “the usual suspects.” The people they’re used to seeing everywhere.

So, when I launched my podcast, I decided to go outside of the realm of the “usual suspects” and instead decided to feature world-class researchers from top universities, New Tork Times Best-Selling authors, and other people that may have been “unknown” in the world of blogging.

And what happened?

Simply telling people my plan attracted THOUSANDS of people to my site in 24 hours… The introductory blog post also attracted well over 300 blog comments.

Why?

It’s all because each “thread of discontent” helped me create the ripples in the pond, allowing me to experience breakaway growth… instead of scrounging for scraps.

How DIYthemes Took Advantage of A Thread of Discontent

Back when I got started building blogs, things were different. Really different.

I remember I started an entertainment site, and I wanted a 3-column WordPress theme. I wanted my content on the left, and 2 sidebars on the right.

I also wanted to add a unique header image to differentiate my site from the rest of the blogosphere.

I searched through the web endlessly for a design that would fit my needs, and I couldn’t find one. I ended up paying a developer a few hundred dollars to create me one from scratch.

I was annoyed, naturally.

And I wasn’t the only one.

Turns out that most people who were looking for blog designs wanted a specific column layout, a customer header image, a little embellishment, and that’s it.

No reason why that should cost $500 or $1000 or more!

That’s where DIYthemes came in.

Chris Pearson made it dead simple to create simple designs like that without using any code. What could cost as much as $1,000 suddenly cost $85 plus a little bit of elbow grease.

DIYthemes suddenly became the pebble in the pond.

And what happened? With over 40,000 customers, you can see first hand how lucrative curing a thread of discontent can be.

(Also, if you don’t currently own Thesis, learn more about it here, and see the pricing here)

Each Time One Thread of Discontent Disappears, Another Pops Up

Now you might be wondering:

“What if everyone solved every single thread of discontent in my market?”

But that’s just ridiculous.

As the market develops, new threads of discontent spring up, and it’s your job as a new business or existing business to find them.

And If you don’t, before you know it, it won’t be a pebble hitting your business… it will be a meteorite.

How Can You Discover “Threads of Discontent?”

That depends…

First, you need to find your competitors.

Remember, even though the blogging world is all about community, make no mistake. You’re competing for attention, and to win, you’ve got to treat it like a competition.

Now you likely know who your competitors are, and how to find them. If not, a simple Google search will help you.

Then, you need to infiltrate their community

I know that sounds shady, but I’m not talking about espionage.

Instead, simply read their blog comments, see who talks to them on Twitter, read reviews about their site (you’ll find them in Google), and do other market research just like that.

If you want to know what frustrates people, you’ve got to see it first hand. Plus, you can also implement my famous “what are you struggling with question?”

(That’s not necessarily about analyzing your competition, but you’ll find that people often respond with comments that can be weaved into a thread of discontent)

And Now I Pass It To You…

Are you the pebble in the pond, or are you trying to pick up scraps?

Tell me about it in the comments.

About the Author: Derek Halpern ran marketing at DIYthemes, and is the founder of Social Triggers. To get more tips on how to be confident, sign up to his list here.

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{ 28 comments }

Chris Aitken

Thought provoking, as per most of your posts. A couple of our sites have been trying to change direction as we’ve struggled with gaining traction as quickly as we’d like. This is a great analogy for describing the issue.

In addition to the advice you present above, I’m curious what process you applied to filtering/prioritizing which threads to pursue? I suspect that once you start the path you’re suggesting, you probably identified a number of threads of discontent? Or were they less obvious and less plentiful than that?

Thanks, Chris

Rob @ Atlanta Real Estate

Good stuff Derek.

My model is a little different in that I’m just trying to get SERP rankings, drive relevant traffic and capture. Game over at that point in my business, at least the web portion of it.

But interesting ideas for blog owners none the less.

Have a good weekend.

treehill

You got few excellent articles in a row…. congratulations!!!
When I see your email in my inbox it definitely turns smile on my face. First those text newsletters, typography, and now peble in a pond ….keep on writing…thumb up!

Jay Venka

The best way to identify thread of disconnect is to join a community, learn the audience, competitors, their products and see if you can come up with a unique selling proportion that makes you and your product different from your competitors. This gives your buyers a reason to buy your product…

David Krug

I love this concept of “thread of discontent”. It reminds me of the article I read recently that goes on to state instead of people focusing merely on their passions that they focus on solving problems in a marketplace..

To often when people start a blog, or a business they focus on their passions instead of identifying problems that need solving.

I have yet to dig into your podcast series. But will make time to this upcoming week.

Thanks for sharing about this book, and for making this blog one of my constant reads when I am in need of wisdom on building an online business.

Jared

Cute! The way you create a challenge to be a pebble in a pond.

Opens eyes!

From stealing and swiping what others create,

To finding a new emerging and kind-of hidden interest.

Surely a psych trick & Masterfully explained.

Thanks

Kellie Brooks

A friend and I are assembling a Mastermind, and we recently did a prototype version and it was enlightening! Each participant shared several insights, and together we took a greater leap forward than we would’ve been able to otherwise. Community, right?
One of the best takeaways was similar to what you’re talking about – remembering that our field is not only inclusive but also competitive. When you need a dose of confidence or innovation, go invest in your competitors. See HOW they’re doing WHAT they’re doing. You’ll keep an eye towards new ideas and trends, spot opportunities (your ‘thread of discontent’) and most especially, you’ll feel better about YOUR work – because no one rocks it like you do!

Laura Upcott

Once again you have given us an idea that I can put into action right now. When I was researching one of our competitors, I noticed that they had an A+ rating on the Better Business Bureau for our city. And we haven’t even applied to be listed yet. I just fixed that. Thanks! Love your posts!

Jason Anthony

Come to the party original, but show up different than the rest. That’s the name of the game.

I think individual feedback and actually listening to what the audience (yours and your competitors) have to say is crucial to tailoring your message.

David Bennett

Sensible words: I’ll try it.

Racheal Cook

Another great point Derek! Love this analogy. And it applies to EVERY industry — especially in the yoga world (where I hang out) and everyone starts to sound exactly the same!

Calum Garvey

Ha ha I just noticed you made the font text bigger on the diythemes email. Obviously you read my comment on one of your last posts and are doing some testing. Now thats a real life example

Rob

Nice. Thanks Derek.

This timely post has come whilst exploring fresh ideas and alternatives.

Thank you.

Ryan

That’s money in the bank advice right there.

My example:
I started a new blog this last fall teaching people how to become wedding photographers and get paid to do what they love.

I looked for affiliate products to promote and had to go no further than SmugMug, a photo hosting company, who I’ve been using since 2005. SmugMug is awesome.

Though SmugMug is certainly not a competitor of mine, I knew that they had a lot of customers that would sign up and be frustrated with how much work (or money) it would take them to customize their new SmugMug site.

So I created the first comprehensive video tutorial walking people through all the steps of getting their new SmugMug site to a finished site they could be proud of….in hours….instead of weeks or even months.

The tutorials have been incredbily successful (for me) as well as for SmugMug and their customers.

It was my first true taste of entrepeneural success — and all I did was find (and solve) a thread of discontent!

Love it.

Nik

Here is a pebble, Thesis 2.0?

Great article and very true.
Nik

Mr. G

I’ve been waiting for Thesis 2.0 for so long that I kind of gave up already!

Mr. G

I feel like the pebble in the pond with one of my blogs. And it feels good. Believe me!

The hard part? Creating new challenges for my competitors as often as I can!

Tanya Malott

I do like the idea of following ‘threads of discontent’….except that in my business, people rarely post any discontent…only praise.

I think a good companion article to this one would be “learn from people outside your field”. I have recently stopped looking at my competition, because I am one of those people at the top of my field, and I have started looking around at people at the tops of unrelated fields….including you!

I am a photographer, not much of a blogger (yet), and I am completely uninspired by most of the photography blogs I see. But I AM inspired by other types of blogs. I am interested in psychology and marketing (from you and Ramit), I am interested in women who inspire (Marie Forleo), and I am interested in spiritual bloggers who are on a different kind of quest.

I don’t even know exactly the direction my new blog/site will take….but I know it is very different from the one it would have taken before I started reading your fascinating posts.

Funny you should mention the success of DIY codes. One problem I’m having is that with the explosion of template websites and blogs, too many sites look alike….so I have hired the expensive person to customize a Wordpress theme. I like to think that we should all focus on the things we are best at….and designing a blog is not my forte. Or maybe I just need to justify the expense…

Mr. G

I second Tanya in most orf what she says…

I am at the top of my niche, I hadly have competitors so I look at guys like you and Rammit or Problogger or some other Top Bloggers out there with the hope of taking a bit of each one to continue making my site grow.

That’s be a very interesting post: How top performers can continue growing.

AbundanceAmy

Okay bright boys and girls… here’s your thread of discontent… (I just gotta)… your formula seems very cogent and logical. I’m betting it works like a charm. The problem is, you can multiply your traffic all you want, but without a sufficient base, it means nothing. Zero times anything is zero.
How do you go from zero or one to enough so a keen formula like yours works?

ps – 300 friends on facebook is PEANUTS!

Brad Dalton

One of my competitors, who i’m also an affiliate for, is copying my ideas and writing new posts, based on my latest post titles, in their own words. Not sure what to do about this.

Ruan | Ebook Tutorials

Thanks a mil Derek!

I thought I’d spend the weekend looking around for what I didn’t exactly call “threads of discontent” and thought about what would be an effective and satisfactory way of achieving this…

I’m looking forward to your next post already! (as always). In the meantime I have some work to do.. ;)

Josie

Great article as ever, I always look forward to your emails. I don’t have a blog but can see several ways to implement the same technique with websites and general marketing. It may be not so easy to find the thread of discontent elsewhere, but it’s there!

Thanks

Paul

Nice work, Derek.

Have been reading your posts for a while now and you remain one of just a handful of people I still regularly listen to, learn from and follow.

It’s not that I don’t like the others, it’s just that if I (or you or anyone else for that matter) continually listen and follow, I don’t actually *do* enough.

And to be a pebble, as you and Terry Goodkind put it, you can’t simply absorb, watch and just hope to be a pebble. Reminds me of what that great book Purple Cow is all about.

Cheers!

Cliff

Derek – another hot tip!

Rooting out other’s issues (threads of discontent) and offering solutions will certainly grab some attention, i.e. Thesis Theme!

Especially in fields with heavy saturation, this looks like a great way to find some high ground to help stand out from the rest.

Thanks for another great post,
Cliff

Pinoy Leonardo

Well said! It’s really hard to pick up “discontent” but I myself can see it all over. My observation is, among top blogs from my country, it seems that most are spammy types and only very few are from the other tribe. I haven’t really seen the third tribers. Seriously. Thanks for the tip. This is like an affirmation!

Reuben Chng

Well written out.. Thanks.
Being a music producer and marketer. I really agree what is been written here. Help your customers and clients and I think that applies directly for bloggers and internet marketers as well.

shattered

It’s true “Look for discontent” in competitors and rip them to shreds, that’s exactly what happened to me.

Or what about if it’s not discontent, but a way to stir up lies about your biggest competitor – infiltrate their forum, steal their members, DDoS attack their site and then start a competiting site after what was the #1 trusted site in a niche has had it’s reputation tarnished all because of one greedy person’s lies.. All so they could make the money that you once did and more.

It’s disgusting what someone can do to you on the Internet. Especially if they are in it to make money..

Word of wisdom: never, ever talk to anyone who approaches you and be careful what you tell them about how you run your site etc. Even if they find out what you make for advertising this fuels their desire to bring you down.