If you’ve got any other useful ideas or can recommend any free tools, please do leave a comment.

And for further information on this topic, check out our posts on how to replace Google Alerts for competitor analysis.

1. Work out who you’re competing with

This is an obvious starting point and something that should have been done when you first came up with your business plan.

However it might still be possible to identify a few smaller competitors by performing a basic Twitter search.

Start with the most obvious competitors then look at who is following them to see if there are any small businesses that are also trying to make a name for themselves in your niche.

2. Search for keywords and hashtags

Searching for keywords and hashtags on Twitter will help to identify people that are the most vocal within your marketplace, which may help to flag up some potential competitors but also gives an idea of the sort of people you need to be engaging in conversation.

Similarly, searching for your competitors’ brand names will help to tune into what people are saying about them, which will give useful insight into customer sentiment and how competitors are performing on social.

Twitter’s advanced search tool is extremely useful for this as it allows users to be very precise with their search terms and also save them for future reference.

3. Use Hootsuite

Hootsuite is a free tool that allows users to monitor search terms in real time, allowing you to stay on top of the conversations that are going on around your industry and competitor brands.

In truth it’s actually more useful for monitoring your own brand mentions, but could also be handy if you’ve set time aside to monitor the conversations going on around competitors.

If you’re bold enough you might also consider jumping in and starting conversations with users who mention the competition, though tread carefully as it’s easy to come across as a spammer.

4. Create lists

Another useful shortcut to keep track of your competitors are Twitter lists, which should be set as private so other users can’t gain access.

This allows you to save all competitor feeds in a single list to keep track of the kind of content they’re sharing and who they’re engaging with. 

5. Analyse their followers and who they’re following

Once you’ve identified the competition you can use one of the free tools available online to find out more about who follows them.

Our own head of social Matt Owen recommends Followerwonk, which has a free tool that allows you to compare your own Twitter profile against your competitors. 

As you can see from this screenshot comparing my own data versus those of my colleague Ben Davis, we have a total of 3,228 disciples of which only 194 follow both of us.

I can then identify the 554 users that have made the mistake of following Ben instead of me and look at their own data, such as follower counts, social authority and Twitter bios.

This information allows you to work out which users are potentially the most influential in your niche and who you should be trying to engage with.

It’s obviously quite a lengthy process, but Followerwonk also offers a premium version of the tool that allows you to download the data to run more in-depth analysis.

There are other free tools available that offer similar functionality to Followerwonk, one of which comes courtesy of Simply Measured.

This allows users to access a brand’s complete follower list, including location, influence and behaviour information, but only if the brand has fewer than 100,000 followers. 

It’s also worth noting that the analysis only includes the brand’s 10,000 most recent followers – the full list requires a subscription.

6. What content are they sharing?

Once you’ve worked out who your competitors are engaging with it’s necessary to identify the topic of conversations and the type of content that is shared.

This will then help to inform your own content strategy and the type of conversations that drive engagement within your industry.

Unfortunately I’m unaware of any free tools that will automate this process, so it’s down to old-fashioned elbow grease.

Look at the type of content your competitors are sharing (e.g. images, videos, blog posts) and what seems to get the best response in terms of engagement.

This isn’t necessarily a scientific process, as retweets don’t always correlate with clicks and site traffic, however it will help to identify popular topics and types of content that can at least form the basis of your content strategy.

This can then be refined over time by looking at your own engagement statistics.