In 1915, psychologist Edgar Rubin wrote his entire doctoral thesis on a simple picture. The image in question appeared to contain a flat white vase centered on a black background. But as plain as it seemed, it sparked heated debate among hundreds of research subjects, prominent doctors, and renowned psychologists.
While most believed the vase was clear as day, others argued there wasn’t a vase at all. In the black part of the image, they saw two men facing each other. Today, the phenomenon of Rubin’s Vase is part of gestalt psychology, a field exploring why some people prioritize different information gathered from the same image.
Rubin’s vase is an interesting way to think about perspective. Successful content marketers have to use the same thinking—seeing the critical details in what most people perceive to be the background.
This approach proves to be particularly useful when analyzing competitors. Brands that analyze their competitor’s content will yield valuable insights that can make or break a content strategy—especially since those competitors may not even have one to begin with.
It’s important to keep in mind that defining your competitors can be tricky when it comes to publishing. They may not be the same companies you’ve always sized up as business rivals. The best publishers occupy the biggest share of voice in their niche, defined by metrics such as share count or engagement rate. So be prepared to think of your publishing competition as traditional media outlets, other companies in your industry that don’t sell the same product, or similar businesses on another continent with a different customer breakdown.
To compile this information, you can start searching on Google and social media channels. You’ll want to see who dominates SEO, has the most followers or fans, and gets the highest engagement on social posts. You can get creative with your search, too, by looking at shares in industry-related LinkedIn groups as well as media preferences in Facebook Audience Insights.
Once you nail down your competitors, your first instinct might be to ask, “Well, what are they writing about?” and then slide your way into existing conversations. But in our experience, a quick glance at conversation topics generally doesn’t show you where to find an edge.
For example, if you work at a B2B tech company that sells machine learning software, your competitors might spend time covering technology at large or trending topics like artificial intelligence and virtual reality. But just mirroring these topics isn’t enough. Of course all the competitors in the AI space want to talk about AI. So how can you differentiate?
You have to be creative with how you analyze those competitor conversations. Yes, they may be talking about AI, but what approach works best? Figuring out this critical information is seeing the faces in the black “background,” instead of just the white vase.
Here are a few questions to ask that can help you identify unique approaches to content creation:
Are your competitors using profiles of industry leaders?
Do they examine how political or economic climates affect your industry?
Are they predicting what your industry might look like in the future? Or evaluating what worked or didn’t work in the past?
Do they analyze particular generations, genders, or other social demographics as they relate to your industry?
When they look at these subjects, are they critical, supportive, or informative? And how does each approach perform?
With certain content scraping tools, you can view the top performing pieces of any domain to get this information. I’ve also done it the old-fashioned way, by copying and pasting the titles and links from competitor sites with the most shares, which are a decent proxy.
Ultimately, you want to look beyond the broadest topics your brand can cover. The key is finding your niche within your area of expertise. Never deliver work that everyone expects to see from your industry, because content has value and gains traction only when it offers something new and unexpected.
You might already know your brand’s niche. Even if you do, and certainly if you don’t, it’ll be helpful to look at the niche topics your competitors like to discuss, in addition to their unique content approaches, in order to better inform how you craft your strategy.
Continuing with our hypothetical about the machine learning software company, an analysis of competitor content should yield all things having to do with machine learning as it relates to specific industries like health care, retail, marketing, etc. However, if you take a closer look, you may discover that the context of the content digs deeper, focusing on factors like sustainability or finance or customer success. These subjects are relevant to any company, but when paired with specific expertise, that’s how you end up with an interesting, new read.
Last but not least, all that insight is only as valuable as the performance it generates. That’s why it helps to visualize a cross-section so you can always point back to your research as you make creative decisions.
You might find that interviewing or profiling a business leader performs 20 percent better than a predictive article about the future of your industry. Or perhaps predictions about sustainability might fare 30 percent worse than predictions about innovation.
Creatively assessing what’s working in your industry is the best way to connect with your audience. By doing so, you adopt a data-driven process that can measurably improve your strategy in a significant way. It’s like seeing the men’s faces on a white background. The information that truly impacts your strategy is there, it’s just a matter of knowing what to look for.