Are you aware that there are a fistful of legal tools out there that allow you to “spy” on how your advertising rivals are optimising their campaigns?

If our readers poll is anything to go by, you might not be.

In fact, of the 50 readers that responded to our survey, representing those with an interest in performance marketing, nearly three-quarters (75.5%) responded that they had never used any kind of ad spying tool.

That’s despite there being no shortage of software, services and plugins, created with the goal of achieving all manners of marketing espionage, and most of them offer some sort of free trial or sample package.

These services, which are in their hundreds, focus on almost every facet of digital advertising in the name of market research and competitors analysis, whether that’s information on who’s bidding on which keywords, what piece of creative is enjoying unbridled success on social, or to receive an alert when a network a launches new display creative.

In the world of affiliate marketing, these tools can be used monitor competing bidding strategies, creative, offer types and landing pages run by competitors, enabling the user to replicate results and benchmark them against their own campaigns.

Various phrases related to these tools, as well as certain dusty forum threads, return a number recurring examples that attract the round praise of clientele. One such commenter commends a site called WhatRunsWhere for its aptitude at tracking Facebook ads and display campaigns. This company claims to access data from 120,000 display publishers, from 190 classified ad networks, across 21 different countries. Hardly a back alley operation, and one that appears in the upper ranks of most search queries around these products.  

The same commenter adds: “a nice tool to monitor ads in search engines is iSpionage – it gives you a list of keywords that a company is bidding on and preview of the landing pages.”

But the list goes on; SimilarWeb labels itself a touch euphemistically as a “competitive research tool”, providing metrics for any website on traffic volume, sources, referrals and destination sites; the mobile-exclusive AdXposed monitors over 1,000 ads daily, revealing those which are receiving the most exposure, while SEMRush focuses on revealing organic and paid Google traffic and AdWords strategies.

A case of semantics?

It’s a well-thumbed and (let’s just reiterate) legal market – WhatRunsWhere touts a testimonial by MC&Saatchi – so given that the majority of respondents in our straw poll responded in the negative, it raises the question over who is in fact utilising these tools.

On the other hand, despite their legitimacy, it’s worth considering that there may be a stigma inherent in their nominal association with backhanded tactics that’s leading users to shun any admittance of their use.

Digital strategy director at customer acquisition network The Specialist Works, Matt Whelan, and one of the few contributors to this subject that has responded to the opportunity to comment, argues that there is certainly a semantic issue in calling these kind of services “spying tools”. Whelan notes that the products they offer can clearly be compared to those of companies that enjoy a reputation for authoritative market research.

“Neilsen, Ebiquity, Kantar et al don’t call themselves ‘spies’, and as a result get to charge a lot more for their audience and media monitoring technology than tech named SpyFu or AdGooroo, for example.”

Whelan adds that competitor monitoring forms an ongoing and necessary part of The Specialist Works’ planning and optimisation process; that includes subscription to a number of tools for analysing the paid and organic search landscape, website traffic and display placement monitoring, but notes that the resulting data has often been proven to be “woefully inaccurate”.

“Whilst you always need to take the data with a pinch of salt, any insight is useful, especially if you are up against savvy competitors who like testing new things.”

“Spying sounds so much cooler than ‘competitive analysis’, which is what this is called for every other media channel,” says Whelan.

Jesse Quist, head of growth marketing social media tracking platform at Keyhole, regards the services offered by his employer as competitor research, not spy tools, owing to the fact that it only provides metrics around organic reach, rather than paid ad campaigns, although adds that this is just the case “at the moment”.

In Quist’s experience, these types of tools are used by ad agencies, large brands and consultants, mostly with the end goal of finding best performing keywords, copy, images, and offers – coming in most handily during the creation of paid or organic strategies.

“They can be used to advise your copywriter of the tonality enlisted by successful competitors, show your designers examples of what others are doing and get a general understanding of the direction with which you want to take your campaign,” comments Quist.

Everyone likes a peek

Despite not strictly associating Keyhole with the ad spying market, Quist’s view on the wider industry is positive, arguing that the tools allow marketers to mitigate early-stage advertising risk and reduced spend, but that the results of using these tools could be hit and miss.

“A lot of money is spent at the initial stages of a paid or organic campaign so it helps to understand what’s currently working for others before jumping in,” says Quist.  

“There’s a caveat, not all your competitor’s strategies will prove useful to your campaign so use competitive analysis tools to inform the initial stages of your campaign, but continue to optimise in order to find the perfect message match between your offer and your audience.”

Asked if there does exist an element of stigma in regards to the use of these tools, Quist responds that in his experience most marketers welcome tools that allow them a glimpse into the activities of their competitors.

“Everyone tries to hide as much of their own strategies, best performing keywords, copy, and creativity as possible but wouldn’t mind taking a peek at what others are doing for inspiration.”

So given that the majority of marketers are wont to poke their heads in on what their rivals across the figurative street are up to, why are just a proportional few utilising these programmes?

While a populated market indicates some initial demand for competitor research products, it may well be that this corner of the digital marketing industry has been victim to its own success, with so many similar or equivalent products saturating the market that those with the budget are turned off from the amount of resources required to optimise their use.

Testing this arsenal of tools costs both time and money; most of these products are priced in excess of $100 per month, which would first need to gain the approval of those holding the purse strings, while each would require its own daily or weekly protocol of optimisation, monitoring and reporting in order to provide any kind of valuable return on that spend.  

Perhaps it all comes down to resources, which could be better spent on a company’s own campaign; whether that’s conducting audience research or pulling a comb through its own hard-earned data, or perhaps our audience aren’t spies, just “competitor analysts”.

Have you used any of these tools? Either way, let us know your thoughts below.