Should You Spy on Your Competition?

Spy movies are great for entertainment.

I love how the excitement and suspense builds up as the main characters investigate the case. Typically, the main characters monitor, or observe, the suspects in the case in order to learn everything that they can about what the suspects are doing. They often endanger their lives in numerous ways just to learn a little bit more than they did before.

Does the same strategy work for a freelancers? Should we be monitoring our competitors to learn what they are doing?

In today’s wired world, nearly everyone is connected in some way. It’s fairly easy to read a competitor’s blog or even to discover how well said blog is doing in terms of popularity using free Internet tools. Social media provides another venue through which a freelancer can learn about his or her competitors. Most freelancers are active in one or more forms of social media.

However, just because we can monitor our freelancing competitors, does that mean that we should? Is it healthy for us to spy on the competition?

Some business specialists would suggest that the answer is “yes.

Many large corporations monitor their business competition to ensure that their own company remains competitive. Often store managers are required to learn what other stores in the same geographic area charge. A car dealer may try to offer the same incentives as his/her local competitors’.

I’d like to suggest, though, that there is a healthy way to monitor your freelance competition and an unhealthy way to monitor your competition. Freelancers should embrace the healthy method of monitoring the competition and avoid the unhealthy method.

Unhealthy Monitoring of Competition

An unhealthy way to monitor your competition is to focus on one or two individual competitors. It’s also unhealthy (and an invasion of privacy) to try to learn more than what your competitor has posted publicly for customers and colleagues to see.

I shouldn’t have to say it, but I will. Leaving trollish comments at a competitor’s blog or website is also unhealthy.

One reason that it’s not good to focus on a single freelance competitor (or a small group of competitors) is that a particular freelancer’s experiences may not be reliable. He or she may be in a unique situation, or they may not be telling the truth online.

There is a better way to stay informed about the competition in your freelancing field.

Healthy Monitoring of Competition

A better way to stay informed about the competition in your field is to look for general trends in your specialty.

For example, if you notice that one freelancer starts bundling certain services together, it probably doesn’t mean much of anything. However, if you notice that most freelancers in your field bundle certain services together, then you may have spotted a trend.

If you do spot a general trend, then you will need to evaluate whether or not your own business should follow that trend. Not all trends will benefit all freelancers.

Looking for industry trends among your competitors can be a time-consuming process. Before something can be considered a trend, a large number of freelancers need to have adopted it (or be indicating that they are planning to adopt it).

As an individual freelancer, you probably don’t have time to study large groups of your competitors. One way to find out about trends, of course, it to purchase a professional study about your field. These studies can be quite expensive.

Fortunately, there is an easier way to spot trends. Simply look to the leaders in your freelancing field. Often, they report on or are early adopters of industry trends.

A Word About Industry Leaders

Most freelancing fields have a handful of industry leaders whose blogs and social media inputs are followed by nearly everyone in that field.

You probably already know who the industry leaders are for your freelancing field. They are the must-follow online players in your specialty. When one of these leaders writes a blog post (or tweets, or diggs, or stumbles), people pay attention.

You can learn a lot by reading tips from industry leaders. You should also be aware, however, that the experiences of an industry leader with a particular product or technique might not reflect your own experiences with that product or technique.

Often, industry leaders are so popular and highly regarded that their participation in a particular program will succeed where the participation of a less popular freelancer would fail.

What Have You Learned From Your Competition?

I’ve learned a lot by reading the blogs of top freelance writers and bloggers. One of the most important things that I’ve learned is to keep trying and not give up.

What do you spy on your competition? Learn anything juicy (valuable)?


  1. says

    I’m not sure who my competition is! I don’t bid against people through Elance and similar sites, but I do know who some of my fellow writers are.

    I guess I look at my would be competitors as colleagues which removes the need to spy against them. Plus, I’m confident in my own abilities and feel no need to keep pace with anyone.

    Then again, if you are planning on creating a spy network that could be make for some fun; mischief too!

  2. says

    LOL Matt!

    I’m way too busy to start a spy network. I do try to stay abreast of industry trends, though.

    I think it’s healthier to look at your competitors as colleagues and your confidence shows that you have a positive outlook.

  3. says

    I’m tired! I read the last sentence twice before hitting the “send” button and still the error slipped through.

    That’s why I’m not worried about other writers, they do a much better job of proofing their work then I do. I’ll take the scraps any day.

  4. says

    I’m totally sure that we have to keep our eyes on our competitors and I agree that this must be done healthy, but in a small city like the one I live in, you have to show not just your customers, but the whole city you are the best… and also have a nice “price”..
    I’m sorry if I made this a bit confusing… I haven’t practice my English for a long time.

    Thank you and Congratulation about it!

  5. says

    There is a certain limit to everything. For me, it’s ok if you occasionally visit your competitor’s blog; I think it makes you aware of what is happening so you can make a move immediately. No one wants to be at the bottom of the list. However in a positive manner, once you found out that your competition is doing well, you can feel a sense urgency or drive that you should do something.

    Meanwhile, I agree that feeding yourself with updated info from authorities is a more ethical way to learn. A quality research about your niche will produce a good outcome and can even make you stand out among your competitors.

    Good post Laura!

  6. says

    I’m sure spying does happen and it almost sounds cool and intriguing when you place it in the context of a spy movie. But in reality, if it impacts our lives, I think it would come across less favorably.

    For example one unscrupulous way to spy on your “direct competition” would be to post fake job ads, specifically for the types of jobs that you would normally apply for, on the boards that you would normally use. This kind of practice would reveal the volume and quality of applicants normally in direct competition with you. Additionally it opens up the possibility of someone copying your job application or cherry picking the best bits from all the applicants.

    For freelancers who often outsource, “real” excess work, they kind of get the same results in a more scrupulous way.

    This kind of practice would obviously be bad for the industry, but It’s worth mentioning and baring in mind. Maybe some safe guards should be put in place, such as charging a fee to post job ads. That wouldn’t prevent the practice from happening but it might discourage it.

    Also these days there seems to be a strong tendency for those posting job ads, not to reply to unsuccessful recipients. Plus applicants no longer expect a reply which makes it even easier for the job poster to abuse the system, as it removes any obligation to the applicant. In some systems they can remain anonymous.

  7. says

    For Search Engine Optimization, I spy on my competitors, but I never leave nasty comments. I take a peak at their marketing, and SEO techniques. From there, I try to emulate what they are doing for best results.

    I don’t really do that for Freelancing, but I occasionally look at their designs, and try to improve my skills from there.

  8. says

    A company I once freelanced for is known to have secretly posed as a client/customer in order to find out the business methods and more importantly prices offered by the competition. That it what I call ‘unhealthy’ spying

    Usually the efforts made to sabotage or spy on the competition could be used much more productively if directed on improving your own business.

  9. says

    It is healthy to spy on the Main competition. However, spending time spying on those who aren’t close to your level is something pointless. If you’re going to choose to spy on your competition, make sure to spy on thos who are better or at least at the same level as you.


  10. says


    I think that sometimes too much focus on your competition can distract you from your uniqueness.
    If you are too busy following others, when will you take the lead?


  11. says

    I love these comments!

    There are so many good ideas from the Freelance Folder community here.

    I also agree with Juliet in the last comment who says that “too much focus on your competition can distract you.” That makes a lot of sense – after all your main business is not spying on your competition, but completing your projects.

  12. Ricky says

    Posting fake job ads is one way to spy on your direct competition. From this kind of practice you can find out how much they are charging, plus view the volume and quality of applicants for the exact type of jobs that you would normally apply for. This kind of process also happens naturally for freelancers who outsource excess work. In that case they also see quotes.

  13. Ricky says

    Hi Laura,

    I’m not sure about healthy or unhealthy, but potential bad for the freelance industry (if it happens) and something job sites should probably take into consideration and implement checks or preventative measures.

    For example charging fees to post job ads would probably be a strong enough disincentive. Also there seems to be a trend these days for job posters not to respond to unsuccessful applicants which might help to facilitate this kind of practice.

  14. says

    Thanks for the clarification Ricky!

    Personally, I would never advocate posting a fake job ad to get information although others probably do this from time to time.

    As far as charging a fee to post jobs, I think that there are just too many places that take job postings to make it really feasible. In fact, some of those places don’t really screen those who post jobs – so freelancers should proceed with caution.

    If you are charging industry, or near industry rates, though – your fees shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone.

  15. Ricky says

    Rates can vary significantly, especially for telecommuting jobs where you’ll have applicants from all corners of the world. I’ve outsourced work before and had developers from Australia quote $150 per hour, then developers from India quoting $10 per hour. I’ve seen individual freelancers quoting $3k for a job and studios quoting $30k for the same job, plus everything in between.

    I remember one studio quote included boardroom hire and catering for a web design job, which I thought was funny.

  16. says

    Great post. The title made me unsure of what to expect, but I found it well written and balanced. I like what Matt said, when competitors are really good at what they do, then they are colleagues. I enjoy learning from them, and I’ve found they often share the same attitude. And as others have indicated, it’s better to focus on your own uniqueness than worry about (or spy on) competition.

  17. says

    To be honest, I would rather make friends with my competition and just have open discussions with them then “spy” on them.

    When I was in the photography industry (for 16 years) I talked to my fellow photographers all the time about how they do things, what they charged, what their deposit polices were, how they bundled products and services, etc. Heck, we even exchanged price lists sometimes. It was all very healthy.

    Of course, we all had our unique talents, some of us were better at one type of photography than others, we all had different personalities and dealt with our customers in different ways. We also all had different marketing and networking strengths, and different visions on our companies should be run. We didn’t let everything out of the bag of course, but generally we were pretty open with each other.

    I don’t think any of us felt the need to “spy” on each other.

    These days I am in the web development business, and due to the Internet, I run my business quite differently than when I had a brick and mortar shop. I am just starting to get to know my competitors (it’s much harder to create a relationship in a global community), so I cannot say if the rapport will be the same, but so far, everyone (yes everyone) I have met in the industry has been quite willing to share ideas, prices, knowledge, etc.

    With those that I have formed a relationship with, I have no problem sending work their way (if I am too busy or the work requires a talent that I feel I am not the best person for) and they have sent work my way.

    Most people are willing to share their knowledge and their ideas. Spying isn’t the answer. You’ll get much more out of a plain old honest conversation.

    My two cents …

  18. says

    Excellent article! Now that things have changed so much, at least in terms of “connecting people”, the industry has become a community in which everyone stays in touch, shares knowledge, discussions and other resources; leaving no room for spying because practically nothing is left in the dark anymore.

    So apart from being pointless, spying on your colleague’s wardrobe will make you look like an idiot.

    I’m glad (and still amazed) that now I can interact not only with the authors of the books I buy, but also with other readers on a daily basis.

    Thanks for posting such a brilliant article. Cheers!

  19. says

    I think you should at least keep an eye open for what they’re doing. However, just putting your head down and doing a killer job with your work would probably lend more results than worrying about what the other guy is doing.

  20. says

    I think you can look “over your shoulder” too much! I just focus on building my business and let the rest of the world get on with theirs! Be original and stay focused on your own targets in business, and you will succeed. :-)

  21. says

    First of all great post Laura, I really like what you wrote.

    People often do forget some very important issues when it comes to competition and online marketing in general. It is very important to know what your competitors are working on, leaving that out your job isn’t complete.

    Let’s go back, years back when Pepsi wasn’t paying attention what Coca Cola company was doing, does anyone remember that? Pepsi was focusing on their own product and services and Coca Cola was selling more than Pepsi ever did.

    You simply must know and spy on your competition, there are always some new things out there that they could know before you are.

    Few years back I was asked by small business owner to analyze their website, the owner had good product however her competition was selling 5 times more than they did. She was also focusing on her very own business, too busy to look up.

    Anyways long story short, her competition slashed their prices permanently and the cost of the product they were selling was 50% less! and she was wondering why.

    See this was very basic auditing, few hours really and now she does monitor every step that her competitors do online.

    Monitor your competition, “spy” what they do and “copy” but never follow.
    – Emil


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