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October 10, 2012

Competitive Intelligence

by Howard Fox Chartered Marketer

Competitive intelligence – “CI” sounds sexy. Sounds very James Bond. It isn’t really. I have worked with a company who had a chief competitive officer. He spent most of his time in front of a computer screen analysing spreadsheets. He did spend a fair amount of time outside competitors’ plants counting rail cars to estimate their output, and he did do in depth analysis of the competitor’ senior managers. But he didn’t carry a gun, and I never saw him in a tux.

In my experience, it is left up to marketers to tackle this issue rather than ‘Competitive Intelligence Professionals’ (see www.institute-for-competitive-intelligence.com). It should be part of the external analysis component of every marketing strategy.

The reality though is that most serious sports teams know more about their competitors than a lot of businesses. How much do you know about your competitors? How much should your know? And as I hope to point out in this article – how much could you know?

First principles

Ok competitive intelligence is legal. Overstep the legal line and it becomes industrial espionage. Not good, because it exposes your company and to you personally to legal sanction. The legal line may be open to debate, and certainly your competitors if they become aware of nefarious activities are likely to read the situation in its most damning light. So before you get serious with competitive intelligence activities, you need a very clear definition of what you believe to be legal and what isn’t. If in doubt, get proper legal advice. If you delegate competitive intelligence activities to your staff, ensure they have a very clear, specific mandate and a clear unequivocal prohibition on anything illegal. Remember if a staff member steps over the legal line and it appears on the face of it that he did so in the normal course of his duties, legal responsibility is likely to remain with the company and its directors and executives.

Of course not all activities which are legally permissible are morally so. It is possible that you will have to take decisions as to the moral appropriateness of CI actions. My stance has always been that you shouldn’t do anything, which would cause embarrassment if it became public. You should certainly never misrepresent whom you are to get information. Personally I also rely on the “what would my mother say” test.

The CI process:

The CIA Intelligence Cycle includes: Planning and Direction; Collection; Processing; Analysis and Production, and Dissemination.

I prefer the simple four “C’s” competitive intelligence model, not only because it is simple and easy to remember but also actually includes an element of doing something with the intelligence, which the CIA appears to have overlooked! :

  • Collect the data
  • Convert the data into usable information (or to impress call it ‘intelligence’)
  • Communicate the information
  • Counter the competitor activities identified

 

Collect the data

For obvious ethical reasons we will concentrate on publically available information

Bronwyn Nielsen CNBC Africa Anchor

With Bronwyn Nielsen Executive Director and Anchor CNBC Africa, on the occasion of the filming of the inaugural episode of “Meeting of the Minds” in South Africa

Web

The web has certainly made CI much easier. Look hard enough and there is a remarkable amount of data about both your company and your competitors floating around in cyberspace.

Here are just some of the easily accessible data sources to consider:

  • The competitors’ websites (obviously), but also http://www.alexa.com which will give each competitor’s website’s ranking compared to your own and other competitors, changes in web traffic, in which country web traffic originates and how many inward links the site has. As with most data it is the trends that are more informative than absolute numbers. It has to be said that these comparisons can be affected by companies’ SEO (search engine optimisation) efforts so use with discretion.
  • The “Wayback Machine” at http://www.archive.org will show you all the changes to your competitor’s website since 1996. Most companies seem to think that once they have taken something down from the web it is eradicated forever. That’s not true. Your badly designed website in orange lives on in perpetuity.
  • Google search has so much data that volume is the biggest problem. Use the advanced search and “unwanted words” function to cut the responses down to just the useful stuff. You are unlikely to find much you don’t already know in the first few pages of results, but lower down more obscure and often interesting data emerges. Don’t forget to search images and video. Then set up Google alerts on all your competitor’s names. Google helpfully emails you as soon new data is placed anywhere on the web. Consider placing alerts for directors and senior management of competitors, then as soon as they are quoted in the digital domain you Google will send your the link
  • Google’s Street View, allows you to digitally poke-around your competitors premises anywhere in the world simply based on a physical address.
  • Check the wikipedia entry for your competitors. Some companies give away more about their strategic intent than they should.
  • Online recruitment sites sometimes inadvertently give away the identity of the company recruiting, as they hint as to who the employer is. It may be worthwhile reviewing the senior positions within your sector from time to time.

Email

  • Register for competitors’ electronic newsletters. You may need to consider using a neutral email address such as GMail for such, but remember it would be unethical to misrepresent yourself.
  • Setting up an internal CI email account will allow staff that come across interesting information to rapidly send it through to a centralised point for interpretation.

Social Media

  • Linked In gives invaluable information about your competitors’ senior leadership teams including sometimes-detailed CV’s. Just bear in mind that the fact that you visited their profile is accessible to them. I find the function “ Viewers of this profile also viewed…” particularly interesting as it hints at possibility links between otherwise unconectable individuals. “Groups and Associations” links hint at interests and possible mindsets.
  • It makes sense to follow any competitors’ staff that tweet. The interestingness of the tweets will vary significantly depending on the individual. Those who have enabled the ‘location function’ may unwittingly be revealing more than they intended.
  • If you can track down competitor managements’ blogs on sites such as WordPress they can be worth following.

Real World

  • Back in the real world, annual reports are a mine of information on public companies (be honest now, when did you last read your competitors’ annual report cover-to-cover?). These are usually available from the Company Secretary’s office and now often online. If you have a particularly interesting JSE listed competitor, consider buying a minimum number of shares, and enjoy invitations to annual and interim results presentations and prompt notification of all shareholder related issues.
  • Aggregators of published financial data such as McGregor BFA (http://www.mcgregorbfa.com/) may offer valuable information sources particularly with regards to historical financial data and comparisons between different entities.
  • JSE’s ‘SENS’ – stock exchange news service (see http://www.jse.co.za) promptly sends out all statutory required information regarding listed companies. Listed companies are for example required to publically announce any instance where future profit projections have materially changed – very useful to know!
  • Industry reports from consulting houses and industry bodies can be particularly insightful – make sure you are familiar with what is available.
  • Visits to competitors’ exhibition stands, and the collection of publically available brochures and sales literature may be of interest. (Say after me – I will not misrepresent who I am…)
  • If you are competing against imported products, import/ export statistics and trade data can be very useful. Some countries are far more open than others, and while they won’t provide data by company, it is often self-evident which shipments relate to your competitor.
  • If you use a media agency, ask them to provide you with the advertising ‘Adex’ data for all your competitors. This data gives advertising spend by value and type, per company. Trends here can be very informative. Just remember that the advertising value figures supplied are gross ‘rate card’ figures rather than what they really spent.
  • A media clipping service such as Newsclip will provide all editorial media mentions of your competitors for a monthly fee. Monitoring companies such as Ornico not only provide monitoring of editorial competitive mentions, but will also directly track their advertising as well. They ‘Newcomers’ service notifies you as soon as a new campaign breaks under a brand or category you have expressed interest in.

Converting raw data into usable information

The problem with competitive information is either that there is none, too much or it is passed on too late. All are equally unhelpful. What is needed on a day-to-day basis is a succinct, recently updated couple of pages, which actually gets read. Occasional deeper focus may be appropriate for competitive product launches, corporate actions or substantial market changes.

Raw data only acquires value once it has been converted into useful information:  assessing what is happening, why it is happening, what might happen next, and how it impacts on your company. What you really want is insight into your competitors’ strategic intent. Information acquires real value through well-considered interpretation. Industry specific experience really counts here and there is value in having a single (preferably marketing) person act as a consistent analyst of competitors. This lets them detect trends and acquire a feel for the subtleties of each competitor.

 

Communicate the information

Competitor knowledge is only valuable once it has been shared within an organisation. Ideally there should be processes in place to share the longer-term interpretation of competitor intelligence on a regular basis (perhaps a quarterly or monthly report) as well as more tactical responses to immediate issues. A central repository of all collected data becomes increasingly useful over time as reports build up. A simple shared folder on a central server or within SharePoint would serve well.

 

Countering the competitor activities identified

Clearly, acting on the information gathered is vital. Without a vigorous response, there is little value in collecting the competitive intelligence in the first place. It is surprising how often strategic plans are created without reference to the competitors’ current actions and furore intent. Use what you have found out.

Building respect for your competitors and using competitor intelligence as the foundation for your strategic planning is almost certain to improve your competitiveness, speed of competitive response and consequently your profitability. Even more importantly is dramatically reduced the risk competitors pose to your business. Forewarned is forearmed.

First published in Your Business magazine.

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