We wrote previously about a few reasons why competitive intelligence is still important to B2B companies in this age of disruption.
If you’ve decided you need to do competitive intelligence – congratulations, good call!
The next question is: HOW?
Because it’s one thing to want knowledge about competitors, and it’s another thing to actually get that knowledge.
Read how competitive intelligence fits in B2B strategy in The 3 Cs of a Great B2B Marketing Strategy. (It's one of our most popular posts ever.)
How do you go about obtaining insights on what competitors are doing and how they’re operating?
Here are 5 steps for conducting a competitive intelligence process that will actually be useful for your business:
Step one: Create a checklist
It’s hard for businesses to know how much competitive intelligence they need.
And the realities for getting that information are often much trickier than you expect.
So it's easy for a company to start out optimistic about the competitive intelligence process, but to quickly become derailed when the challenges of information gathering appear.
By the way - I’m assuming here that you are not looking at dumpster-diving or phone-tapping. (If you are, this post will not help).
The first step is to make a list of what competitive information you’d like. And then divide that list into ‘nice to have’ and ‘need to have’.
Start with basic information like who the competition is and their characteristics.
Make sure you include direct competitors and indirect competitors.
Here are some characteristics to consider on your list:
- Product lines
- Distribution channels
- Market share
- Sales team and process
You might not need all these elements, they’re options for you to consider and spark other ideas about what information is relevant for your company.
Step two: Create a structure and be consistent
The most common mistake by companies doing competitive intelligence is that they don’t have a rigorous structure.
It’s isn’t enough to come up with a set of questions and embark on talking with a dozen suppliers. If you haven’t done CI before, you’ll be shocked by how messy it gets, quickly.
To avoid a mess, set up a matrix to give your information-gathering process a framework.
Keep it simple - list the competitors along the top of the matrix and the information you’re gathering as rows along the side.
When you’re entering data into the matrix, don’t use arbitrary ratings or symbols – stick with the facts. This will help you later when you’ve completed the information gathering and are analyzing the data.
Step three – Information gathering, part 1
The starting point for CI is gathering ‘secondary’ information, the stuff that is publicly available, usually online.
- Begin with your competitors’ websites.
This is hardly rocket-science, but it turns out it’s more of an eye-opener than you might think. Even sharing how a competitor describes their business and products on their website or LinkedIn page can be revealing (and news to many people in your company).
A caveat: be cautious of what you find online.
A lot of businesses, especially SMBs, don’t have up-to-date websites. This can result in an online presence that is a far cry from their current reality. If you see information that you know is not accurate, it’s best to assume that their website is out of date, and treat everything you find with skepticism.
- Download the marketing collateral (brochures, spec sheets, press releases, etc). You can usually put together an analysis of product offerings and specifications from this material. You might also learn that they’re expanding in new areas, opening new distribution centers or launching new products.
- Audit their social media, including LinkedIn, Twitter, Google+, Facebook and Instagram (plus any others you find). If they have an active social media presence, you can glean what kinds of resources they’re dedicating to marketing, what they’re focusing on, how they’re positioning the company and services, and plenty of other insights about their products and direction.
Again, apply judgement here. There’s a difference between what can be gleaned from a company that is doing social media well, and one that is not.
- Look at job postings. The types of people your competitors are hiring will provide clues about where they’re expanding, where they’re short on resources, what services and products they’re prioritizing and more.
Step four - Information gathering, part 2
The next stage of information gathering is more intensive and is called ‘primary research’. It involves talking to people and digging into their individual knowledge about competitors. In this stage, you’ll be able to fact-check things you’ve found during your secondary research.
- Ask your sales team. Their interactions with prospects and customers gives them tremendous access to up-to-date information about competitors’ products and services.
- Go direct to your clients, especially newer customers who may have moved from a competitor to your business. They often have insights and useful knowledge and may be quite willing to share in order to help your business serve them better.
- Talk with high-ranking members of your industry association, if you have close relationships with them. Consider speaking with executive search people (head-hunters) too. No one is going to give you inside scoop if they don’t know you well. But you’ll often be amazed by what people tell you, if only you ask.
- Look for former employees on LinkedIn. (This is not for the weak-at-heart – and it must be handled carefully.) Depending on the kinds of information you need, and whether former employees have NDAs, this can be one way to get at nuanced details.
- The last option in primary research is mystery shopping. This is difficult for the majority of B2B companies, but going through a competitor’s sales process can give you incredible insight to what they do and how. What is their sales process? How do they move from one step of the buyer journey to another? What sales-support materials and tools do they use?Are they responsive?
It takes significant resources to do mystery shopping, but if you’re looking at a comprehensive re-work of your sales process and need to match best-in-class competitors, it’s valuable.
Your own employees won’t be able to do mystery shopping, it has to be a third-party.
And you’ll know, based on your industry, whether mystery shopping is a viable option or a non-starter. (eg, if you supply defense equipment or nuclear reactor parts, mystery shopping is probably not an option).
Step five – bring it together
The last step is the easiest to want to skip, but the most important.
It’s tempting at the end of information gathering to feel like you’ve done everything and know it all, and can start making decisions.
Not so fast!
It’s vital to critically analyze the data to avoid making decisions based on what you heard most recently – or most want to believe.
Here are a few tips for making the most of your research:
- Review the data systematically to make sure you aren’t using your own biases to make judgements.
- Assess what people DID say – as well as what they DIDN’T say. Reading between the lines can develop your most powerful insights.
- Develop hypotheses based on your secondary research and use the interviews to confirm or refute them.
- Summarize your key findings. Create tables, charts and graphs to share your insights with colleagues. Make sure to use verbatim quotes – those often have the most impact!
Doing Competitive Intelligence Right
Using these five steps – from structuring your CI process, to being resourceful in how you gather information, and then carefully analyzing your findings – will result in competitor knowledge that is robust.
And that is the most important part of the process – because if you’re going to make material changes to your business based on what you’re seeing from competitors, it’s important to be able to rely on that information.
How to use competitive intelligence in setting your strategy
And now, here's how you put that competitive intelligence to use in planning your marketing (and maybe also your business) strategy:
Looking for some additional direction in your pursuit of competitive intelligence? Check out these organizations:
- Institute for Competitive Intelligence - https://info.themezzaninegroup.com/reseller-engine-needs-assessment
- Strategic and Competitive Intelligence Professsionals - https://www.scip.org/
- Academy of Competitive Intelligence - http://www.academyci.com/