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Real-Time Competitive Intelligence

Competitive Intelligence has historically focused on strategic and tactical forms of intelligence. In fact, SCIP changed its acronym from Society of Competitive Intelligence Professionals to Strategic and Competitive Intelligence Professionals. While competitive intelligence is an important component in strategic planning, and companies benefit from scenario planning: many companies miss the boat by not conducting and communicating competitive intelligence in real-time. Real-time competitive intelligence deserves to be a focus within the profession.

Many companies think they are conducting real-time competitive intelligence since they monitor their market landscape continuously on the Internet and increasingly through social media such as Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook as well as industry specific forums or social networks like Ning. While monitoring is the foundation of real-time market intelligence, it is not actionable. The action you take in real-time will give you a competitive advantage.  As David Meerman Scott said at our AIIP conference, “Speed and agility bring competitive advantage…Act now before the window of opportunity vanishes.”

That’s the point: many in competitive intelligence sit on the knowledge they gain from monitoring the environment. I think part of the reason is that competitive intelligence is a staff job, and many in the profession don’t have the authority to take action. Some corporate cultures reward information hoarding, the exact opposite of sharing and taking action.

However, competitive intelligence managers can inform our company employees in real-time, and in areas where we have more knowledge, we can make recommendations. The balancing act in our job is to offer cooperative intelligence: don’t inundate people with too much information, just what you know is important to them.

When you read a rumor about a competitor or marketing trend that could significantly impact your company, check it out right away. This usually involves talking to another human being. That’s why having a deep human source network is essential for every competitive intelligence practitioner.

When you’re at a trade show, report back your findings several times during the day to the sources in your company who are asking. Invariably your findings bring up more questions.

It’s interesting that Sales will quickly follow up with leads immediately after a conference or trade show. With the same exuberance, you need to fire off a report of your key findings to those who need to know, and those you suspect should know. Don’t put it off: some of the most timely intelligence comes from trade show interviews. What I really like is that much of this is not published yet, and can be used to give your company’s marketing, sales and product teams a leg up.

When you hear that a competitor is merging or acquiring another company, put the word out immediately at your company, especially to sales people, as they can reassure your customers that your good service will continue, and perhaps instill doubt about the merged competitor entity.

The point is those companies that take action more immediately are the winners these days. Those that ignore events or sit on valuable information lose. What has been your experience with real-time competitive intelligence?

Improve Your Competitive Intelligence Skill: Move out of Your Comfort Zone

Yesterday I impatiently waited for the lady driving the car in front of me to turn left onto the Freeway. The coast was wide open. Her head just kept wagging from left to right for what seemed like an eternity. So I went around her onto the right hand lane to turn left. As I swung onto the Freeway, so did she. She was going straight across the Freeway to a restaurant. I never assumed that’s where she was headed, as I always turn left from that lane as does most of our neighborhood. Fortunately, I stopped in time and she got to her destination.

How often do we get stuck in patterns and either make mistakes or don’t see events coming?  In competitive intelligence, we look for what is missing or what looks odd or out of place since oddity often is a precursor to change. How many people predicted that the overturn of the Tunisian government would lead to the riots in Egypt and the resignation of 30 year dictator, Hosni Mubarak? And now the wave continues to grow in that part of the world as other country’s citizens express discontent with their government. It reminds me of the surprise the world felt when the Iron Curtain tumbled in 1989.

There is always surprise in life and business. How we prepare ourselves for surprise is what separates the excellent from the average. I find I react better to surprises if I move out of my comfort zone more often.

  • Don’t rely on RSS feeds too much! That’s too much the same old same old.
  • Be spontaneous and pick up magazines you don’t normally read.
  • Pursue Twitter links that are out of your mainstream.
  • Comment on blogs out of your mainstream.
  • Go to a trade show which is not relevant to what you do.

In cooperative intelligence, I follow the time tested “Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver and the other’s gold.” Retain and cultivate your Gold relationships, but keep your connections fresh!

Don’t always rely on the same colleagues to support your research projects. Reach out to new people, and prevent yourself from being blindsided by industry changes, new competitors, innovative technology and regulatory change. Seek new sources of intelligence on the Internet and social networks, but don’t forget the reliable standbys. Did you know that Highbeam Research is coming out with a business research product that will compete with Hoovers? Connect with people on LinkedIn that you don’t know, who are not “relevant” to what you do. You won’t believe how many more people you can connect with for research projects when you have over 10,000 first connections rather than the 300 people you already know!

The explosive growth of e-publishing makes me squirm as a prospective book author. However, I am squirming less as I just attended a class on “how to” given through our Denver Author U by the good folks at Darkfire Productions! Darkfire Productions will format your book for e-publishing. I’m excited as a first time book writer, since I don’t have to wait 1 year to get my book published! I have only myself to blame for any delay in getting published.

Competitive Intelligence: Remain Ethical & Avoid Deception

Last month I was interviewed by Adam Sutton of MarketingSherpa, and in the spirit of cooperative intelligence I am going into detail on each of the 5 tactics we discussed to improve competitive intelligence collection. This week I cover the last tactic. For the full article you need to subscribe to MarketingSherpa.

Tactic #5: Remain ethical and avoid deception

Make sure anyone you use to collect information is operating under the same ethical standards as held by your company. If you need help figuring out what your ethical standard should be, check out the Society of Competitive Intelligence Professional’s (SCIP’s) website for its code of ethics.  Most associations have a code of ethics and often your industry or your company will have ethical guidelines. I also like the Association of Independent Information Professional’s (AIIP’s) code of ethics.

As a consultant I am sensitive to the topic of ethics since there is such a variance among my clients. Some industries are more conservative than others. Countries have very different ethical standards. Some clients have the attitude of “Just get the information for us, I don’t care how!” Others go as far as to have me sign on to their company ethical standards.

Don’t expect consultants to be unethical to collect for your company. You wouldn’t ask your employees to be unethical, and consultants when working for you are an extension of your company. It just isn’t worth your reputation to be unethical, and it doesn’t feel good to me to be asked to unethical. I have had companies ask me to attend trade shows and sign up as the employee of a large company. That’s unethical and also unnecessary. People will talk and share at trade shows even if you are a direct competitor. Of course, they’ll share even more with a trained collection consultant who is not a competitor.

More companies have written ethics statements these days, although I don’t find that companies are any more ethical today than they were 25 years ago when I started in this field. I find that having an honest discussion around ethics at the proposal stage is helpful so I can decide if my ethics and the company’s are similar. I find that each case is a little different, and you need to arrive at what feels right with each customer and each collection project, but that having ethical guidelines is helpful. Ultimately it’s your conscience that will guide your behavior and ethics is part of that.

BTW, SCIP’s Competitive Intelligence Foundation published a book on ethics Navigating the Gray Zone which will give you a lot of tippers around ethical behavior and how companies have developed ethics policies over the years. Here is a short article I wrote on ethics, Ethics: The Cooperative Angle.

Boost Competitive Intelligence Effectiveness through Databases

Last month I blogged about “5 Tactics to Research Your Marketplace using Competitive Intelligence Skills” originally published by Adam Sutton of MarketingSherpa.  As promised, I am focusing on each tactic. This week’s is #4.
Tactic #4 Build an information database
I look at building two databases: one as a repository of data that you gather on the competitive environment either through daily monitoring or analytical reports which can include material that is externally generated such competitor data, industry reports, relevant articles, regulatory trends, technology trends, distribution channel news, financial reports and relevant economic news as well as internal reports such as competitor profiles, win loss analysis, trade show analysis, product plans, strategic plans, technical assessments, wargame results, scenario planning results…all the material that you need at your finger tips for those quick turnaround projects as well as to detect patterns in the marketplace that make you pause, stand back and say “ah ha, something is up” or “something doesn’t look right”.
When selecting a software solution, you need to keep in mind the technology your company is already using, and piggyback off something that already exists, such as salesforce.com to get the scoop from Sales. Perhaps PR uses software for delivery of the news, which you can extend off of. Perhaps your industry relations folks get financial reports from Thomson, which you can build from. Get a grasp of what’s already out there and build rapport with your IT people since you will need to work closely with them for installation, depending on the size and complexity of your software solution. There are competitive intelligence software providers you might consider: I have a partial list here.
There are a few things I look for when building an information database for competitive intelligence other that installation and cost!
1. How easy is it to browse and find what you’re looking for?
2. How easy is it to update the system and refresh the data? How much time and expense do you need to factor in for updating? Many people underestimate both, so the system becomes outdated quickly and loses credibility with users for obvious reasons.
3. Is there a process to delete data when it becomes outdated?
4. How will the system maintained?
5. What are your security considerations around a software system?
6. Who will you allow to make changes to the system?
7. How will you control the integrity of the data?
8. How will you encourage people to make contributions?
A contact database is the second type of database and is crucial for competitive intelligence personnel and anyone who does research. This database contains contacts both internal and external to your company who are great sources of information about your industry, the marketplace, the competition… Mine is organized by skill set, and how and where I met each person. Perhaps your company’s directory lets you do this: you still need to connect with external contacts continuously to keep from being blindsided.
Quick access to people and information greatly speeds up your research timeline! I also keep track of my projects through my contact database, and specific topics my clients have queried about. That way when I find cool stuff, I can quickly sort those people who are interested in this topic, and communicate with them directly. Clients appreciate this since I don’t send them irrelevant stuff, but rather build on what they’ve asked for in the past. This promotes cooperative intelligence since it’s cooperative communication. I like to use ACT! http://www.act.com/ for my contact database although there are plenty of options: just pick one and learn how to use it!
Social media has opened up ways to connect and be found. I also use Twitter’s Tweetdeck to sort comments by the category where they’re an expert, which I perceive as another form of connection. LinkedIn groups are another great source of connections by subject matter expertise. You can use LinkedIn’s advanced search option.

Use Trade Shows as Fact-Finding Missions

Recently, I blogged about “5 Tactics to Research Your Marketplace using Competitive Intelligence Skills” originally published by Adam Sutton of MarketingSherpa. As promised, I am focusing on each tactic. This week’s is #3.

Trade shows are a Mecca for competitive intelligence. Nowhere are there more people who want to share their knowledge and insight with you: industry experts, prospects, competitors, other industry participants such as suppliers and distributors and journalists. This is cooperative intelligence at its finest since everyone is marketing to you whether at formal presentations, exhibitor booths or even informal places like the conference bar or hotel café.

Here are some tippers to help you be more productive at the trade show:

Beforehand: Do your homework and prepare a game plan that includes both formal and informal intelligence gathering opportunities. Study the exhibitor floor plan and all the presentations to decide how best to use your time. Write out the questions you will ask to the various audiences to help you be more articulate.  Keep your action plan rough as you’ll need to be flexible to jump on opportunities as they arise. For example, you might find out about a cocktail party that you didn’t even know existed until you arrived at the conference! You don’t want to miss it since alcohol consumption makes loose lips. Just make sure they aren’t yours and drink very little or none. I learned that lesson in the late 1990s when I was invited to a cocktail party and had to return to the scene the next day. I was lucky that the show was on for that third day. The competitor’s employees were quite attentive as their exhibit area was almost empty except for me. I don’t recommend what I did there, although I made good connections and got great information!

At the Conference: Be observant. Most people think about gathering competitive intelligence from competitors’ exhibit areas and formal presentations. However, I have found the best intelligence is gathered at informal settings such as the conference coffee shops, the conference hotel cafe, the elevator, cocktail parties, the bus ride to the airport, even during the airplane ride–by simply listening.

It’s a great time to practice your elicitation skills. I spend my time sorting out how I will approach each competitor or press personality prior to the show and often have to revise my approach mid-stream since I meet so many people for the first time, cold. If you read body communication you can figure out who is most approachable and how they might be motivated. Who is leaning forward as they talk to the booth visitors? Who is the technical person you see fiddling with cable and the computer at the booth? They probably have technical knowledge and are willing to share.

Be creative: If the booth staff doesn’t seem friendly, just wait, in time they’re likely to be relieved. Perhaps you can ask another booth visitor if you can tag along with them. Be smart about who you pick: I accompanied one of the competitor’s key clients, so the account rep answered all my questions and remarks to impress the client. The client had a number of additional questions that I would never have thought of since my product knowledge in that industry was not as deep as his!

After the Conference: Start writing up your findings during the conference and see if your home office has more questions based on what you’ve uncovered. You can pull more information out of a conference especially if you have a few people’s input, even if you’re attending by yourself.

I have even ducked into the ladies room to write out some technical details after a booth visit before I forget. I review my findings every night and often wake up with better questions. I don’t write up anything in the airplane ride home since there might be other attendees around and I don’t want to arouse any suspicion. Also they might start talking about the conference among themselves. Share your findings ASAP with co-workers upon returning to the office!

Note #1: Your competitors and other industry experts are collecting information about your company at trade shows too. How do you qualify who you will share what, and how much to share? Your booth personnel are a target, as are your company’s presenters. Have you thought about how you will answer difficult questions in public? Have you trained your employees not to have private conversations in public places like the elevator, the restroom, airplane or restaurants?

Note #2: Here is an article with more detail on cooperatively collecting at trade shows.

Connect Cooperatively to Internal & External Experts

Recently, I blogged about “5 Tactics to Research Your Marketplace using Competitive Intelligence Skills” originally published by Adam Sutton of MarketingSherpa. As promised, I am focusing on each tactic. This week’s is #2.

Tactic#2 Talk to internal and external experts

If you work for a company versus consulting, your co-workers can be such valuable sources for scoop on the competition and trends in your marketplace. Sales is one of the best places to start since this is part of their job, to win business over the competition. Many folks have trouble getting sales to cooperate, but that’s usually because they don’t understand Sales’ point of view, and expect Sales to cooperate without giving them useful information in return.

A good way to think about who to connect with internally is: who is dealing with my competitors, customers, the investor community, suppliers, distributors, regulators or attends trade shows? This list of internal connections is longer than you would think and includes: investor relations, product managers, product developers, market research, and trade show personnel.

Externally, you need to consider who tracks the marketplace you compete in, in all its aspects: technology, innovation, the environment, economic conditions, politics/lobbyists, regulatory, social issues and the competition. When you’re new, you find these people gradually. I found that product managers, investor relations and market researchers often subscribe to publications and connect with many of the same external people I want to meet. Our incentive for knowing them is different, but why not be cooperative and share your external people sources, and buy fewer copies of the same report.

You can also find these experts using social networks such as LinkedIn groups or #Twitter groups such as #prodmgmt for product management or product development. You can find experts through the Question & Answer sections of LinkedIn. Sometimes someone else has already posed your question on LinkedIn, so no one can track your interest in that topic or competitor. You need to be wary of this since the Q&A on LinkedIn forms a permanent record. The same this is true of your Twitter Tweets.

Use a cooperative connection approach with internal and external experts regardless of how you reach them. I noticed when email came into vogue in the mid-1990s, people tended to be quite rude sometimes. They would email messages that they would never have delivered face to face. I notice that people using social networks can often be quite rude, and just push stuff at me without any regard for my actual interest in the topic. Next thing I know I’m on someone’s newsletter list, and they’re a recruiter or a business coach looking to expand their business. I’m not a good prospect.

Here is a little test to think about before you issue communication: Put yourself into the receiving end of your communication, and think how you would feel.  If you still email, pare down the list to those who care. If you do social media, share other people’s blogs, news, and comment on other’s Tweets, blogs etc. Social media is meant to be shared, but for many it is one-way, SELLING!

Be sure to thank your experts and send them information you come across that they might find helpful. This two way communication and connection is invaluable to your knowledge pool, whether co-workers, folks you deal with regularly outside your company or your social media contacts.

5 Tactics to Research Your Marketplace using Competitive Intelligence Skills

Recently I was interviewed by Adam Sutton of MarketingSherpa, and in the spirit of cooperative intelligence I am sharing some highlights. For the full article you need to subscribe to MarketingSherpa. Check out MarketingSherpa’s free trial. It is chock full of marketing information, studies, white papers and current articles like this one. I will summarize each of the five tactics, and then blog on each of them individually this month.

Tactic #1 Conduct win loss analysis
Interview new customers and prospects you lost to the competition. Your goal is to uncover the motivations behind their decisions and to learn whatever great information they impart to help improve product development, tweak your existing products or service, change your marketing message, learn how your competitors are successfully unseating you and so much more.

I recommend you conduct these interviews in cooperation with your sales force, rather than behind their back. Building trust with Sales is the biggest reason to include them as part of the win loss analysis process. Sales can save you so much time by telling you how the people you’re going to interview are motivated to share. Wow, that reason alone is enough to work with Sales.

Tactic#2 Talk to internal and external experts
Use a cooperative approach when connecting with internal and external experts. People inside your company tend to know a lot about your industry and can connect you with external contacts who might be helpful. Be sure to thank your experts and send them information you come across that they might find helpful. This two way communication and connection is invaluable to your knowledge pool.

Tactic #3 Use trade shows as fact-finding missions
Trades shows are the biggest Meccas for competitive intelligence. No where are there more people who want to share their knowledge and insight with you: industry experts, prospects, competitors and journalists.

Do your homework: Prepare a game plan before the conference. Study the exhibitor floor plan and all the presentations and decide how best to use your time and write out the questions you will ask to the various audiences.  Keep the plan rough as you’ll need to be flexible since you’ll need to jump on opportunities as they arise, which you can’t predict.

Be observant. Most people think about gathering competitive intelligence from competitor’s exhibit areas and formal presentations, but sometimes the best intelligence is gathered at informal settings such as the conference coffee shops, the conference hotel cafe, the elevator, cocktail parties, the bus ride to the airport, even in the airplane.

Tactic #4 Build an information database
Build a database for all the information you have on the competition and the marketplace that can easily be browsed and that is easily kept up-to-date. Also build a database of contacts both internal and external to your company who are great sources of information about your industry, the marketplace, the competition…and make this sortable as well! This quick access to contacts and information greatly speeds up your research timeline!

Tactic #5 Remain ethical and avoid deception
Make sure anyone you use to collect information is operating under the same ethical standards as held by your company. Check out SCIP’s website for its code of ethics.

Remember I will provide more detail about each of these 5 tactics in future blogs.

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