Why competitor intelligence?
If you are ignorant of both your enemy and yourself, then you are a fool and certain to be defeated in every battle.
Sun Tzu, The Art of War, approx 500 BC
Whether large or small, your business works hard to carve out it's niche in the marketplace. Unless the products or services you offer are truly unique you probably do so against fierce competition from other businesses. While you might not exactly see yourself as being at war with those businesses, the fact remains that often you are chasing the same customer group. In some types of businesses you might also be competing for limited raw materials or for the most talented employees. Just as in a war, the successful business is the one that truly understands the enemy, and the landscape in which they do battle. This means tuning in to the way your competitors' think and function, as well as understanding their strengths and vulnerabilities, and their long and short term strategies.
Competitive intelligence can help you to discover the answers to these questions, providing information that may be used to develop your own strategies and keep you one step ahead of the field.
By understanding your competitors you may be able to:
- prempt their next moves
- exploit their weaknesses
- avoid their mistakes
- create a stronger and more effective strategy for your own business.
Who are your competitors?
- businesses offering the same product or service
- businesses offering similar products or services
- businesses that might offer the same or similar products or services in the future
- businesses offering technical advancements or other new developments that could remove the need for your product or service altogether.
Asking the right questions
Competitive intelligence gathering is of no benefit unless the information collected is collated, fed into the decision-making process and used in a meaningful way. Before any information is collected, it is important that you are clear on your goals for the process. You can then be sure that you are not wasting time and money collecting information that is going to be of no benefit.
It might be that you have specific questions, such as:
- How do customers view our business in comparison to our competitors?
- What marketing strategies are our competitors using and how effective are they?
- What is our general position within the marketplace?
- Who are our true competitors?
Be careful to avoid blinkered thinking when approaching questions of this sort. Business history is littered with examples of companies who dismissed new entrants into their marketplace until it was too late, or even misunderstand the real nature of their relationship with consumers. For instance, when DVD technology first arrived on the market, VHS video manufacturers reacted in two main ways - some began investing in the new technology, edging their bets and creating a foothold in the future for their business; others dismissed DVDs as expensive and impractical, believing customers would be unwilling to replace their large video collections with this new technology. There may even have been some manufacturers who had their head so far in the sand that they were completely unaware of the arrival of DVD until their sales began to fall away.
Online competitor intelligence
In the age of the Internet, online competitor intelligence is a key element of your overall strategy. It can tell you:
- what consumers are saying about your brand and product online
- what they are saying about your competitors
- the format and size of your competitor's online marketing strategy
- how effectively your website is performing in comparison to competitors
- how you can improve your online strategy.
Specific practical elements that might be considered include, but are not limited to:
- Feedback from consumer forums and reviews.
- How effectively have your competition optimised their websites?
- Where do they link in natural search results for relevant keywords and phrases?
- How effectively targeted are your competitors' PPC campaigns?
- Which core keywords and phrases do they use in PPC?
- How many good quality incoming links have your competitors established to their websites?
- How good is the usability of your competitors' websites?
Collecting competitor information
Competitive intelligence involves gathering information in an ethical manner using publicly available sources. In the age of the Internet we have access to more information than ever, but not all of it is accurate. Often the challenge is as much about identifying genuine, useful information and filtering it for relevance as it is about finding the information in the first place.
Information may come from a wide variety of sources, both within your business and outside it, for example:
- Your sales team and customer advisers have day to day contact with your customers and will often hear news of competitors.
- Your purchasing team may learn that a supplier is now also supplying a competitor.
- A quick search at the Intellectual Property Office may reveal new patents submitted by competitors.
The Internet is a rich mine of information, that can be accessed through search engines, databases such as Dun and Bradstreet and government agencies such as Companies House. Often the best starting point for your search is the competitor's own website, which may contain huge amount of information on company strategy, current clients and the management team.
Competitor research companies such as LaunchPoint have the expertise to dig deeper and gather still more information.
Bringing it together
One you have gathered this pile of information, the next step is analysis. It is important to bear in mind that a fair amount of the information gathered will be repetitious, out of date, inaccurate or incomplete. However each small piece can help you to build up a more complete picture of your competitors and put you in a stronger position.
Putting the information together and cataloguing it carefully will allow you to add new information as it comes along, as well as identifying any links and commonalties.
Finally, the relevance and importance of each piece of information needs to be interpreted and analysed - on its own and in conjunction with other information. This is where information starts to become intelligence, and can be used to help decision-making in the future.