March 23, 2010
How To

Gather Competitive Intelligence: 5 Tactics to Research Your Marketplace


Launching new products and designing marketing campaigns that stand out would be much easier if you knew your competitors’ plans. While they are unlikely to send you a blueprint, there are ways you can gain insight.

Check out these five tactics we gleaned from a competitive intelligence expert with more than 15 years of experience. We include tactics for interviewing customers, listening at industry conferences, and monitoring public information. We also explain why you should keep your strategy honest.

The term "competitive intelligence" might make you think of corporate spy games, but it’s actually an ethical, simple and valuable technique that can aid your market research. Whether you're designing a marketing plan or launching a new product, it helps to have as much information as possible about your target marketplace.

We spoke with competitive intelligence consultant Ellen Naylor, CEO, Business Intelligence Source, to learn more about the types of customer and competitor information marketers can use to make better decisions about their product positioning and marketing strategy.

"The major thing marketers are going to gain is the information they need to make a good ad campaign without guessing," says Naylor.

Naylor has more than 15 years of competitive intelligence experience, and helped initiate a competitive intelligence program at Bell Atlantic, which is now Verizon. The program helped the telecommunications company learn about competitors’ soon-to-be-released products, among many other benefits.

Here are five key tactics Naylor recommends to study your customers and your competition.

Tactic #1. Conduct win/loss analysis

Win/loss analysis requires interviewing new customers and those prospects you lost to competitors. The goal is to uncover the motivations behind their decisions.

Naylor recommends reaching out to customers about six to eight weeks after they've made their purchase decision.

"If the product takes a long time to install, maybe you let a little more time go. But I’d say no longer than three months," says Naylor.

During interviews, ask customers what they were looking for in a product or service, and why they did or did not choose your company. If they went with a competitor, ask them why. These questions will help you uncover:
o Misunderstandings around your product/service
o Competitors’ selling points over your products/services
o Features to tweak or add
o Marketing message ideas
o Problems with the sales approach

"If you do this over a couple of years, you see trends in the marketplace," says Naylor.

- Coordinate with your sales team

Contact your sales team before reaching out to any customers. Make sure you have their blessing, then ask which customers they’d recommend you contact and what to expect from the conversation.

Tactic #2. Talk to internal and external experts

People inside your company know a lot about your industry. Search your company for experts and invite them to meet for a cup of coffee.

Ask them about market trends and competitors’ habits. Express interest in this type of information, and ask them to send you anything relevant they may encounter. Industry relations people are generally good resources due to their high number of relevant contacts, Naylor says.

Also, look for industry experts outside your company and reach out. Experts who maintain blogs or are frequent speakers at industry events are usually happy to talk shop on the phone.

- Use a cooperative approach

Be polite and friendly with experts, and be sure to thank them. Also, send them information you come across that they might find interesting. Developing a two-way relationship can open a valuable information channel.

Tactic #3. Use trade shows as fact-finding missions

"I think trade shows are one of the biggest Meccas for competitive intelligence," Naylor says.

Trade shows are filled with industry experts, prospects and competitors, eagerly chatting on expo floors. Attending shows with open eyes and ears can help you gather a ton of great information.

On the first day of a show, attendees are excited and exhibitor booths are crowded. Many will be talking, so picking up bits of information can be easy. You can also identify the most talkative people and the people with specific areas of expertise, such as marketing or technology.

"As a collection person, you can just hang out on the periphery and listen. You don’t even have to ask questions," says Naylor.

Fatigue begins on the second day and really takes hold by the third day. Booths are emptier and exhibitors may appear less enthused, which makes it a good time to have casual chats with them to help gather information.

- Do your homework

You need a game plan before attending a conference. Know which specific areas and questions you’re looking to cover, and have a rough plan for how you’re going to gather information. The plan can be more of an outline, because you’ll need to jump on opportunities as they arise.

- Be observant

You need to keep your ears and your eyes open. The conference’s restaurants and break areas are good places to bump into people or catch snippets of relevant conversations. Be alert even when you’re traveling to and from the show. Naylor has ended up sitting behind competitors on return flights.

"That blew me away the most," she says. "I’m sitting there in the seat behind them and I’m just listening."

Also be mindful of people’s body language. Animated speaking with a lot of hand motion indicates excitement, so let them talk. If someone’s tapping their foot or their hands, they’re getting anxious, and it’s time to move on.

- Consider outside help

Having internal staff gather intelligence at a conference can be a challenge, since their name badges and presence put competitors on their guards. Using someone from outside your company is likely to have added benefits.

Tactic #4. Build an information database

There is a wealth of information online. You should gather it and build a database that can easily be browsed or searched. This information will prove valuable when starting new projects, or for keeping abreast of the industry as a whole.

Monitor information published by:
o Regulatory agencies
o Industry publications
o Expert blogs
o Competitors’ public relations departments

This information can be organized on a company intranet to provide access to other departments.

Tactic #5. Remain ethical and avoid deception

You may feel the urge to call competitors and pretend to be a customer to learn about their rates and programs. Stifle this urge, Naylor says, because it’s unethical. It’s essentially lying.

Additional unethical tactics include saying you are:
o From a different company
o A student working on a project
o A researcher gathering information

"You have to look at yourself in the mirror the next day," says Naylor, so be honest.

- Don’t hire others for dirty work

Also, hiring others to use deception can get your company into hot water. Make sure anyone you use to gather information is operating under the same ethical standards held by your company. See the useful links below for ethical code of the leading competitive intelligence organization.

Useful links related to this article

Chart: Information Sources for Large Purchase Decisions Changing

Society of Competitive Intelligence Professionals: Code of Ethics

Business Intelligence Source

Related Resources

The MECLABS Competitive Analysis Template 

Competitive Analysis: Stepping outside the industry and ahead of the competition 

How to Write a Competitive Analysis (with 3 free templates)

Competitive Messaging: Tell Your Customers What You Can’t Do




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