Tapping Competitive Intelligence To Drive Product Success

The Boston Product Management Association and the Society of Competitive Intelligence Professionals co-hosted an event last night titled “Tapping Competitive Intelligence to Drive Product Success”. Here’s my summary…

What is Competitive Intelligence?

No surprise, when I hear “competitive intelligence” my brain immediately starts thinking secret agents.

Sadly for my fantasy life, CI is almost the complete opposite:

Competitive Intelligence (or, “CI”) is information obtained legally and ethically, used to identify risks and opportunities in the external marketplace before they become obvious.

An example from the event’s moderator: The new Red Sox logo was big buzz in Boston media when it was finally unveiled. However… the new logo had actually been freely available for 3-4 months ahead of the public unveiling. If you knew where to look. (In this case, on the government’s trademark office website.)

Who Lead Last Night’s Discussion?

The event featured several product management and competitive intelligence professionals, including:

  • Andrew Hally, Vice President, Product Marketing & Strategy, Unica
  • Todd Lombardo, Marketing Manager, Agencourt Biosciences
  • Michael J. Salerno, Product Strategy, Oracle Corporation
  • Brad Lovoi, CI Analyst, Fallon Community Health Plan
  • Michael Levy, Product Marketing Manager, OneSource

Douglas R. Wolf of intellectual property law firm Wolf Greenfield served as moderator.

How Do I Gather CI?

Depends on your budget, according to Salerno. And what your intended use for the information is.

Lombardo points out that some companies purchase competitor products to break them down and see if patents are being violated, or simply to understand them better.

Don’t spend too much money on industry reports without understanding the scope and contents of the report. Otherwise, you pay thousands of dollars for a bunch of graphs and only a few nuggets of real information. Bad ROI.

How Do I Gather CI For Free?

A number of ways…

  • Set up watches on patents because these may tip where the competition is going
  • Ditto for watches on trademarks
  • SEC filings
  • Investors & venture backers will sometime spill info
  • Search the web for presentations that reference competitor products
  • Search job posts — job descriptions may actually describe the products, and you know if a competitor is staffing for this product, they’re serious about it and you need to understand it

Google can be your best friend. One panelists found a posting by an analyst with a competitor’s base pricing. A separate government site posted information about this same competitor’s product with discounts applied. With this information, the panelist was able to to reverse engineer the competitor’s pricing and discount model.

Twitter came up, too: A competitor hosted an event, and an invited analyst tweeted about it live! Ooops.

How Should CI Be Parsed?

Everyone on the panel had experiences with intranets, and the majority of the experiences were negative: No one used them.

Recommendations from the panel included:

  • Create a living Knowledgebase: not just for competitor information, but also customer snapshots, news feeds about prospects, landmines for sales to exploit (Fear, Uncertainty, & Doubt)–and make sure it automatically broadcasts updates via email.
  • RivalMap – web-based, hosted solution

Organizationally, Who Should Own CI?

  • Single-person clearing house works best, so everyone knows who to turn to for information.
  • CI is best utilized when someone in senior management champions CI and validates its utility.

How Do You Filter Out Bad Information?

  • Try to verify from other sources: Don’t panic! Make sure negative news is real.
  • Never take action on any one piece of information. You need two data points to make a line.

Can Sales Help With CI?

Absolutely. But be careful.

With sales you’ll only hear about the wins, rarely the losses. Big meetings might make people reluctant to talk about why an account was lost. Socialize with sales. Get to know them, so they can help you and you can help them.

Win/Loss analysis often left to sales. The panelists agreed that this was not a great idea (“So, why did we lose that account, sales person?” “Oh. Uhhhh. Price. And our product lacked the right features?”) Win/Loss should reside with Product Management.

Can Customers Help With CI?

Absolutely. But be careful.

Ask the customer, have you tried Company X’s product? Find out from the customer what they like about it.

Don’t automatically trust pricing from customers: They may be trying to get a better discount from you!

Go to the accounts, the ones you win and lose. Customers very forthcoming with information. Use Sales to understand the customer before contacting them.

Examples of Unethical Methods Of Collecting CI

  • Pretending to be someone else: Masquerading as a customer of your competitor and attempting to pump their customer service team for information.
  • Industrial espionage (eg, theft of trade secrets).

One of the panelists said that he knew of companies that debriefed new employees who came from competitors. The “share as long as you don’t feel you’re violating your NDA” approach. Personally, that sounded pretty gray at best.

If you’re the victim of an unethical CI attack, make sure everyone knows what’s happening and set simple guidelines (eg, “If anyone calls looking for this kind of information, send them to me.”).

More Insights

For more insights–in 140 characters or less–be sure to check out Stewart RogersTwitter coverage of the event as it happened.

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3 thoughts on “Tapping Competitive Intelligence To Drive Product Success

  1. Thanks for the great summary Christopher. As a former product marketing manager and competitive analyst, these points resonated with me. A couple of other suggestions/considerations:
    1) When positioning against the competition – remember to target their strengths, not just their weaknesses.
    2) Don’t overlook other points that the sales force might find valuable, such as a competitor’s financial health, customer attrition rate, and customer support policies.
    3) Companies should run competitive positioning statements past their legal department before publishing to avoid the risk of potential lawsuits for any claims that can’t be backed up.
    4) For critical competitive news/positioning, companies could send out an email blast.

    I look forward to future posts!

    Stephanie Tilton

  2. Thanks, Stephanie! Targeting the competition’s strengths, not just their weaknesses, is a great tip. Leave real value differentiators behind on your sales calls: Clients will investigate the gaps and put the other side on the defensive.

    – Chris

  3. Chris: Excellent summary. As you pointed out, there is no shortage of competitor and market intelligence readily available – and the amount of information that can be found grows every day. In fact, for people who recognize the strategic decision making value of all of this information, the biggest challenges are sometimes how to:

    – regularly monitor all of these available sources
    – organize this dynamic information in a way that provides actionable intelligence related to classes of companies and lines of business
    – share the information real-time among decision makers in your organization who need it
    – collaborate with colleagues who may come across important intelligence in the field
    – track changes in the competitive and market environment over time

    Fortunately, there are a number of excellent tools available to assist with this process. My firm offers a very affordable web-based competitive intelligence software product called AttaainCI that extracts intelligence from all of the sources that you mentioned and more (e.g., news, search, blogs, videos, twitter, hiring, patents, SEC filings, articles, on-line documents/presentations, etc.) plus intelligence in areas such as competitive website advertising activities, keyword focus, traffic trends, search rankings, on-line collateral, and more. It also provides real-time profiles of any companies, people or markets of interest. In addition, it provides a complete framework for organizing and tracking this information according to related classes of companies, people or markets relevant to individual lines of business in which a company competes. This real-time information can be quickly viewed on-demand using web portal Dashboards, and also delivered via user-specified e-mail intelligence alerts. You can see more about AttaainCI at: http://www.attaain.com.

    Tools such as this can be invaluable in regularly and cost-effectively extracting, summarizing, tracking and reporting on the kinds of crucial information that you discussed.

    Thanks again for the excellent post.

    Best Regards,
    Daryl Scott
    Attaain, Inc.

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