Competitive Intelligence: An Introduction

Competitive Intelligence:

An Introduction

What is competitive intelligence?

What does it mean for business?

eagle head shot

Competitive intelligence is systematic research and analysis for utilizing key ethically-sourced information to strategically assessi the competitive marketplace.

To compete in today’s competitive market, firms need a sound understanding of evolving trends and knowledge of competitive activities affecting the market.  A competitive intelligence unit and/or or consultant use primary and secondary research (interviews, industry data, journalism tools, government data, etc.), and inferential & business analysis techniques to assess your firm’s external competitive environment.  This assists to position your firm to compete successfully.


Positioning of Competitive Intelligence

How are competitive intelligence units organized within a firm?  Who in your firm will utilize intelligence information?  For what purposes?

Should a competitive intelligence department (or consultant) answer to the market research department?  To the head of marketing?  To strategic planning?  Directly to the firm’s top management?  These departments – and corporate leaders – can all make direct use of intelligence.  Effective competitive intelligence should penetrate all aspects of the firm; intelligence-based information can impact all aspects of the firm in a myriad of practical ways.  Thus, an intelligence unit should be incorporated into a firm in such a way that its’ services can be utilized in the broadest manner possible. Everyone’s input and decision-making ability is enhanced. Some years ago, the Society of Competitive Intelligence (SCIP, who has now evolved – name changes, etc.) defined competitive intelligence as follows:

“Competitive intelligence (CI) is the process of monitoring the competitive environment. CI enables senior managers in companies of all sizes to make informed decisions about everything from marketing, R&D, and investing tactics to long-term business strategies. Effective CI is a continuous process involving the legal and ethical collection of information, analysis that doesn’t avoid unwelcome conclusions, and controlled dissemination of actionable intelligence to decision makers.”

Competitive intelligence providers provide the most benefits for a firm when they find ways to make their message known throughout the firm.  Intelligence professionals provide a useful – essential – service; communicating the results (benefits) of our work to assist the entire firm in making better strategic and long-term goals.   Communicate intelligence data and analysis, then, with strength, clarity, and purpose.

Know your strengths and don’t be shy about communicating the value of competitive intelligence (CI).  For example, CI professionals:

  • Identify indicators of competitive change, follow competitor activity, and forecast/estimate the future plans of competitors.
  • Monitor and describe the changing face of an industry – key players, the future direction of the industry, changing industry and government regulations, and the altering perceptions of consumers.
  • Track specific, strategic activities or trends of the external environment

The size of a firm’s CI unit will depend on a variety of factors.  The measure of competitiveness in your industry, the number (or strength, or potential) of competitors you face, the size of your organization, the speed of industry change, and degree of government/industry regulation facing your firm will all affect the scope of your ongoing intelligence unit.  Some firms employ full intelligence units – complete with a department head and several functionally defined employees – while other firms are able to function with a regular or periodic consultant who fulfills all of their competitive intelligence needs.


Managing Information: Corporate Libraries

Does your company have its’ own corporate library?  Certain intelligence data – reports and the like – can be placed in the corporate library (depending upon the level of sensitivity of a given report). For companies – or even associations – with existing libraries, a “library newsletter” can include surveys for gathering “market news” input from employees.

Does your company keep its’ library updated with trade journals and new industry books?  Need further information about setting up or managing a corporate library?  Discuss this with a competitive intelligence and/or library professional.


The Information-Gathering Process

“Get the facts, or the facts will get you. And when you get ’em, get ’em right, or they will get you wrong (Thomas Fuller).”

Intelligence professionals capitalize upon a broad range of resources for gathering information about the market, their firm’s competitors, and the business climate.  We will highlight several fundamental intelligence resources to provide a bird’s-eye glance of intelligence information gathering.


Professional Databases

Have you ever had trouble filtering through the “maze” of information on the internet or trade journals, only to find exactly what you weren’t looking for?   While there are various sources that provide basic information on an endless number of topics, highly detailed and professional information on some topics, and a jumble of unfiltered data the rest of the time, where can one go for qualified information that is filtered, professionally prepared, and manageable?

The answer to the above question, at certain times, is professional databases.   Lexis-Nexis, Dialog, industry-specific databases, and even government databases are among the databases used by intelligence professionals.  While many of these databases require a detailed knowledge of how to use them and while they charge a sometimes princely fee, they can provide “gold nuggets” that are not readily or centrally available from other sources.  Information professionals – competitive intelligence practitioners, librarians, and information brokers – can use these databases to your advantage.


Financial Assessments

Would you like to know the financial positioning of your competitors?  Would you like to know where you rank financially within your industry?

SEC filings of public companies, economist reports, industry publications, market reports, association-based data, government reports, and statistical reporting, can all help you to build financial ratios about your competitors (broad to specific, varying on the case).

SEC filings provide a great deal of information – and not just financial data.  Annual reports, future sales predictions, product strategies, subsidiary information, industry rankings, and interests of controlling stockholders can all be learned from public filings.

Professional economists, industry associations, and government statistical agencies each publish financial data – such as overall industry size, number of players, and the financial scope of the industry – can be used inferentially to compile general information about specific players in your industry.  Various market reports can supplement this information.  Economics is a particularly beneficial field of study for intelligence professionals.

Using these resources will require you to create an ongoing database about your competitors.  The development and maintenance of a database will allow you to store multiple-sourced competitor financial information. Such           information, which will need to be updated on an ongoing basis, will help you develop a more thorough understanding of your competitor’s financial position.


Conducting Interviews

Conducting interviews is a practical element of gathering competitive intelligence.  Journalists and market research firms do interviews all the time – every newspaper is full of quotes and articles based upon interviews and many market research firms call their telephone staff “interviewers.”  Similarly, calls to individuals and firms can be a necessary intelligence-gathering tool when information can’t be acquired through other methods.  If you want to how many white papers are written on a given academic subject (or what types of white papers are written on the subject), for example, you may need to contact a university professor who specializes in the subject; such a call could lead you directly to an answer or to associations or newsgroups who publish the type of information you are seeking.  Interviewing a computer specialist could help you learn the jargon necessary for filtering through technical journals in your effort to find that “single gem” of information on “gigabytes” or “data transfer protocol.”  There are all kinds of industry interviews that can prove useful.

If effective interviewing is a skill you would like to master, your local library or journalism school will have a number of in-depth books on the subject.  We will touch on a few brief basics to assist intelligence professionals.

First of all, be clear about whom you want to speak to when you make a phone call.  Calling a hardware or software manufacturer and asking for a “computer expert,” for example, probably won’t get you very far.  Visiting the firm’s website, first, and learning to ask for the “systems administrator” or “webmaster” will help you to reach someone who can intelligently explain computer networking.

Secondly, be courteous with the person’s time.  Be prepared with clearly defined questions before you call. Tell them how long you’d like to talk or tell them the approximate number of questions that you intend to ask.  Stick to the parameters that you establish at the beginning of your call.

How can you word questions to elicit a desired response?  For starters, clearly explain why you are calling and what, specifically, you are trying to understand.  While you may not fully understand the logistics of computer networking, you can tell the systems administrator – or whoever you call – that you would like to inquire about network protocols.  Take notes.

Be confident and articulate when interviewing.  Confidence will take you farther than meekness (unless, perhaps, you reach someone who wants to impress you with their knowledge.  Then you may wish to bolster their ego – and the resulting length of the interview – by playing dumb).  If possible, ask your respondent for additional sources of information.

Ask open-ended questions that allow responses to “go where they need to go” rather than “closed” questions (“yes or no”) that don’t naturally elicit in-depth responses.

Be professional and genuinely inquisitive – this will make your interviewee feel better about talking to you.  Sometimes, a hesitant interviewee will become more willing to talk if you offer to share a portion of your research results with them (statistical reporting only, or whatever you are able to share with them).

Public records

There are a multitude of federal, state, county, and city agencies that collect information about individuals, businesses, and industries.  Many of these government agencies make their information available to the public.  While the number of such agencies is difficult to quantify in the U.S., there are over one hundred different government ministries within Canada that are obligated to provide information to the public.  The breadth of U.S. public agencies is equally impressive from the perspective of data collection opportunities.

Would you like to monitor public records that provide detailed information about activities undertaken by your competitors? This question is particularly enlightening if you work in a regulated industry, such as banking, chemicals, transport, or telecommunications. Access to certain information is becoming more restricted as the government has begun recognizing abuses to freedom-of-information laws, but the ethical use of available information is still a worthwhile endeavor.

Want to monitor trademark or SEC filings?  Compile demographic and regional data for a new product launch?  Want property records for a potential real estate transaction? Need to check the corporate name and address of a potential new supplier? Are you doing due diligence for a business           transaction?   Hiring a top-level executive?   Need to check the driving record of your new courier or truck driver?  Curious about what the government has been doing on a given subject?  Want to monitor new legislation?

Public records provide a multitude of answers on these and a variety of other questions.  Federal regulators, county courthouses, the Census Bureau, and the Library of Congress are among the agencies that provide such information.  There are a number of published resources available that will tell you where and how to locate answers to these specific questions.


Utilizing Internal Information

It’s easy think that external data is only available from outside your firm (the old adage that a true “expert” could only be a speaker from across town or from across the country, rather than the Ph.D. from within your own firm).  It’s not always necessary, however, to look externally for information about what competitors are doing or for information about what’s happening in an industry.  Take a look at what information is available from your own employees – particularly if your firm has a diversified number of departments or specialists.  Maximize internal information resources!

How do you identify the types of information that you could be gathering from employees?  Begin to organize an internal information-gathering strategy by formulating a list of questions you’d like to answer about the external environment.  What competitors are doing, how they’re doing it, when or why competitors will change their strategy, when or how a competitor’s financial ratios will change, and how a specific component of the industry may change are questions that your employees may be able to help you answer.

The purchasing and sales departments, for example, have regular contact with suppliers and customers, so an information-gathering mission could start with them.  Contact your marketing department, since they are most likely to know about the advertising activities of competitors – they may provide you with additional insights about competitors.  Additionally, members of your firm may belong to professional associations who have monthly or quarterly industry meetings (or even trade shows) where they have an opportunity to interact – and learn industry information – from other industry professionals.  Just think!  If the marketing department tells you that the would-be (but small) competitor across town has just doubled their advertising campaign and your sales department says that your devoted customers seem to be getting restless, you might want to check to see if that small competitor across town isn’t so SMALL anymore.  Inquire to see if the competitor’s sales people have been visiting your clients. Your firm could regularly ask the “front line” people in these departments for trends, “gossip,” or other industry changes that they hear about from outsiders; such tips could alert you to external activities that may directly impact the company.

Begin a method of systematically gathering internally-sourced information, storing it for practical retrieval, and utilizing internally-available information. An “information awareness campaign,” employee surveys and “dial-in” hotlines (to the corporate library or to the market research and strategic planning departments, for example), and development of communication-focused intranets are examples of potential    information-gathering activities.

If such a formalized flow of information-focused communication is not taking place in your firm, potentially useful data may not be getting utilized.  A lack of communication may result in employees being unaware that information could be classified as intelligence. Alternately, management may be unaware that certain types of “casual” or “undocumented” information are available from a given department.  Thus, it may be appropriate for a firm to develop a roadmap of “internal” information resources – with input from employees (they may be able to add to the list of categories on the “roadmap”).


Economic Indicators

Economic indicators are a key competitive tool for monitoring the marketplace.  These indicators – about local, national, and global aspects of our economy – help firms to assess the direction of our economy.  Trends in inflation, interest rates, GNP, international trade levels, employment statistics, wages, consumer spending, and savings/investment levels all provide insight into economic conditions.  Competitive intelligence professionals use economic indicators as one reference point for assessing/evaluating the potential direction of either industries or individual firms.

Such assessments are strategically vital to every aspect of a business.  Product development, marketing, strategic planning, and accounting are each dependent on an understanding the economic impact that the external environment has upon the firm.  If employment levels and wages are expected to decline, for example, it would not be wise for a consumer products firm to launch a new “impulse buy” product or a big ticket item such as “extravagant” stereo equipment.  If interest and mortgage rates are dropping, though, realtors and loan officers can look toward a potential market increase for their services.

The research center of an organization can assist all departments – and increase its’ own perceived value within the firm – by providing regularly updated economic indicators and analysis to the departments who need such information.    Government databases, the Wall Street Journal, trade publications, and local business publications are all sources of current economic indicators.


News Reports, News Clippings, and Public Announcements

Media-sourced news coverage and company-sourced press releases can both provide insight into a competitor’s activities.  While a competitor’s major “new product” announcement shouldn’t  necessarily come as a surprise (if your firm has been keeping its’ ear to the ground), other types of press can be worth monitoring.

What types of creative information gathering can be done with media reporting?  If an important competitor is based in a different city, for example, your corporate library should subscribe to that city’s newspaper.  The local paper will likely cover news about your competitor, particularly if your competitor is a large local employer or if they are in a politically sensitive industry.  Perusing the newspaper’s classified section can provide insight into the firm’s hiring trends and factory conditions; if they are planning to roll out a new product they may need to hire an additional group of factory laborers.  Reading their want ads for inside computer technicians may tell you what experience they require for their technicians which, in turn, may tell you what type/s of computer software they use.  A local news article about a newly hired or newly retiring company executive may provide you with an executive profile or insights into the company’s evolving corporate structure.  Other local news stories may provide information about the company’s style of community relations or corporate difficulties.  If you’re looking for specific information about a competitor, you may try calling a local journalist who’s written several articles about the company.

Another newspaper technique is to subscribe to a news monitoring service.  A number of information companies specialize in this type of service.  A news monitoring firm will check for stories about your competitor in any number of daily papers from around the country.  This type of information gathering will help you to keep abreast on all kinds of data being released about a competitor.

If your firm regularly monitors news coverage about a specific competitor, you’ll be in a better position to notice any changes in coverage of that firm.  Has the firm suddenly become more secretive or, alternately, more press friendly?  Such a change could indicate new management (and thus a new approach to dealing with the media), preparations for an upcoming “major announcement,” or other changes.  A subscription to a monitoring service can be well worth the expense if it helps you to keep abreast of key market developments.  Such services are even increasingly available online.


Industry Networks

Trade shows, associations, informal networks, discussions with clients and suppliers, and trade journals are all sources of useful external industry data.  Again, your firm can utilize a formal internal communication system for channeling company wide knowledge to a central information or intelligence center.  Employees can be encouraged to report “the word from the street” to someone who can direct or act upon useful intelligence.  Such employee-based reporting mechanisms can be encouraged by “recognizing” employees who contribute useful information to an intelligence center (mention them in a newsletter, etc.).

Trade shows are known for having eager sales people who want to promote their company’s products.  Maximize this opportunity.  Further, trade associations often provide information services such as industry newsletters, collective research projects, trade journals, and other information services.  Listening carefully to clients and suppliers may provide you with tips on what your competitors are planning.

Market Reports

Many consulting firms, wall street analysts, universities, financial institutions, government agencies, and industry organizations create or distribute market or industry reports on a variety of industry related topics.  These topics range from trend forecasting, industry growth projections, economic analysis, statistical reporting, demographic assessments, to executive analysis of unique market considerations.

These reports can be utilized to enhance (or maintain) an overall knowledge of the market or these reports can be used for scenario-specific decision making.  If you would like more information on locating such reports, contact your corporate librarian or an information consultant.

The Internet

The exponential growth of the internet has greatly increased the availability of “information.”  In a general sense, a tremendous amount of information is easily accessible.  In fact, company websites, general topical websites, government data, and other online sources, for the most part, provide easy access to basic information.  Learning to effectively navigate through the online world takes time, but making the effort to identify specific, useful websites can provide you with regular access to quality information.  Online versions of your favorite newspaper, industry association websites, and the individual websites of   select professionals can be invaluable.

This increased access to information can be good or it can be bad.  Finding reams of information is usually possible.  The question, however, is whether you are looking for “any” information, “reams” of information, or “specific, reliable, qualified” information.  Are you going to be able to answer THAT ONE PERTINENT QUESTION?  Maybe or maybe not.  Using a trained information professional (librarian, consultant, etc) can increase your ability to sift effectively through online data.

While data may be available online, an information seeker must still know where and how to find what they want and, importantly, know how to assess the value of acquired information.  Other sources of information are still necessary.



The Analysis Component of Competitive Intelligence

Competitive intelligence is a resource methodology that assesses and meets a company’s information/knowledge requirements.  Knowing (understanding) a firm’s internal workings, strategically assessing its’ information needs, establishing an intelligence-gathering methodology, strategically executing that methodology, using an inferential framework for assessing the results of intelligence-gathering, and disseminating the resulting knowledge is the complete cycle of work employed by intelligence professionals. Knowledge of research methodologies, information retrieval skills, frameworks of data assessment, an ability to communicate, and additional knowledge of varied business disciplines, then, are necessary for conducting useful competitive intelligence.

What, exactly, is involved in data assessment?  First of all, the intelligence team (or consultant) should know who within a firm is requesting information and what they need it for (rather than being given an anonymous information request); context provides the framework for doing intelligence.  Hearing that the accounting department needs statistical government data, for example, can have implications far different than receiving a “government data” request from the strategic planning department or from the CEO.  The accounting department, strategic planning, and the CEO may want demographic information, but not necessarily the same type, or quantity of information – or in the same format. A firm’s accounting department may want five year growth predictions of the firm’s consumer group in order to create sales projections, the strategic planning department may want to know where those consumers will be concentrated, and the CEO may be asking if consumers will even want the company’s product in five years.  Alternately, the CEO and the marketing department may both request information about a potential competitor across town.  The CEO will be interested in extensive contextual data about this potential competitor while the marketing department may only be interested in whether and how a marketing campaign should be employed against this potential firm.

Secondly, of course, intelligence personnel needs to identify the types of information that will best answer a person’s question and how to gather such information.  In certain cases the answer will be obvious (Person X wants to know how many widgets are produced by competitor Y.  Competitor Y is a public company.  Number of widgets sold can be inferred from statistical data provided in their SEC filings and, since Competitor Y is in a regulated industry, from quarterly reports given to a government agency).  In other cases, a cross-disciplinary approach will be needed to determine specifically what information will be useful and how that information can be obtained.

Several business disciplines need to be used by intelligence professionals for analytical reasoning. Economics, finance, accounting, operations management, strategic planning, marketing, and varying analytical techniques are among the disciplines most useful for intelligence practitioners.  Economics, finance, and accounting – in that order – provide an external view of finance as it impacts the firm and the internal financial issues that will be served by our intelligence efforts.  An understanding of operations management is necessary so that we will broadly recognize where and how external intelligence can be applied within the firm.  Working with strategic planning professionals will help to gauge a firm’s long-term plans – in   order to develop a forward-looking approach to intelligence.  Marketing knowledge builds an understanding of the interaction between the firm and the consumer.  This marketing framework helps to develop intelligence strategies designed to protect a firm’s present and long-term market positions.

Further – and of specific consideration for intelligence practitioners – are the analytical techniques and research    methodologies particularly employed for intelligence.  What    approaches to information assessment and analysis are      available?  SWOT analysis (an evaluation in internal and competitor strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats), benchmarking, the Product Life Cycle theory, forward-looking analytical techniques, and other “inferential analysis” theories all provide contextual analysis for performing analysis.  Each provide a partial framework for building a firm’s intelligence program, so several of these techniques need to be utilized by an intelligence unit.  A number of authors, including the famed Harvard professor Michael Porter, provide in-depth research on how to understand and utilize these various theories.


Ethics and Competitive Intelligence

Ethics, as described by “Irwin’s Legal and Regulatory Environment of Business,” is “a field of philosophy that examines motives and actions from the perspective of moral principles.”  Ethics can be employed from a number of           perspectives, such as universal theory (actions are acceptable if they can be performed with a good conscience) and the utilitarian perspective (ethical choices are the ones that produce the greatest good for the most people).  What does the concept of ethics mean when applied to competitive intelligence?

Competitive intelligence is a legal and ethical method of information gathering and analysis.  It can be discrete, but it is neither “undercover work” nor espionage. Competitive intelligence is more closely allied with strategic planning and market research than with anything that one would consider “suspect.”  While there is still a lingering public perception that all intelligence activities are dark or suspicious, continued ethical intelligence techniques and public education efforts can help to overcome this misunderstanding.

Applying ethics in intelligence involves the strict application of legal and upright research methods and adherence to industry standards for professionalism – just as lawyers and librarians establish industry expectations for practitioner conduct.

What ethical parameters apply to intelligence gathering? The avoidance of deceptive or illegal activities (such as misrepresentation or under-representation in an effort to gain information), being diligent about acting on principles of good faith, and the use of objective data analysis are all applicable ethical considerations for intelligence professionals. Intelligence practitioners don’t shy away from unwelcome conclusions.  Federal, state, and local laws provide legal guidelines for performing intelligence (the Economic Espionage Act, etc.). Common community standards for behavior provide general guidelines for ethical business conduct and information collection efforts.  Intelligence professionals should also avoid collection techniques that would create conflict for information providers (don’t ask a competitor’s employee to wrongfully divulge corporate secrets, for example).  In summary, only engage in research techniques that you would be willing to publish in the paper. One should even consider avoiding the mere appearance of inappropriate conduct.


Intelligence “Case Studies”

In scenario number one, we’ll look at theoretical case to demonstrate the successful use of multiple intelligence tools.  We’ll use a credit union for this case.

A credit union had been in operation for several years and had enjoyed modest membership levels and financial growth in the community that it has served.  Competitive forces in the financial services industry, however, were making it increasingly difficult for this credit union to serve members in their niche market, despite their highly energized “not for profit but for service” commitment to their members.  Banks in their community were enjoying a low-cost operating advantage, as they had merged with larger national banks that effectively employed economies of scale.  The credit union wished to continue providing their community-focused financial services alternative, but their fiscal budgeting was simply up against increasing difficult odds.  How could they compete?

Their management began an organized intelligence with the goal of improved understanding of their local market and identification of a competitive strategy.  An intelligence staff was brought on board.  Project parameters were defined for several key types of competitive and environmental ‘need to know’     information.  What were the current and future marketing strategies of their competitors?  How did the community feel about the financial services provided in their community?  What did the community want in a financial institution?  What were the specific strengths and weaknesses of the credit union and of each of their local competitors?  What strategic information could be determined about the broad business environment of the local and/or regional community?  What could the credit union do to increase its’ strength within the community?

An intelligence database was developed to bring together answers to the above questions.  The intelligence department then began gathering data.  They met with each of the operations-level departments within the credit union to gather external data that was available from internal sources.  They learned from the part-time marketing department, for example, that a business journalist from the community newspaper published quarterly interviews with local banking executives.  That journalist and their published articles would likely provide useful insight into local banking strategies.  Searching back issues of the newspaper might also provide hiring data about local banks (which, in turn, could provide information about     existing or – more importantly – potential banking services and provide inferential information about the internal workings of   hiring banks). Certain other credit union staff were responsible for handling all regulatory reporting that must be done with the government; they provided the intelligence department with sources for monitoring federally required banking data about their competitors (trends, etc.).  Certain government reporting can be useful; it will sometimes contain publicly accessible information that can be insightful when using inferential referencing techniques – information that is not publicly reported anywhere else.  Further, other credit union staff were aware of additional public appearances made by local bankers.  SEC filings of several competitors were downloaded from the Internet.  The intelligence staff began researching all of this information while implementing the other components of their information strategy.  The credit union did member satisfaction surveys of their existing membership and they undertook a telephone survey that helped them gauge public opinion about local financial services.  Industry, marketing, and forecasting reports were purchased from – yes – both credit union AND banking associations.  The intelligence department obtained transcripts of national business interviews done with national executives of banks that had local branches.  Promotional brochures were picked up from local banks and their websites were reviewed to learn about their banking and marketing strategies. The county’s present demographic data and five-year forecasts were obtained from the census bureau.


All of this information was publicly available.  All information – about the credit union itself, its’ members, the perceptions of the general public, their industry, and their competitors – was compiled into the credit union’s intelligence database and thoroughly reviewed.  Certain levels of present financial data, financial forecasting, current product offerings, and possible changes in marketing strategies were inferentially determined about the local banks (competitors).  The credit union itself assessed the strengths and weaknesses of both their competitors and their own institution.  Public perceptions were then collated on several related topics – the perceived strengths and weaknesses of the various local financial institutions, public (dis)satisfaction with local financial services, comparative (alternate) data on how the credit union’s members felt about their own institutional performance, and on what the general public wanted in their financial institutions.  Expected changes in local demographic trends were scrutinized to supplement the other data (possible changes in size and incomes of the local population).

The outcome of all this qualitative research?  Although banks were growing in economic clout, the credit union identified a growing public dissatisfaction with the decreasing value of banking services and increasing banking fees.   Some banks were providing an increasing range of services, but these services were increasingly inaccessible to a growing number of local consumers.  The credit unions’ own members, on the other hand, were comparatively satisfied with the individual attention they received and with their comparatively broad, affordable   access to financial services. The credit union, then, was able to identify potential new membership fields (definable groups of people that they could add to their membership base), temporarily hire a marketing staff, and implement a successful membership drive.  The credit union not only made the public aware of their unique financial services philosophy, they informed the disgruntled public that there was a banking alternative available that would meet their financial needs.  While the credit union did not wish to become a marketing machine, they were able to survive in the changing economy by successfully increasing their membership base.   They were better able to capitalize upon the economies of scale employed by their banking cousins in the financial services industry.

In scenario number two, we’ll review an application of inferential research and analysis techniques used in market intelligence.  Such analysis is central to effective intelligence, for no amount of information gathering is worthwhile unless the results can are assessed and put to practical use by the end user.

If you’re not immediately sure of where to find information about a competitor or about your industry, be creative.  Have you checked with journalists who cover business news in your competitor’s community?  Such journalists may be willing to give you leads.  Have you checked for an academic study or published market report about the company?  Harvard, for example, has a list of company reports that they’ve written over the years.  You can access Harvard’s list of company reports by going to their website.  If you’re looking at a smaller firm, you may be able to access academic studies written by a local college or university.  These academic company reports often contain multiple types of data and insight about a firm – including their operations methodologies and financial and or product ratios.  If no such reports are available, ask yourself who else would have outsider knowledge about a firm or industry.  Industry analysts, bankers, industry associations, and even product suppliers or large buyers (particularly retail buyers), for example, may have formulas for calculating or inferring information about a competitor or about your industry.  Contacting clients doesn’t need to be unethical; you could simply attempt to become an alternate or supplementary supplier.  If the client is dissatisfied or underserved by your competitor, they may be willing to consider your firm as an alternate supplier.  Engaging in negotiations with them may provide you with valuable    insight.  Such activities are simply a part of doing business.  Your competitor needs to serve their needs or face competition.  If you can estimate the number of employees that your competitor has, the number of branches/plants/office they have, and/or analyze their marketing campaigns, you may be able estimate or roughly construct their production model(s) based upon this combined information.  The sum of a product or service is made up of components, so it’s the job of intelligence professionals to gather wide-ranging data that can be collectively assessed in an analysis effort.

If you want to know how a competitor is building their product, try the old standby of the auto industry – buy their   product, take it apart, and figure out how YOUR firm would need to reassemble it.  If you can construct a rough approximation of how your competitor is doing something, you are one step closer to knowing how they operate.  You can begin to infer data about the size, shape, and financial ratios that define your competitors.  Create a knowledge database that collectively builds an information model about your competitor as you accumulate   information about them.

While some of this information may truly prove to be proprietary and inaccessible – particularly if you’re looking at a small or private company – creativity can be a useful tool for legally ascertaining estimates of a competitor’s activities. Always begin by asking yourself where such information might be covered in an industry publication or how such questions could be posed at a trade show.  Check for any patents registered by a firm.  Check news sources and libraries to see if your competitor has been studied recently by any journalists, activist groups, or even city hall – such people might be willing to share their knowledge.  If you know can estimate their plant size, market share, and sales – if even in general terms provided by industry publications a bread box, smaller than a freezer).  Pick up their latest brochures, read career profiles of their executives, and call their public relations department – you may be able to develop a broad estimate of a competitor’s possible marketing trends.  Again, inferential techniques should always been held within the reigns of legal and ethical research efforts.

©Copyright  Kim Burkhardt





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