Intelligence = Information + Insight
A fundamental step in creating a successful digital marketing strategy is understanding the competitive landscape. There’s a new buzzword on the block… competitive intelligence. While not necessarily a new concept (born in 1970s), it’s gaining popularity in the C-Suite. March 27th will bring the Competitive Intelligence and Product summit to San Francisco. So we think it’s a good time to take a look at what Competitive Intelligence actually is.
Competitive Intelligence for digital marketing intelligence was once defined as; information plus insight. Information on its own has no value, but when it’s analyzed in the correct way it can be incredibly important. Competitive intelligence is a catch-all term that is used to practice of collecting information on your competitors and turning it into actionable insights for your own company. While this might just sound like competitor analysis, CI (competitive intelligence) takes a much more holistic approach, also considering customers, competitors, distributors, technologies, and macroeconomic data.
More than the Four Ps
If you’ve ever opened a marketing textbook you’ll have heard of things like the four Ps of marketing (Product, Price, Promotion, Place) or SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats). These frameworks help you break down what your competitors are doing by splitting aspects of their business into more manageable chunks for analysis.
Competitive Intelligence is the house that all of these separate methodologies and tactics live in. As a phrase, it has been around since the 1970s, with the Society of Competitive Intelligence Professionals (SCIP) being founded way back in 1972, so it isn’t a new practice.
Traditionally ownership of CI has been held by market research or analysis professionals rather than in-house marketers. But as the amount of information you can simply find by using Google has grown, more and more companies have begun passing the task to their product or marketing teams. However, initiating a true CI project can take 1,000s of hours, so shouldn’t be started on a whim, with some CI professionals stating they spend around 20 hours a week searching for information on the web.
Can You Do Competitive Intelligence as an SMB?
Hiring a dedicated CI practitioner is obviously not possible for all companies. But hiring an agency isn’t a catchall either. So how can you start looking into competitive intelligence without breaking the bank?
One part of competitive intelligence that you can manage yourself, with a minimum amount of resources, is keyword analysis. A simple step you can take to see what keywords your rivals are using is to “scrape” their website’s pages with the Google keyword planning tool. While it won’t give you “intelligence” per se, it will help understand the landscape and how search engine AI interpret content and match with search queries. This can be a quick project run before creating a new blog post, or something more detailed you spend time on if you’re looking to create more pages for your own site, but you’re not sure what to write about.
Another way to get on the CI bandwagon is by using technology to take some of the burdens off your shoulders. There are a number of affordable — and sometimes free — ideas and tools you can use to help you gather intel:
- Google Alerts – Set up Google Alerts using the names of rival companies or products. That way when they’re mentioned online, or they publish content, you’ll hear about it. If you do this we suggest you set up a dedicated folder in your inbox to send all of these messages. So you don’t drown in emails! Or build your own RSS feed for the information. Another similar tactic you can try is signing up to your competition’s mailing lists, to hear what they’re doing as soon as it’s published.
- Screaming Frog – Screaming Frog will run a detailed report on any website you want. One feature we use involves pulling out their meta descriptions and title tags. With this information, we get a clear idea of what keywords they’re trying to pursue as part of their SEO strategy.
- Social Feeds – Similar to Google alerts you can also set up social feeds in HootSuite that will monitor certain brand names or keywords. If you’re a paid Hubspot user, you can also do this in Hubspot’s marketing tool.
- Conferences and Events – If you’re going to be attending an event, or a conference, and one of your rivals is speaking, take the time to listen to them talk. Events aren’t all about selling and meeting customers, so dedicate some time to hearing the enemy speak. Also, events will often post talks and presentations on their social channels after the fact. So if you can’t make the conference, check to see if they’ve uploaded anything to YouTube.
- Check their financials – One, perhaps old-fashioned, way of looking at your competition is to run a report through Dun & Bradstreet. If the company is publicly listed you can see a wealth of financial information (and more) by signing up for D&B. If you don’t want to pay for this information (D&B isn’t free) you can find lots of financial information online using tools like Yahoo Finance.
- Sign up for a professional Business Intelligence tool – This website here provides a long list of Business Intelligence tools that have been user tested. BI tools aren’t always the cheapest, but if you’re launching a new product or carrying out a rebrand, it can be worth the money invested to get all of the data you need in one place, presented in a manageable format.
How to Get Started
So, now you know what it is, how can you start gathering your own competitive intelligence? Well, there are five simple steps that you need to take to get things moving.
- Identify Your Competition – You need to look at your own business from several different angles. Here are some questions you should be asking yourself:
- Who does what we do? Take a broad look at all the companies that do what you do. From big to small. Local to multi-national. Then try and narrow things down from there, while also looking for any commonalities between all of the businesses.
- Who is where we are now? Don’t get lost comparing your company to the market leader. If you run a local organic grocery store, is Walmart really your main competitor? Compare oranges to oranges, don’t worry about the apples.
- Who is where we want to be in the future? Keeping the point above in mind, you don’t have to just look at companies that match who you are now. If you want to expand or to open a second location then look for competitors who have already done that. What are they doing differently to you and could that have helped them get where they are now?
- What other options do our customers have? If you’re an agency, could they do your services in-house? Or is there a product they could buy that would do what you do, instead of hiring an agency. Don’t just look at direct competitors. Think about the problem your company solves. Not just the solution you offer.
- Narrow your focus – Once you’ve done a thorough search of all of your potential competitors, focus on a manageable number to investigate in a more detailed way. Pick around four or five of your key competitors by looking at their recent growth, profitability, size, marketing strategies, and target customer.
- What are their strengths and weaknesses – Break down all of your key competitor’s strengths and weaknesses by looking at the different parts that make up their entire business for example; sales, marketing, r&d, production, HR, purchasing, finance? You’re looking for any angle you can find, where you can take the advantage. This is essentially the SWOT analysis mentioned above and you can see a great example of how it’s broken down in this blog post from digimind.
- Look at their capabilities – Go back to the four Ps of marketing mentioned earlier. Product, Price, Promotion, and Place. Where are they better than you and where are they worse.
- What would happen if – create different scenarios and try to predict how your competition would respond. For example, if you’re selling local produce, how would your rival cope with a drought that reduces their ability to source local fruit and veg? Doing this can help put you in the mind of your rivals and give you a different viewpoint when it comes to overcoming problems.
These five steps are a good starting point for building out a comprehensive CI report on your adversaries.
Who Else is Doing it?
Everybody looks at competitive intelligence, you might have a team specifically dedicated to it, or you might just spend five minutes scanning your biggest rival’s website. When you’re doing this you are carrying out competitive intelligence analysis. Or, as your mom might say, you’re being a busybody.
Won’t Somebody Please Think of the Children!
Is it ethical to “spy” on your competition? This seems to be an open question at the moment, with no clear answer on where you should draw the line. Recent events like the Cambridge Analytica scandal have brought a lot of data privacy concerns back into the public eye.
Now, perhaps more than ever, we are more aware of our digital footprint. We know that we’re leaving a lot of information online and that this information is going to be analyzed to build up an online profile detailing our interests and habits. But like finding someone digging in our trash can, even though we’re ‘throwing the information out’ we’re still annoyed to know that someone is looking at it.
When you’re looking at your competitors it’s best to keep that in mind. Looking at a company’s website, and pricing page is very different from pretending to be a client and taking a meeting with them to get an idea of their pricing structure. In theory, if you want to understand your competition there is no limit as to how far you can go. From purchasing a competitor’s product or service to see how it performs to trying to steal a client list when posing as a potential new hire. However, the latter clearly falls under the remit of industrial espionage and while obviously ethically wrong, can also be illegal.
As with white and grey hat SEO, you have to draw your own line on what is, or isn’t ethical. But we think if you find yourself trying to tape a shredded document back together you’ve probably gone too far.
A Rose By Any Other Name
Regardless of if you have heard the term ‘Competitive Intelligence’ before you have probably carried out some kind of analysis on your rivals. CI provides a framework that helps you build a picture of what is going on in the mind of your competition and then focus on the gaps you can exploit with your own business.
Whether you’re thinking of digging into your competition on your own, or if you’re thinking of hiring an agency to do it, you need to know what everyone else is doing to drive your business forward. In a competitive marketplace, you can’t only be inward looking. So, put on your trench coat and trilby hat, dig out that magnifying glass, and start sleuthing!
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