In my previous post, Competitive Intelligence: 8 Ways B2B Marketers Should Use, I discussed what competitive intelligence is and how B2B marketers should be using it to stay ahead of their competition. In this post I want to share ideas for gathering competitive intelligence.
The Society of Competitive Intelligence Professionals defines competitive intelligence as: The legal and ethical collection and analysis of information regarding the capabilities, vulnerabilities, and intentions of a business competitor.
According to Benjamin Gilad, president of the Academy of Competitive intelligence, “Companies spend about $20 billion on market research annually and about another $2 billion on analyzing specific competitors.” I don’t know about you, but I never worked in a company that spent anywhere near that on competitive intelligence. In fact, most of the companies had no formal system or process and no people devoted to gathering competitive intelligence. As is typical in most small and medium (and even large ones if the truth be told) B2B companies, competitive intelligence is an ad hoc word-of-mouth sort of thing. Typically sales and marketing send emails or have phone calls whenever anyone sees or hears something about a competitor.
As the marketing leader for a medium size B2B product manufacturer, I led a CRM implementation. This included creating a process for gathering and maintaining competitor information in the CRM. I’ll share ideas based on this experience, along with many years gathering competitive intelligence. For instance, gathering competitive intelligence for specific sales opportunities, analyzing the competitive landscape for strategic marketing plans, ongoing business development, and creating competitor tools for the sales team.
Here are 8 inexpensive ways you can gather competitive intelligence for your B2B marketing:
1. Interview the sales team – One of the first things you need to know is who your competitors are and there’s no better place to start than with your sales team. Be sure to interview reps in different parts of the country and/or selling specific products/services or into different verticals. You want to make sure you capture both regional or local competitors. Also capture those who specialize in one or a few products/services or verticals. The sales team can also provide competitor insights. For example, sales knows things like what they are known for, prospects’ perceptions, types of opportunities they win, strengths and weaknesses, and their value proposition. One note of caution is in order – don’t rely only on sales interviews. Sales typically has a micro view of competitors. However, B2B marketers need to get a macro view for corporate decision making purposes.
2. Interview customers and prospects – Interview your existing customers and prospects to get their thoughts on your competitors. This can be a great way to hear “from the horse’s mouth” their perceptions of your competitors. Trade shows are a great place to conduct interviews, both formal and informal. In addition, you can see and hear your competitors by visiting their exhibit booth and listening to their presentations. Of course phone interviews of customers and prospects works too.
During customer and prospect interviews you may hear a company name you hadn’t thought of as a competitor before. This often happens when there are different kinds of solutions for the same problem. Your competitors aren’t only the direct competitors who offer a comparable product/service to yours. The competition also includes those who offer alternative products/services. For example, the product manufacturer I worked for made industrial curing equipment using ultraviolet (UV) light. Other manufacturers of UV curing equipment were our direct competitors. However, manufacturers of other types of drying equipment such as infrared, gas ovens, etc. were too. Even other manufacturing methods that didn’t require painting or coating a part at all were competition!
3. Talk to industry partners and stakeholders – Every industry has suppliers, distributors, resellers and others who can provide competitor insight. They are probably gathering competitor information too, so they may hear things you haven’t. Plus, they may service your competitor and thus have firsthand information. Back to my industrial curing equipment example, I spoke often to partners such as raw material companies, paint and coating formulators, and machine builders. These contacts were particularly good for learning about personnel changes, corporate reorganizations, and mergers.
Other stakeholders such as experts within industry associations and independent consultants are often willing to share what they know. I find this especially useful for getting up to speed quickly when researching the competitive space in a new vertical.
4. Review competitor websites – Carefully reviewing a competitor’s website can give you information about their products and services, recent news (be sure to read the “About” paragraph found at the end of press releases to understand how they differentiate themselves), events they attend, verticals they target, geographic coverage, sales channels, social media channels, partners, association memberships, and more. You can even gain insight into their value proposition and messaging. It takes time to dig through a website, but it’s all there for the taking at no charge!
I like signing up for competitor newsletters and blogs to stay abreast of their latest announcements and news. Likewise I’ve found that by downloading gated content I can get into their email campaigns. This is a great way to gain ongoing insight into their strategy and tactics!
5. Annual reports and SEC filings – If your competitors are public companies, then you can easily download annual reports and SEC filings. Find annual reports in the investor relations section of a public company’s website. They provide not only financial performance information, but also narrative discussing challenges, strategy, acquisitions/dispositions, legal proceedings, risks, company structure, and key executive names. In the US, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) requires a very detailed annual report filing, Form 10-K, and quarterly filings called a 10-Q. The other SEC filing of primary interest for gathering competitive intelligence is the 8-K. Companies have to file an 8-K for major changes, such as an acquisition, that happen between quarterly 10-Q filings. These changes may not be issued as a press release, especially if it’s something negative. Investopedia provides a good overview of useful SEC filings.
6. Patent Applications – If your company is a software firm or product manufacturer, then reviewing patent applications filed by your competitors (or within your area of intellectual property) is useful for seeing future products, additional applications or uses of already available products, when existing patents expire, who they partner with for research and development, and whether there are international filings. If your R&D group is already monitoring patent activity, then just ask to be looped in. Otherwise here are three public sources for finding patents:
- USPTO – www.uspto.gov
- Google Patents – http://www.google.com/patents?hl=en
- FreePatentsOnline – www.freepatentsonline.com
7. Set up Google Alerts – Using a Google Alert is one of the easiest ways to stay updated about your competitors, as long as their company name is unique. With Google Alerts you enter keywords or phrases you want Google to search the web for. Then it sends you an email whenever it finds new web pages, blogs, etc. with that keyword. If your competitor is Starbucks, this works really well since this is a very unique company name. However, if your competitor’s name happens to be something less unique, you’ll quickly discover there are many other companies out there.
For example, when I worked for BrightView Landscapes, I discovered many other companies with BrightView in their name, i.e. Brightview Senior Living, Brightview Dentistry, Brightview Cleaning, Brightview Health…you get the idea! Best practice would be to use just one word so as not to miss any mentions, in this case “BrightView”. Instead, I resorted to setting up an alert for “BrightView Landscape” to better narrow the results. Of course this meant I might not have gotten alerts for mentions that didn’t include “landscape”. Still, Google Alerts are a very easy way to get competitor updates without having to remember to do internet searches periodically.
8. LinkedIn – Besides Following your competitors on LinkedIn, so that you see their posts and updates, you can review job openings (good indication of ramping up in a new region or for a new vertical for example), see where they typically recruit employees from, whether overall employee count is up or down, and generally get a sense of their social media strategy if there is one.
These are only some of the cheap and easy methods I’ve found useful for researching and gathering competitive intelligence to improve B2B marketing and business decision making. Still it does take time you may not have, so outsourcing competitive intelligence gathering to a freelance resource can be a cost effective option.
What’s your favorite method for gathering competitive intelligence on the cheap?