Competitive Intelligence: Purpose & Process
Posted by JoannaLord
When it comes to marketing your brand online there is just so much to do. We spend our days researching, creating, implementing, and then measuring the success of our efforts. There are dozens of channels to participate in, and obviously thousands of ways to go about marketing your brand, but however you slice it—online marketing comes down to introducing new audiences to your brand, keeping your current brand users happy, and evolving the brand/company itself.
Unfortunately I think the first two steps often overshadow that third step to the process—evolving the brand/company itself, probably because to grow as a company you really need to take a pause and evaluate where you are currently standing. As marketers, the idea of pausing is equated with losing momentum which scares the hell out of us all. This industry moves too quickly, and pausing to reflect on where your brand is compared to your competitors seems like time poorly spent.
I am here to argue just the opposite. A few weeks ago I gave a presentation at PubCon South on “Competitive Intelligence on the Social Web,” and I wanted to extract a few of my key arguments and offer them up the SEOmoz audience both as thought provokers and for feedback. In my opinion competitive intelligence is one of those marketing steps we all say we did, but few of us rarely do. It’s true. Most of us are big fat liars when it comes to “doing competitive intelligence.”
For example, competitive intelligence IS NOT:
- Sitting in a room and ranting about your competitor’s latest marketing move
- Grabbing lunch with your Product Manager and creating a roadmap based on what your competitors have that you don’t.
- Putting together a grid of you and your competitor’s website’s traffic stats, never to be looked at again.
- Googling your competitor’s brand name to see what latest things are noted in the SERP’s
Sorry friends that is not competitive intelligence.
However, competitive intelligence IS:
- Understanding what direction your competitor’s are headed & how that might intersect or parallel your own
- Knowing what products you are pushing out and how they match up or differ from your competitor’s
- Mapping out a list of key differentials and attributes for your biggest competitors and yourself
- Researching & monitoring a variety of platforms to better understand your competitors
Okay now that we all have a better sense of what it is, let’s talk about how to do it. Instead of throwing a 20-slide PowerPoint at you I thought I would dilute it down to a few key steps toward understanding your competitive landscape, and perhaps more importantly I want to tie those into how you can use this information for company gains.
The Grid of Awesomeness:
Okay maybe that name is a bit of an exaggeration, but either way, the first key step toward understanding your competitors is getting them all down on paper and forcing yourself to research key attributes. I have included below an example grid that you can use to get you started.
You might ask yourself—how do I know which competitors to include? This can differ depending on the size of your company and the scope of your industry but a great place to start is the “3-1-1 rule”. I usually suggest you pick 3 brands that are often grouped with yours, either in roundup articles, or in conversation. Those are your primary competitors. Then choose one “dreamer,” which would be the brand in your vertical you hope to be one day. Lastly, I suggest including one “newbie” in your competitive analysis, this is assuming that isn’t you of course. By picking a newbie in your industry you can often gain perspective into where your industry is moving, and key marketing channels to consider since they tend to operate pretty lean.
After you have chosen your competitors I suggest filling out the following for them: name, size, products, features, price points, affiliate program description (do they have one? What are the key attributes?), playing grounds (what channels, platforms, communities are they dominating?), advocates/influencers (who is lobbying for them?), notes. Don’t forget to fill this out for your company as well!
Product Growth & Benchmarking:
This is perhaps the most time consuming element to competitive intelligence when it is done well. There needs to be someone in charge of competitive intelligence maintenance. This person should subscribe to your competitor’s blog so you are hearing about product launches as they happen, and all company announcements in real time. You can also gain a lot of insight from reading the comments to those posts.
In addition to this you should set up Google Alerts for your competitor’s brand plus the words “launches” and “announces.” We all know that Google Alerts are limited and somewhat unreliable, but you should have a daily digest set to notify you of any big moves your competitor’s are making. You never know which could be a real momentum changer.
The last step to this is really to keep a pulse on the traffic growth to their sites by checking Alexa or Compete monthly. While it may seem a strain on your time and resources it’s beneficial for you to know what momentum trajectory your competitor’s are on.
This is what most people think competitive intelligence is. While it’s not the only piece to the competitive intelligence puzzle, it certainly is an important one. There are so many tools available to us (most free) that help us keep an eye on what our competitors do…it’s actually a bit creepy how many tools and sites are out there to help us be shady. I personally support this shadiness.
Some examples would include sites like: Whostalkin, SocialMention, Backtype, etc. All of these allow you to search a competitor’s brand or products and find out the latest things said about them. These social web aggregators search a number of channels like images, videos, blogs, new feeds, etc. They are great for understanding how a product launch might have gone for a competitor or how any other announcement was received.
Other ways to spy on your competitor’s in the social web—create private twitter lists and monitor their brand and employee’s feeds, sign up for competitor’s newsletters, etc. The key is know where they are pushing out the most crucial information and then making sure you have someone dabbling in that space.
Now that you have a sense of where your competitor’s currently stand and what they are doing right now, it’s time to spy on them and try to figure out their next moves. Hiring espionage is a great way to do this. You can gain a great sense of where your competitors are moving by looking at who they are investing in from an employee perspective.
A great way to do this is to keep an eye on their company job listings, and occasionally throw their brand into a job meta-engine. The best possible place to spy on hiring moves is by going to LinkedIn and finding their company profile page. There is a section down at the bottom that shows recent hires. You can defer tons of information from this section—are they hiring a bunch of sales people? Top-level engineers? Whatever team they are stacking up is probably the team they are focusing on.
The important thing to remember is that competitive intelligence isn’t something you do once and never revisit again. It also isn’t something that you can base on intuition or informal conversations with coworkers. Competitive intelligence is a key process that can be used to inform instrumental decisions you make. The better you understand your competitors the clearer perspective you have on your industry and audience as a whole. Competitive intelligence enables you to better speak on your strengths, brainstorm ideas for quick gains, and make more data-driven decisions all around.
Plus you get to pretend you are a spy which is just all sorts of fun (please note trench coat and night vision goggles are optional).