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 how to collect and gather information about your competitors.
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 I worked for 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 with sales and marketing sending emails or having phone calls whenever anyone saw or heard something about a competitor.
As the marketing leader for a medium size B2B product manufacturer, I led a CRM implementation which included creating a process for gathering and maintaining competitor information in the CRM. The ideas I share with you here are based on this experience along with many years gathering competitor information 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 competitors who may be regional or local, or specialize in one or a few products/services or verticals. The sales team can also provide competitor insights such as 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 because sales typically has a micro view of competitors and 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, plus 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 you do, but also 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 competitors, but also manufacturers of other types of drying equipment such as infrared, gas ovens, etc. as well as other manufacturing methods that didn’t require painting or coating a part at all!
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 as a way to stay abreast of their latest announcements and news. And I’ve often found that downloading gated content gets me into their email campaigns providing 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. Annual reports can be found in the investor relations section of a public company’s website and 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 competitive intelligence is the 8-K which is required for major changes, such as an acquisition, that happens between quarterly 10-Q filings and 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 and 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, as was the case at one of my previous employer’s, BrightView Landscapes, you’ll quickly discover there are many other companies out there 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”, but I resorted to setting up an alert for “BrightView Landscape” to better narrow the results. However, 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?