Succeeding in business is about turning great ideas into products. Products so good, they drive their own demand. 🎁
Someone else has probably had the same idea. 😔
And even if they haven’t yet, once they see yours doing well, they’ll start devising ways to improve on your product with their own. They’re trying to eke out a competitive advantage.
But how can you do the same thing?
It starts with knowing what your competitors are up to. And the more quality data you gather, the better your view of the competitive landscape will be.
In this article, we’ll discuss five broad types of intel with examples. We’ll also talk about which types give the greatest ROI and which you should avoid altogether.
Here are the five types of intelligence we’ll be covering:
- The info your competitors are openly sharing.
- Intel you can gather from customers.
- Wider market intelligence.
- The intel your competitors might not want you to find.
- The unethical types of intel you’ll want to avoid.
What your competitors are openly sharing
Let’s start with this: the information your competitors are openly sharing.
On the effort-to-utility continuum, this one sits at low-effort, high utility. You’ll be able to perform some cracking competitive analysis and come to some great strategic decisions with this kind of intel.
Since they’re sharing it openly, your competitors want you (or at least the public) to know about this stuff. This also means it’s fair game and easy to obtain. The downside is there can be a lot of it, so focus on what’s most relevant to you.
To do that, you’ll need to filter out the noise.
How to prioritize
The best way to filter is to prioritize your competitors, focusing on those that would yield the highest ROI if you were to beat them.
That could mean those competitors you frequently but narrowly lose out to. It might not require too much work to edge them out and win a much larger number of deals each month.
Or, it could mean targeting a competitor who attracts very high-value deals. Winning against this competitor just two or three more times in a month can make a great impact on your bottom line.
In short, focus on those competitors where the expected return makes sense given the investment it’d take to beat them.
Now onto the intel. 👇
Paying attention to press releases is an ethical way of obtaining intel on the most pertinent competitor developments.
To scale this, a subscription to a service like PR Newswire helps a lot. You’ll set particular keywords (e.g. competitor names) to look out for and you’ll get an alert delivered straight to your email inbox every time they put out a new press release.
These announcements usually include everything from changes in the leadership team and senior management, to mergers and acquisitions, and new product launches.
Press releases have become less popular in recent years.
If you’re in an established industry surrounded by huge, established competitors, they’ll probably still use press releases to make announcements.
But newer industries full of fast-moving startups might not use them nearly so much, so it pays to cover multiple bases.
Your competitors’ social media pages are a great place for run-of-the-mill updates.
But the signal can get lost in the noise without a filter.
Today, it’s not uncommon to see larger businesses with built-out marketing and/or social teams post three or more times a day on every social platform. Trying to keep tabs on new, important developments amongst so many updates will be hard.
However, if you’ve implemented a great CI program that has made CI top of mind in your organization, there are ways around this. Distribute the responsibility for collecting intel, and offer an easy way to deliver it. A competitive Slack channel is a simple, effective option. This way, capturing CI from social media platforms has a much lower time cost for each individual.
If that’s not you yet, don’t worry. This is where competitive intelligence tools, like a social listening platform, come into their own. Software makes the process scale.
Q: What’s the difference between competitive intelligence tools and social listening tools?
A: Competitive intelligence tools are specific. They work around a core set of named competitors, for whom they’ll gather great amounts of information from all over the internet.
Social listening tools cast a wider net, looking for particular keywords across entire social platforms. This gives you a bit more freedom. If your business model thrives on social media or influencer marketing, this type of tool can make a lot of sense.
Your competitors’ websites offer information on just about everything you could want. Here’s a small sample of what you’ll be able to find:
- Team updates;
- Open job positions;
- Changes to competitor products and pricing;
- Changes to content marketing strategy…
And all of these things can serve as crucial indicators of changes in your rivals’ competitive strategy.
For example, if competitor X produces a new lead magnet piece (like an eBook, whitepaper, or set of downloadable templates), you know they’ve invested a chunk of time creating that asset. The same goes for new landing pages, marketing campaigns, and other strategic initiatives. All of these require a time investment that, presumably, your competitor deems likely to pay off.
If this is new or different from what they’ve done before, you might guess they’re targeting a new market segment or positioning themselves to solve an unmet customer need you’ve not yet moved to meet yourself.
What customers are sharing
Your sales leads, prospects, and existing customers are all fabulous sources of competitor intelligence.
‘Coz they’re talking to your competitors.
This is powerful stuff. Your customers can tell you why they went with you instead of with a competitor. They can tell you what their previous provider did better than you. Plus, they can tell you where you differentiate yourself from the competition, and you can see if this matches your expectations.
Famous marketers and business leaders, from Naval Ravikant to Alex Hormozi, love to talk about leverage. Those areas of the business where inputs lead to disproportionately sized outputs, generating 10x or even 100x ROI.
Well guess what: win/loss interviews are high leverage.
We’ve said it before: your sales leads and prospects are a goldmine of competitor information. Even better, that information is highly relevant and actionable, with massive ROI since your sales team has such a direct impact on revenue.
Interviewing your recently won and lost prospects shows you your leads’ decision-making processes. Why did they choose competitor X over you? What swayed them? Was it a close run thing? Or did you not stand a chance? Why?
Sometimes, the answers are gut-punchingly simple, like:
“Well, your competitor was just pushier. I had to make a decision and they were right there.”
If this is a recurring theme, you have valuable information with an immediate fix. Just take a look at how many follow-ups your sales reps make per lead. Then increase that number and watch what happens.
Other times, the answer might be more subtle. Perhaps your prospect preferred the overall branding and positioning of your competitor, even for reasons they can’t express. But this might give you cause to review your own branding and messaging and evaluate whether those are resolving your target personas’ pain points.
The truth is, the customers don’t have to be yours to offer great intel.
Whether you’re operating in a B2B or B2C market, customer reviews can tell you a lot. What are your competitors doing well? Where are they dropping the ball?
G2 and Capterra are great sources of B2B reviews, while Trustpilot, Reviews.io, Google Reviews, and similar services do the job for B2C.
Off on a tangent somewhat, but still very much relevant, is what you’ll hear from a competitor’s current and past employees. Glassdoor can offer some great competitive insights into what it’s like on the inside.
Why is this relevant?
Because you’ll get a sense of how their teams work internally, where the frictions might be, and which teams might be overstretched. Or, you might find that competitor X runs a tight ship and everyone’s happy as larry. Still useful to know!
Wider market intelligence
What if you wanted your competitive intelligence research to be broader in scope, with data that was still pretty easy to get ahold of? Then you’d want to take a look at the wider market, including your indirect competitors.
At this point, some of you might be asking, “If you’ve got a ton of intel on your direct competitors, why would you need less specific info on the wider market?”
Because some industries aren’t chock-full of big players.
Take Netflix, for example. They compete directly with:
- Amazon Prime Video
- Disney Plus
- even HBO Max.
But in addition to their peer streaming services, they’re also competing with the regular ol’ cable companies.
Sure, those cable companies might not be direct competitors, but they’re competitors nonetheless.
Market intelligence tools can help you with this kind of market research.
Remember our definition of competitive intelligence tools? They accept the names of your competitors, then doggedly pursue those names across the ‘net.
Well, market intelligence tools look for general topics, instead of specific competitors. Depending on the tool, they might act more as a data-aggregator and data-cleaner, but they’ll alert you to the wider goings-on in your industry.
If you’re on a budget, Google Alerts is a good place to start. It’s a simple tool, but an effective one. Even better, it’s free and you can implement it immediately.
More hidden information
Next, you’ve got more hidden info.
This will require a bit more digging on your part and, while not strictly unethical, going after some of this info might be a little distasteful.
What’s more, since it’s trickier to get ahold of, the ROI can be lower than the types of business intelligence we’ve already discussed. Remember that, with so much intel out there for you to keep up with, prioritization is the name of the game.
For those reasons, you’ll have to make the call on whether this hidden info is worth the opportunity cost. But if yours is a highly competitive environment, it could help you carve out a competitive edge.
Your competitors’ revenue information might be intel you want to gather.
The data you’ll have access to is unlikely to be perfect. This makes the final values you end up with estimates at best. For the time it takes to dig out the information, you might decide it’s better spent elsewhere.
That said, accurate estimates can offer a ton of value if you know what to do with them. Financial items like gross margins, net dollar retention, debt, and operating expenses can all inform your competitive strategy and give you insight into your competitors’ inner workings. And the revenue a competitor's product or service generates is a great metric for establishing its relative success.
You might use this intel for benchmarking purposes, to inform your pricing strategy, or to help you prioritize your tier-one competitors.
When your competitor files a patent application, it’s a big deal.
Patents, of course, are exclusive rights granted for an invention. So, depending on your industry, this may be more or less common.
In short, a patent filing is a sign your competitor has created something they think is a big deal. Big enough that they need to move to protect it as intellectual property.
That could mean they’re pushing for market share in a whole new target segment. Or, it could mean a new product they’ve been working on has reached maturity.
Either way, this kind of intel is similar to the press release in its level of importance. It’s an uncommon event that should force you to sit up, take notice, and decide whether a strategic response is required.
• Guide to implicit segmentation marketing
Content and SEO strategy
Only ‘hidden’ in the sense that you might not think of this as competitive intelligence (and also because it’s your content or marketing team that’s likely to collect and action this kind of data, rather than a product marketer or CI pro).
Competitive SEO analysis is a pretty useful (and ethical) add-on to your competitive strategy.
By using a tool like Ahrefs or Semrush to gather data on your competitors’ most successful content and targeted keywords, you’re able to see where your competitors are investing their content marketing efforts. This saves you from keeping close tabs on their published content.
Plus, it can give you a clearer picture of your competitors’ priorities. Which problems are they positioning themselves as the best solution for? Which personas are they going after hardest?
Corporate espionage 🙅♀️
We’ve saved this one for last. Not because it’s the best, but because it’s worth a warning.
The term “corporate espionage” sounds fancy, but just describes unethical and/or illegal means of gathering intel on your competitors.
This might include phone tapping, illegally accessing email records, or hacking databases and computer systems. On the “less severe, but still sketchy” end of the scale, you’ve got things like paying mystery shoppers or actors to pose as “real” customers to gather information. Even pretending to be someone you’re not when signing up for a competitor’s free trial is looked down upon.
The truth is, there’s just no reason to stoop to these low levels. You’re better than that and, with the right approach, there’s a ton more useful information freely available for those willing to look.
And hey, isn’t it more rewarding to beat your competitors with a bit of a handicap?
• Competitive intelligence ethics
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