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Frequently Asked Questions:
How do I monitor my competitors’ activities?

Introduction

There is no “formula” for collecting information on competitors – but there is a process. First you need to differentiate between passive collection and active collection.

Passive collection involves collecting and storing  information that comes your way through the daily operations of the company. You need to categorise and store this information and encourage its collection. Ensure all staff with access to competitor information  pass it on to you (or the CI department / analysts) when they encounter it. For example, when a sales person visits a client and is given a snippet of competitor information then the sales person should pass this onto you. With passive collection there is no targeted collection plan as such – and what comes in is essentially random. The quantity that comes in depends on the culture of your organisation and how competitor focused it is. If it is weakly competitor focused, without a strong awareness of the need to monitor competitors then even when competitor information is encountered it will remain in the heads of those that encounter it and not be passed back to the CI department. The opposite will be the case in a strongly competitor focused organisation.

Active competitor monitoring

The situation for active collection is different – with three types of collection process. All require planning.

  • Type 1 is where you have gathered information from the passive process above that requires clarification. For this, you need to dig deeper to answer the question posed by the passive information. Generally (but not always) this will require primary research looking at the original sources for the information.
  • Type 2 is where you have a particular internal question that needs answering. Typical type 2 questions would be “what are competitors doing in the area where we plan to release a new product” or “which competitors are active in our proposed new market“. (This is equivalent to a “key intelligence topic” (KIT) / “key intelligence question” which is another approach used for defining what information to collect – the KIT process.
  • Type 3 is where you actively target events and situations where competitor information is likely to be available. A typical example is a trade exhibition. Although information can be freely picked up, it makes sense to decide in advance which stands to visit, when, and what to look out for. Similarly, scanning the trade press for competitor information is an active process although the CI analyst has no control over what is actually published. You can also set up alerts online – ensuring that you get notified each time a competitor is mentioned in a new context. An example is Google Alerts which detects when there are changes to search results based on the parameters entered. Sites such as Infominder will alert you when websites change. There are also alerts for tracking social media mentions and commercial databases such as Factiva can scan for new and updated news on a competitor or topic of interest.

For type 1 and type 2 active questions you need a formal search strategy. Generally start with desk research checking out secondary resources to gain a background. Then move onto direct primary research, interviewing as required. For an e-business do not just look at the Internet itself. Your competitors will also be in the “real world” so you need to look at bricks and mortar type businesses as well as clicks or clicks and mortar businesses. (Especially as bricks can usually become clicks very easily!)

When deciding on what to look for, you need to understand why you are looking for the information. The “why” needs to answer the strategic purpose for the information required. There is no point saying “we want everything” as not everything will be usable or collectable, and more importantly, collecting “everything” will be highly expensive. So you need to focus on what is needed.

More importantly, answering the “why” can help lead to a source. Ask a second “why” question – namely “why will the information I need be publicly available?” Answering this question should help lead you to a source for the information. As an example if you want to find financial information: the reason it is available is that there is often a legal requirement to file accounting information. Even if there is no requirement, many firms like to show their size by publishing turnover figures. So – sources will include

a) the legal repositories for accounting information.
b) the company itself for the latest turnover values.

In the case of e-business firms, many will want to raise capital and so publish sales figures and growth figures. Also for an IPO the company will have had to publish a lot of information about itself.

With regards to collecting publicly available information: Publicly is not necessarily published – but it is in the public domain. If a sales contact tells you something as part of a sale – even if it is not written anywhere, then it is legitimate information. Hidden pages on a web-site that are NOT password protected are publicly available if you discover them. What is not legitimate in CI (and becomes industrial espionage) is hacking into a competitor site by breaking passwords, or looking for information that is viewed as a trade secret.