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Gathering Competitive Intelligence: How to Collect the Competitive Data You Need to Succeed

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Conor Bond on Tue, May 18, 2021

Gathering competitive intelligence is a challenge. In fact, according to our survey of more than 1,000 CI professionals, it’s the toughest part of the job. On average, it takes up one-third of all time spent on the CI process (the other two parts of the process being analysis and activation).

A consistent stream of sound competitive data—i.e., data that’s up-to-date, reliable, and actionable—is foundational to your long-term success in a crowded market. In the absence of sound data, your CI program will not only prove ineffective—it may even prove detrimental.

By the time you’re done reading, you’ll have an answer to each of the following:

  • Why is gathering competitive intelligence difficult?
  • What needs to be done before gathering competitive intelligence?
  • How can you gather competitive intelligence successfully?

Let’s begin!

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Why is gathering competitive intelligence difficult?

It’s worth taking a minute to consider why gathering intel is the biggest roadblock encountered by CI pros today. At the risk of oversimplifying, we’ll quickly discuss two explanations (which are closely related to one another): bandwidth and volume.

Bandwidth

CI headcount is growing with each passing year, but according to our State of CI Report, roughly 30% of teams consist of two or fewer dedicated professionals. 7% of teams consist of half a person—meaning a single employee spends some of their time on CI—and another 6% of businesses have no CI headcount at all.

When the responsibility of gathering intel falls on the shoulders of just one or two people—who may very well have full-time jobs on top of CI—data collection is going to prove difficult. For now, bandwidth limitations help to explain why the initial part of the CI process poses such a significant challenge.

Volume

With the modern internet age has come an explosion in competitive data. Businesses’ digital footprints are far bigger than they were just a few years ago; there’s never been more opportunity for competitive research and analysis.

Although this is an unambiguously good thing—case in point: it’s opened the door for democratized, software-driven competitive intelligence—there’s no denying that the sheer volume of intel makes it difficult to gather everything you need. And, obviously, the challenges of ballooning data are going to be compounded by the challenges of limited bandwidth.

Key steps before gathering competitive intelligence

Admittedly, referring to the collection of intel as the initial part of the CI process is slightly misleading. Before you dedicate hours of your time to visiting competitors’ websites, scrutinizing online reviews, reviewing sales calls, and the like, it’s imperative that you establish priorities.

What do you and your stakeholders hope to achieve as a result of your efforts? Who are your competitors, and which ones are more or less important? What kinds of data do you want to collect, and which ones are more or less important?

Nailing down answers to these questions—and others like them—is a critical prerequisite to gathering competitive intelligence.

Setting goals with your CI stakeholders

The competitors you track and the types of intel you gather will be determined, in part, by the specific goals towards which you and your stakeholders are working.

Although it’s true that, at the end of the day, practically everyone is working towards a healthier bottom line and greater market share, different stakeholders have different ways of contributing to those common objectives. It follows, then, that different stakeholders have different needs from a competitive intelligence perspective.

Generally speaking:

  • Sales reps want to win competitive deals.
  • Marketers want to create differentiated positioning.
  • Product managers want to create differentiated roadmaps.
  • Customer support reps want to improve retention against competitors.
  • Executive leaders want to mitigate risk and build long-term competitive advantage.

Depending on the size of your organization and the maturity of your CI program, it may not be possible to serve each stakeholder to the same extent simultaneously. Before you gather any intel, you’ll need to determine which stakeholders and goals you’ll be focusing on.

Segmenting & prioritizing your competitors

With a clear sense of your immediate goals, it’s time to segment your competitive landscape and figure out which competitors are most important for the time being.

Segmenting your competitive landscape is the two-part job of (1) identifying your competitors and (2) assigning each one to a category. The method you use to segment your competitive landscape is entirely up to you. There’s a number of popular options to choose from, and they can even be layered on top of one another. They include:

  • Direct vs. indirect vs. perceived vs. aspirational competitors
  • Sales competitiveness tiers
  • Company growth stage tiers

We’ll stick with the first option for now. Whereas a direct competitor is one with which you go head-to-head for sales, an indirect competitor is one that sells a similar product to a different market or a tangential product to the same market. And whereas a perceived competitor is one that—unbeknownst to prospects—offers something completely different from you, an aspirational competitor is one that you admire for the work they’re doing in a related field.

Once you’ve categorized your competitors, consider your immediate goals and ask yourself, “Given what we’re trying to do here, which competitors require the most attention?” The number of competitors you prioritize largely depends on the breadth of your competitive landscape.

Identifying & prioritizing types of intel

One final thing before we discuss best practices for gathering intel: You need to determine the specific types of intel that are required to help your stakeholders achieve their goals.

To put it plainly, the types of intel you need to help sales reps win deals are not necessarily the same types of intel you need to help product managers create differentiated roadmaps. Will there be overlap across stakeholders? Almost certainly. But whereas a sales rep may want two sentences about a specific competitor’s pricing model, a product manager may want a more general perspective on the use cases that are and are not being addressed by other players in the market. In terms of gathering intel, these two situations demand two different approaches.

It’s also important to recognize the trial-and-error component of this process; it’ll take time to get into a groove with each of your stakeholders. Hopefully, their ongoing feedback will enable you to do a better and better job of collecting the data they need. The more communicative everyone is, the more quickly you’ll get to a place where competitive intelligence is regularly making an impact across the organization.

5 best practices for gathering competitive intelligence

Now that we’ve covered all our bases, the rest of today’s guide is dedicated to exploring five best practices for gathering competitive intelligence in a successful, repeatable manner.

1. Monitor changes to your competitors’ websites

[According to the State of CI Report, 99% of CI professionals consider their competitors’ websites to be valuable sources of intel. 35% say they’re extremely valuable.]

You can make extraordinary discoveries by simply monitoring changes on your competitors’ websites. Edits to homepage copy can indicate a change in marketing strategy (e.g., doubling down on a certain audience). Edits to careers page copy can indicate a change in product strategy (e.g., looking for experts in a certain type of engineering). Edits to customer logos can indicate opportunities for your sales team (e.g., when a competitor appears to have lost a valuable account).

The examples are virtually endless. No matter which specific stakeholders and goals you’re focused on, frequenting your competitors’ websites is a time-tested tactic for gathering intel.

2. Conduct win/loss analysis

[According to the State of CI Report, 96% of CI professionals consider win/loss analysis to be a valuable source of intel. 38% say it’s extremely valuable.]

Although win/loss analysis—the process of determining why deals are won or lost—is a discipline in its own right, it’s often a gold mine of competitive intelligence. The most effective method of collecting win/loss data is interviewing customers (to find out why they bought your solution) and prospects (to find out why they didn’t buy your solution). You’ll find that these conversations naturally yield competitive insights—a customer mentions that your solution is superior in this respect, a prospect mentions that your solution is inferior in that respect, etc.

Through the aggregation and analysis of your customers’ and prospects’ feedback, you’ll be able to capitalize on some tremendously valuable intel.

3. Embrace internal knowledge

[According to the State of CI Report, 99% of CI professionals consider internal knowledge to be a valuable source of intel. 52% say it’s extremely valuable.]

This may seem counterintuitive, but it’s true: Your stakeholders themselves are amazing sources of competitive intelligence. In fact, as you read above, more than half of CI pros say internal knowledge (a.k.a. field intelligence) is an extremely valuable resource. 

Sales reps are often speaking with prospects, and marketers, customer support reps, and product managers are often speaking with customers. Across these conversations with external folks, your colleagues learn about your competitors in all kinds of useful ways—product features, pricing models, roadmap priorities, sales tactics, and so on.

Some of the best ways to gather internal knowledge include listening to calls with prospects and customers, reviewing emails and chat messages, and combing through CRM notes.

4. Find out what your competitors’ customers are saying

[According to the State of CI Report, 94% of CI professionals consider their competitors’ customers’ reviews to be valuable sources of intel. 24% say they’re extremely valuable.]

If you found yourself wondering how one might fill in the gaps between pieces of internal knowledge, look no further: By reading reviews written by your competitors’ customers, you can uncover tons of previously unknown intel.

And if your initial instinct is to head straight for the scathing reviews, make no mistake—there’s just as much to learn from your competitors’ happy customers as there is from their unhappy customers. Let’s say, for example, that nearly every single positive review for one of your competitors makes mention of a specific feature. This is a critical piece of intel; as long as you’re lacking in this area, your rival will boast a concrete point of differentiation.

5. Keep your eye on the news

[According to the State of CI Report, 96% of CI professionals consider news to be a valuable source of intel. 38% say it’s extremely valuable.]

Product launches, strategic partnerships, industry awards—there’s no shortage of occasions that may land your competitors in the news. Typically, media coverage is the result of a press release and/or other public relations tactics, but that may not always be the case. (In certain industries, media coverage is very common—whether it’s solicited or not.)

Regardless of why a competitor is in the news, it’s almost always an opportunity to gather intel. In the case of a product or feature launch, you can learn about the positioning they’re trying to establish. In the case of a partnership, you can learn about the kinds of prospects they’re trying to connect with. And in the case of an award, you can learn about the ways in which they’re trying to present themselves to prospects.

Gathering competitive intelligence with Crayon

As we alluded to earlier, there’s more to CI beyond gathering intel; in order to make an impact across your organization, you need to analyze and activate the intel you’ve gathered. If no one turns your findings into strategic action, you may as well have not done any research at all.

But when the lion’s share of your time is spent monitoring competitors’ websites, combing through Slack messages, scanning press releases, and the like, opportunities to establish key takeaways and connect with stakeholders can feel few and far between.

This is one of the reasons teams use Crayon: the software-driven competitive intelligence platform that enables you to continuously track your competitors’ digital footprints. With Crayon, you can worry less about doing research and focus more on driving impact.

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Topics: Competitive Intelligence

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