Don’t let the words “competitive intelligence” intimidate you. First, there’s nothing underhanded about using the resources at your disposal to keep a close eye on your competitors. We’re not talking about sneaking into a competitor’s office to find proprietary information or planting a “mole” to report back to you on the competition’s latest research.
Those over-the-top (and illegal) activities are the stuff of spy novels and big-screen thrillers. Instead, think “information gathering.”
Second, it’s quite likely that you’re already engaged in competitive intelligence, but without assigning this label to your efforts. If so, it’s merely a question of taking these ongoing activities to the next level. But regardless, the bottom line is that the failure to make information gathering on your competition a top priority will create a huge blind spot for your company that will severely constrain success.
The good news is that you can launch an aggressive competitive intelligence program with fairly little of your valuable time and even less cost.
All of the information you need to gather for a robust competitive intelligence program can be found online using free online tools. Here are the steps for getting on track to regularly analyze your market competition.
Develop a list of competitors
You know who your competitors are, of course, but have you built a list?
Create one that includes the address of each competitor’s website, the company’s key leadership and a sample of any articles on your competitors or their key team members that have appeared in the media in the last two years.
Employ free tools such as Google News
Think about what an executive from Coca-Cola might do to find intelligence on Pepsi.
When we went to Google News, we discovered that five of the top 10 results generated would be very useful to Coke. Included were recent articles on new products, class-action lawsuits and sponsorships that Pepsi has undertaken.
Of course, whereas Pepsi and Coke generate daily articles on popular search engines, sometimes even hourly, your competitors may generate news much less frequently.
Nonetheless, set aside time each week for your own effort, and don’t allow a dearth of results — even for several weeks or even months — to deter you from what must be a regular activity to be effective in the long run.
Get specific and narrow the results
Consider narrowing your search to include the name of a top executive or a target area of the business. For example, that same Coke executive might want to stay informed about Pepsi’s CEO, Indra Nooyi. When we performed this test, the results in Google News for “Indra Nooyi” included almost 10 important articles in the first 10 results listings.
Automate the flow of this information
You or someone else in your company may have set up a Google Alert on your company’s name so all mentions in the news are sent to your e-mail inbox. If you haven’t, stop reading this article and go do it quickly.
Now, do the same for the names of all of your competitors. In addition to Coke and its main competitor, Pepsi, that same Coke executive would likely have created Google Alerts for its other competition, including “Dr Pepper Snapple Group” (use quote marks because you want all the words to appear next to each other).
You could also set up alerts that will snare general industry information as it breaks, just as our Coke executive might establish an alert for “beverage industry” to receive news aligned with this topic.
Delegate — if you wish
After you’ve handled these competitive intelligence tasks for a while, you may decide to turn the effort over to an assistant, an employee at a lower level or even an intern. What’s key is to keep refreshing and growing the search terms you use based on the information you’re netting – as well as to cull from your list of terms those that aren’t pulling in useful intelligence.
The regular flow of information you’ll receive on your competitors, your industry and your market will keep you on top of — and even a few steps ahead of — the competition.
Tony Arnold is founder and principal of Upfront Management, a St. Louis-based management and executive consulting firm. He can be reached at (314) 825-9525 or firstname.lastname@example.org.