Competitive Intelligence: How to Keep an Eye on the Competition
Part of competitive intelligence’s role is to keep an eye on the competition. Fortunately, your competitors are likely to cooperate by providing information in newsletters, speeches, press releases, trade journals, interviews with industry journalists and analysts, presentations at trade shows, and industry white papers. You can literally read the competition by researching these sources.
Exploring external sources is often like following rabbit holes; one source leads to others that lead to others and so on until you ultimately find something of value or reach a dead end. As you explore sources, remain sensitive to the fact that the sources you’re looking at may reveal other, more valuable sources.
Conduct your own interrogation of the sources you encounter to dig deeper and develop a fuller understanding. When you encounter a source, ask the following questions:
Who wrote this? Why did he or she write it? What’s the objective for writing it? Do I trust the motives and knowledge?
Does the author agree with other research? If so, why? Some information conflict? What is the author trying to convince you of . . . or sell you?
What new search areas or terms can I mine from this writing? Are any inadvertent disclosures contained in the writing? If so, what’s their significance?
Is this author/expert someone our organization could use as a resource?
As you gather information about the competition, remain skeptical and look for information that contradicts whatever you happen to discover. In your search, you’re likely to discover evidence that supports or contradicts information previously gathered, and either way, that’s valuable information.
Decades ago, the “expert opinion” was that Japan would not have a specific steel-producing technology for 25 years. An investigator went to Japan and discovered entire production facilities that were already using the technology, right there in plain view! The morals of this story are that expert opinions aren’t always right and that you should always investigate for yourself before accepting a commonly held belief.
How to use trade journals for competitive intelligence
Trade journals are an excellent resource for developing a feel for the direction your industry is going, keeping tabs on what your competitors are doing or planning to do, and staying informed about new technologies and processes that are being adopted.
To track down trade journals that may be relevant to your organization, check out The Standard Periodical Directory (SPD), which lists more than 60,000 magazines, journals, newsletters, newspaper, and directories. The SPD is a standard fixture at most libraries, so head over to your local library and copy the pages that list periodicals for the topic areas relevant to your industry and any related industries.
When you have a list of three or four trade journals, ask the librarian if the library carries them. If not, you can ask the library to consider subscribing or you can subscribe to them yourself.
Another option is to track down the trade association’s website and see what it has to offer. Many trade associations have online libraries of past issues, white papers, and industry research they’ve published. In some cases, you don’t even have to be a member of the association to access the data.
Get a library card for your community or county library and any other nearby libraries and ask about resources they have available for business research. Many libraries have access to online databases that you can use 24/7 from the comfort of your home to search for newspaper and magazine articles and more.
How to use trade associations for competitive intelligence
You really should join at least one of the main trade associations for your industry to stay in the loop about what’s going on. Trade associations often publish their own magazine and newsletter, white papers that focus on industry-specific issues, and reports that provide insights on economic trends. In addition, the association may sponsor events, where you can gather some valuable human intelligence from other association members.
To find associations that are relevant to your industry, flip through the Encyclopedia of Associations, which comes in a National (U.S.) and International edition, or the National Trade and Professional Associations Directory. You may be able to obtain either of these directories through your local library. The American Society of Association Executives also has an online directory.
Consider expanding your search beyond trade associations that are directly related to your industry. For example, if your business produces rubber tires, you may want to consider joining trade associations for the auto, motorcycle, and bicycle industries. Tire manufacturers have been breaking into the shoe industry!
Always try to establish a key relationship at a trade association or trade journal — someone who’s able and likely to be willing to help you track down the information you need. Spend time cultivating that relationship; it may turn into a key resource for locating experts or white papers.