Competitive Intelligence – Where Not to Look

“We need more competitive intelligence about <insert competitor name>. They are kicking our a$& in the market.” I suspect that this statement has been made by every single sales leader on the planet at one point in the past 12 months. The sales leader usually starts this rant in a meeting with CEO, but the conversation quickly travels down the hall to the CMO’s office. The CMO typically punts the issue to the competitive intelligence team who are then subsequently dispatched on a scavenger hunt to search for a magical answer to this problem.

The Competitor Website – The Answers Aren’t There

Invariably, the first place that market and competitive intelligence professionals go to gather intelligence is the competitor’s website. But that road is usually a dead end. Companies deliberately limit the level of detail they offer about their products and services on their public websites. Good marketers today are trying to reach their prospects earlier in the buying cycle by filling their website with less product detail and more educational content. As a result, you won’t find much of the traditional feature/function detail that existed ten years ago on corporate websites. Instead, most of the detailed information needed to truly strike a blow to the competition is withheld from the public domain. It is shared during the RFP process and interactive discussions later in the sales cycle. An experienced competitive intelligence analyst might be able to glean some insights from the job postings on the careers page. However, I think it is fair to say that you won’t find the answers on the competitor’s website.

Review Sites – Full of Happy Customers

Another obvious place to look for competitive intelligence are software rating sites such as Capterra, SoftwareAdvice, G2Crowd, and TrustRadius. These portals have attracted communities of end-users to provide ratings and reviews of their experiences with various technologies. On the surface, these websites appear to have an abundance of detail on individual software vendors, much of which is quantified into numerical rankings and side-by-side comparison tables. However, I have never had much success gleaning useful intelligence from these sites. For popular applications with large user communities (think Google Docs or Mailchimp) there is a diverse range of positive and negative reviews. However, for niche business technologies with smaller user communities I have not found many negative reviews. In fact, most of the reviews on these sites are the result of marketing campaigns funded by the vendors themselves. Here is how it works. The technology vendor pays the ratings company to call a list of its customers to encourage them to write reviews. The model is called creating “social proof.” Unless the vendor is incredibly stupid or completely oblivious to customer satisfaction issues they are likely to send a list of only happy accounts. As a result, the reviews are generally positive for many vendors and there is little intelligence to be gained.

The Secret Shopper – Is that Even Legal?

After the Internet research proves to be a total failure, more aggressive tactics often prevail. The increasingly frustrated and impatient sales leader starts to suggest that you hire a secret shopper. “We’ll hire an outside consultant to pose as a fictitious customer who will capture all of <insert competitor name> secrets and report back to us.” It’s never been clear to me whether this is legal. And even if it is legal, there is still a question about whether it is ethical? But perhaps an even more important question is – will it work?  The secret shopper model was common back in the 1980s and 1990s. However, the world has changed. These days you can easily fake a Twitter user or a Facebook page. But faking an entire company (especially a large company) is hard to do. The first thing any BDR is going to do when they get the lead is lookup the company’s website. What happens when they visit www.fakecompany.com? And they likely will not stop there. They will look up the LinkedIn profiles of the key executives and the company’s firmographics on ZoomInfo <or insert alternative sales intelligence vendor>. Even if you manage to dupe the competitor into believing that the fake company is real, it is highly unlikely that they will assign A-players to a unnamed account. You will get the B-team or the-C team who may not even answer the questions you ask them correctly.

Unfortunately, the outcome of three steps above is typically an #epicfail. Much to dismay of impatient sales leaders, competitive intelligence is not something that can be gathered on demand through a few hours of Internet searches. Instead, good intelligence is something that is amassed over a period of months and years through a series of disjointed conversations with partners, analysts, customers, and former employees. In my next post I will discuss the right way to systematically gather competitive intelligence.

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