Competitive intelligence is a line item on almost every product professional’s job description and includes phrases like “be the expert on your buyers,” “understand the competitive landscape” and “help position our company’s offerings to differentiate.”
In practice, these are often empty words that fall to the bottom of the priority list. While probing product professionals for their thoughts on competitive initiatives at a recent networking event, one vice president of marketing retorted, “Don’t marketers always look at the competition?” Based on that response, I had to ask, “Do you incorporate win/loss analysis? Does your sales team use battlecards?”
“No,” he said sheepishly. Before answering, he knew I had proved that his competitive initiatives didn’t run as deep as he originally postured.
Based on the responses I heard that night, I was compelled to prove that many product professionals aren’t doing an effective job with competitive intelligence. For the purposes of this article, competitive intelligence responsibilities span both the product management and product marketing function.
Assessing Your Competitive Chops
This article outlines 10 suggested criteria that can help you assess how competitive you are in your day-to-day activities. Each criterion can be placed in a provided scorecard—a sort of competitive intelligence index—to help you measure the effectiveness of your competitive initiatives. As you progress from Criteria 1 to Criteria 10, a resounding “Yes!” showcases your increasing strength as a competitive-intelligence professional.
Part of this journey is demonstrating the difference between competitor intelligence and competitive intelligence. Competitor intelligence focuses exclusively on a single aspect of the competitive-intelligence landscape: the competitor. Competitive intelligence focuses on the competitor and many more attributes, including supply chain, company culture, and government and industry regulations. With an understanding of this subtle—yet crucial—difference, you can move toward understanding whether your competitive-intelligence efforts are creating an advantage for your business.
Criteria No. 1: Feature Matrices
For many, analysis often translates into a feature matrix that compares a company’s product with that of its competition. The result often resembles the technology equivalent of a Consumer Reports product review. These matrices rely heavily on competitor—not competitive—intelligence.
Product management guru Steve Blank talks about these feature tables. “Too often competitive analysis drives product requirements in startups,” according to Blank. This leads to developers building the maximum rather than the minimum number of features. Instead of death by PowerPoint, this equates to death by feature matrices. How many criteria can you create? My personal record is 250 rows.
Criteria No. 2: Deal-Desk Support
It’s satisfying to know when you have demonstrated subject-matter expertise. It is even more gratifying when a salesperson gives you a high-five for a deal you helped close. This type of field support aids in creating bad habits from sales. Salespeople may frequent your desk for that one-off special request that helps close a deal.
One of the first product tenets I learned the hard way was Pragmatic Institute’s rule “Product management should help sales channels, not individual salespeople.” It’s important to create an information repository that’s accessible by the field. If the field has exhausted all other avenues, then you should have an established workflow for salespeople to access you, the competitive expert.
Criteria No. 3: Research Beyond the Web
Many of us resort to the web, particularly Google when conducting research. In competitive-intelligence vernacular, this is referred to as open-source intelligence (OSINT). Competitive-intelligence pioneer Leonard Fuld said that “Free data, no matter how good your search skills, is generally something everyone else has and offers little competitive advantage—at least in its raw form.” On the other hand, search engines offer names, Fuld said, that can be used to springboard to where experts and truly valuable information lies—in human intelligence (HUMINT).
Criteria No. 4: Systematic Process
Do you incorporate any type of methodical process in your approach to tackling competitive intelligence? The process itself is less important than adhering to a workflow. The simplest yet most practical one I have seen is:
Criteria No. 5: Digital Intelligence
Product teams often have an invisible wall between their departments and corporate marketing. Corporate marketing often is an underutilized resource that should be tapped for further insights and a clearer picture into competitors’ actions. Tools like BuzzSumo, MOZ Link Explorer, Moat, SEMrush, SimilarWeb, SpyFu, and iSpionage can demonstrate the competitor’s top organic and paid search rankings, top referring websites, top display ads, social media posts, and traffic.
For example, I can gauge a company’s size and marketing caliber by the marketing automation tool it deploys. Smaller vendors will choose a marketing automation platform that does not require a dedicated full-time employee. They simply don’t have the internal resources and, therefore, need a less complex offering.
Digital intelligence can even be used before a product launch, whether it’s naming a product, establishing and popularizing a product category that resonates with industry analysts, or reaching out to influencers for additional coverage.
Criteria No. 6: Win/Loss Analysis
In the past couple of years, many conferences have covered win/loss analysis to better understand why a company has either won or lost customers. Clearly, many companies have an understanding about what win/loss can do for them, yet many have not created a formalized program. Win/loss is often relegated to a salesperson populating a CRM field because sales management requires it. However, there is so much narrative and a story behind the story, it should not be thought of as a fill-in-the-blank task.
Criteria No. 7: Sales Training
How the salesforce understands the competition and uses marketing-produced materials is vital. One very useful internal sales tool often showcased during training is the battlecard—a mini, competitive playbook that is a staple in every competitive-intelligence professional’s briefcase. Often a two-page, double-sided document, its relevant section headers include:
- Company strengths
- Company weaknesses
- Where we win
- Overcoming objections
- Probing questions
For a battlecard to be effective, it should offer accurate data, exclude conjecture, and be presented in an easy-to-read, scannable layout.
Criteria No. 8: Competitive Intelligence Software
Since 2017, there has been an uptick in venture capital investment in market and competitive intelligence (M&CI) software. While software does not replace the work of a competitive analyst, it can augment the arduous task of sifting through news feeds, social media, and website changes.
Criteria No. 9: Strategic Frameworks
Many competitive analysis efforts fail not because of the collection of information, but because of the analysis of the information. There are many analysis frameworks that should be used—from tactical and immediate to those that allow for deeper, longer-term analysis. Examples of strategic frameworks include the BCG Growth-Share Matrix, Porter’s Five Forces, Kaplan and Norton’s Balanced Scorecard, and Osterwalder’s Business Model Canvas.
Criteria No. 10: Seat at the Table
Perhaps the most satisfying KPI for any competitive intelligence professional’s success is if getting the proverbial seat at the table. It’s important to have executives acknowledge competitive efforts, even if the competitive-intelligence professional does not have face-to-face contact with executives. Success would be if the analysis, combined with an analyst’s opinion and perspective, has changed some strategic corporate initiative—something that transcends product-level analysis.
Justifying the Competitive Intelligence Function
Competitive-intelligence professionals are susceptible to corporate restructuring, and their responsibilities often are absorbed into the product management or product marketing functions. As a result, the competitive charter becomes best-effort, executed only when there’s time.
A stronger understanding of competitive criteria will help you assess how competitive you and your organization are in day-to-day activities. And now you have a competitive index scorecard to measure and assess the value of your initiatives.