You can collect a great deal of useful competitive intelligence from readily available public sources such as the Internet, journals, and commercial databases. Your goal here is not to gather copious amount of information but to produce highly relevant analysis, which will translate directly into improved business results. This process of collecting comprehensive (but efficient) secondary intelligence is the starting point for true CI.
You need public-domain data or secondary information to establish an accurate baseline of knowledge. You also need it to guide the more difficult primary collection of information. The CI professional uses secondary research to develop “targeting data.” That data will provide you with organizations, individuals, events and other key sources that might have information related to the topic of interest.
Secondary information or public-domain information is also the cheapest type of information. Therefore, you should use it to answer as many KITs (key intelligence topics) and KIQs (key intelligence questions) as possible. Doing this will ensure that you can focus your human interviews on the KITs and KIQs for which there is little or no public information.
In addition, public-domain research provides you with supporting information for discussions between your analysts and sources. For example, when I was gathering primary intelligence, I would look up a specific competitor product in PubMed. This database would provide me with a list of all the scientific publications written regarding this product. Then I would choose one article that contained relevant information regarding the KIT or KIQ of interest, and I would call the author of that paper to see if they had additional information. The conversation would start with me saying something like this: “Hello, Dr. X, I recently read your article on XYZ and I would like to ask you a few clarification questions about it.” Once this person agreed to talk with me, I would use other publicly available information to guide the conversation. (I will explain in more detail how to structure a conversation with someone you don’t know in upcoming blog posts.)
Where Can a Firm Get Secondary Information About Competitors?
Of all public sources, the Internet is probably the single fastest, least expensive, and most wide-ranging information provider. Most people reading this blog will be familiar with popular search engines. But here are some less obvious ways to identify people through the Internet.
The Internet contains an amazing number of articles, research projects, and monographs. Most of the time, you will easily find all the information you need to build a solid baseline knowledge just by exploring them. Yet the greatest value of electronic libraries like PubMed is that the articles were written by, refer to, and quote people and organizations. These people and organizations can be turned into direct sources of information.
Résumés and Personal Profiles
A highly effective way to find people who work (or used to work) for a company, or who work on a specific product, is to visit one of many sites that cater to professionals looking for jobs and networking opportunities, such as LinkedIn. These sites allow you to evaluate whether someone has access to the knowledge you are looking for and find out what they are doing now. People who used to work for companies of interest might give you references to individuals who are still working at the target companies.
If your CI operation has a budget to buy subscriptions to databases, then I recommend buying access to résumé databases like Monster.com. You will be amazed how much information people will put on their résumés. For one project, I typed a competitor’s product name on Monster.com and found almost a hundred résumés for people working on that product. From these, I was able to figure out their company’s sales and marketing activities. Furthermore, since these people had put their résumés on Monster, I knew that they were not happy with their current employer and were looking to move on. Disgruntled employees are great sources of information, as they are emotional and pay less attention to how much information they share.
If you are working in a regulated industry, government websites can be a treasure trove of information. In addition to providing information on the regulations you have to obey to bring products to market, they provide information on competitor products. Government websites have to be monitored on a regular basis because information is uploaded and removed frequently. For example, the FDA website will upload a copious amount of information regarding a product a few weeks prior to an Advisory Board meeting and will remove it shortly after the meeting has taken place.
These are an obvious source of information. Most companies spend time and effort building informative websites about their business and products but have no idea how much valuable information they are disclosing. What is not so obvious to many analysts is that these websites have to be monitored on a regular basis. Many times, I have found valuable information that was uploaded to a website by mistake, only to come back a couple of days later to find that the information had been removed.
Another feature of many competitor websites that CI analysts underestimate is the career section. I have learned several times that a competitor was getting ready to launch a new product by seeing an open sales-force position on its website. Good secondary intelligence processes often yield “nuggets” that are overlooked by other methods of gathering information.
Over the last few years, all types of contact-information directories have come up online, allowing you to search for both organizational and individual contacts. One directory that I have found very useful as a source for contacts within target organizations is Jigsaw. This directory is a free searchable platform that provides you with verified full names, email addresses, and phone numbers.
Now that you’ve got all this secondary information and all these contacts, what are you going to do with them? How are you going to ensure your information remains up to date? You are going to keep records of it, manage it, reuse it, and re-validate it. Future blog posts here will cover quite a bit of the administrative side of managing intelligence operations – and their paperwork. As one of my tutors said, “I need to make sure that you do not violate one of the most basic precepts in the business intelligence world: The paperless intelligence office will arrive on the very same day as the paperless bathroom.”
At this point, several of you might be asking: How frequently should I look into these places? When do I know I am ready for an interview? How should I organize my schedule to check on these websites? If that is the case, then let me know, and I’ll be happy to cover in more detail how to build a process to go through.
The next blog post will cover one of the most exciting and controversial topics in CI. We will introduce human collection and elicitation techniques. I’ll discuss the techniques that collectors use to get sources to disclose non-public information.