George Robertson, CFP, CRPS, AIF

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Competitive Intelligence: Strategies for Success

In today's rapidly evolving marketplace, businesses that once relied upon traditional networks to supply them with clients and customers are now forced to become more aware of the competitive landscape in which they operate. Increasingly, market researchers are seeking out intelligence that can enable them to better understand their external competitive environment, including information about rival firms, industry trends, regulatory changes, and the demands of potential and existing clients.

Gathering Research

As practiced by most market researchers, competitive intelligence (CI) gathering is not akin to cloak-and-dagger corporate espionage. Instead, researchers generally adhere to accepted legal and ethical guidelines while trawling publicly available resources for clues about future developments in the industry. The data is then mined and analyzed in an effort to assess the implications of those developments for the individual organization. In the course of collecting CI, a marketer examines published materials available through sources such as the Internet and court records, and he or she may interview or network with industry experts, clients, and people familiar with competitor firms.

An obvious place to start when gathering CI is online. Trade journals and industry association websites are sources of potentially useful material, as are business and general newswires. While these news services will likely synthesize much of the market information of interest, you may also want to seek out more diverse online sources that provide updates on industry developments less widely reported. Depending on your business, these sources may include filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), public record search services, market research services, government agency websites, and legislative monitoring services.

Networking is an invaluable source of knowledge about competitors. Gossip overheard at an industry event or conference can provide insight into rival firms that is not available in published form. Meeting with others in the industry, either formally or informally, also allows you to ask questions and probe for information that is of particular use to your firm. Even a casual conversation with a staff member from a rival firm can alert you to potentially important changes in the organization and in the industry as whole. It is also possible to network online through blogs, discussion groups, and e-mail.

Analyzing Data

Competitive intelligence is about more than simply investigating rivals; the objective is to create a more successful organization relative to competitors. However interesting, the information gathered will only prove valuable if you are able to place it in a context relevant to your own company's market position. Information must be translated into "actionable" intelligence that can be applied directly to business planning and development. An analysis of the data collected can result in recommendations for new initiatives or changes in strategic direction, such as adjusting pricing structures or enhancing services.

When a business is able to predict more accurately which practice areas are likely to generate more or less business in the future, its leaders will be able to make more effective decisions about how to allocate resources. CI can also be useful in determining whether offering a particular product or service that appears to be in demand constitutes a sound business decision given market saturation levels.

While conducting competitive intelligence research requires some investment of resources, gaining a more thorough understanding of the competitive environment can help you avert some costly mistakes and anticipate a market for services that may not yet exist.

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