Question: How can you get competitive information on private companies?
How do you do competitive & market research in a new market when the companies are private, do not publish prices, and there is little information on products?
Answer from Jeff Lash of How To Be a Good Product Manager: One of the big misconceptions about competitive intelligence is that it requires you to sift through dumpsters, make back-door bribes, and do other sorts of nefarious deeds. In fact, to paraphrase the The Competitive Intelligence Handbook by Richard Combs (sample chapter available), most competitive intelligence information is publicly available:
The percentage most practitioners place on this kind of public information varies from 80% to 90%. Given the amount of information available in our age, this 80% to 90%, if analyzed and presented carefully, can be more than adequate for most needs. The remaining % is insignificant.
So how do you find this information? There is an entire industry (and society) focused on this, so a short answer can not do it justice. Still, here are some simple tips:
- Customers: Customers are a great source of competitive intelligence. Depending on the nature of your product, your customers may use other products at the same time, or may have switched from a competitor. Often they will regularly get contacted by sales representatives for other companies or even evaluate other products.
- Trade shows: These are excellent opportunities to learn more about the competition. Exhibit floors let you mingle with vendors, partners, and customers. Many trade shows have busy periods and quiet periods, the latter occurring when there are associated presentations or speakers. These quiet periods are great for checking out competitor’s booths, making small talk, or gathering marketing materials.
- Personal networks: While companies are of course competitive by nature, in many industries it is common for employees from one firm to have connections to many competitors. In some cases, the major competitors are “revolving doors” where employees come and go on a regular basis. In addition to tapping friends and former colleagues, you can see if there are any connections to the competition through neighbors, relatives, service providers (lawyers, doctors, plumbers, and the like) and others in your extended network.
- Purchase competitive products: Depending on the industry and type of product, it may possible to purchase or use your competitor’s products. While this will not provide a lot of information on the company itself, it will at least allow you to get a good understanding of the product itself.
- Former employees: Similar to personal networks, it may be possible to contact former employees of a competitor. Social networks like LinkedIn and Facebook are excellent for identifying individuals from specific companies.
- Blogs, message boards, and other online forums: The proliferation of user-generated content and “community” sites online has provided a boom for competitive intelligence. There may be vast amounts of information about your competitors online, generated by their customers or even their employees. Besides blogs and discussion forums, venues such as LinkedIn Answers, Twitter, and Satisfaction can also be great sources of information.
- Industry analysts: Most industries have at least one organization providing analysis and consulting specific to the industry. Analysts are usually privy to information before it is publicly announced, and while they are restricted from sharing this with competitors, they can usually comment on general trends or offer analysis after the information is made public.
With all of these sources, normal ethical caveats apply — there are limits to what information people can share, and there are limits to what you can attempt to obtain from people. You never want to put anyone — former or current employee of a competitor, a customer, a friend or colleague — in a situation where they are asked to act unethically or illegally. Still, there is a large amount of information which people will gladly share and can do so ethically. I’ve gotten competitive information from sales reps at trade shows, from competitors on customer visits, from acquaintances at cocktail parties, and from many of the other sources listed above. These are all “fair game” if used properly.
Regardless of how you gather the information, and what information you gather, the important part of competitive intelligence is what you do with that information. Even when the companies are public, prices are widely known, and vast amounts of information is available on the products, the challenge is still the same — to read between the lines, try to figure out what the competition is doing (and is going to do), and use that to adjust your strategy as needed.