Keeping tabs on the competition

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The mission: Uncover information on how B2B firms watch or listen to the competition.

The brief: How are B2B managers monitoring competitors and what tools are they using?  Do firms have staff dedicated to this task?  Learn about the intelligence gathered.

The tools of the trade: As CBS MoneyWatch noted in 2012, “The fancy phrase for spying on your industry is ‘competitive intelligence,’” and ten legal ways to conduct online “espionage” were outlined.  The article, with a focus on salespeople, suggested educating yourself about Google Scholar, running background checks using KnowX.com to look at legal matters (bankruptcies, liens, etc.) regarding businesses, checking news releases on industry analyst sites (e.g., Forrester Research and Gartner) for statistics, and even employing a “mystery shopper” to monitor the customer’s experience.

Keeping tabs on the competition is only getting more complex.  As Inc. reported, small businesses are going beyond Google searches and using tools like Google Alerts in order to know what their competitors are up to.

The (mostly) secret agents: Merritt Bookkeeping is a small business founded in 2009 by Jordan Merritt.  Merritt “decided to leave his job and focus on building a bookkeeping company that would offer an easy, affordable, and professional remote bookkeeping service to small businesses nationwide. Our current headquarters is San Diego, CA, although we work with small businesses all over the nation,” according the company’s website.

Merritt Bookkeeping now has 15 employees, according to Perry Paolini, Merritt Bookkeeping’s Co-Owner and Operations Manager.  Paolini told B2Bnn, “Our only means of looking in on the competition is that we have some Google Alerts set up when our competitors are mentioned somewhere.”

When asked if his firm has staff dedicated to monitoring the competition, Paolini replied, “Currently is it just me monitoring.  I have the Alerts sent to email me once a week and I have a filter in my mail so that the Alerts go into a specific folder. I check that folder once a week and review any stories or news about my competition.”

Has this monitoring produced actionable intelligence, leading to offering better services?  “I’ve learned things such as my competition raising funds, using a particular service in conjunction with theirs, etc.,” Paolini said.  “Like with every aspect of our business we create detailed instruction documents, or systems as we call it, so that once I feel comfortable with the instructions we pass off the duties to an employee within our company.  However most of the time it is not news or stories that are helpful.  Twenty percent of the time it is good info.”

A variety of small and large B2B companies were sent interview requests asking for tips and advice their CEOs or managers have for other B2B firms on socially listening to competition.  Merritt Bookkeeping was the only company willing to go on record about this.  However, a leading database analytics vendor located in the United States was willing to comment but with a “mask the name” agreement.

Keeping with the cloak and dagger theme, the informant passed along the following information.  Our company “has a competitive intelligence team that operates effectively – by listening closely to word-of-mouth input from our sales/account management people and our customers – thousands of them, as well as monitoring web news and news media. It sounds to me like you want a story on how social media is used as a primary or big secondary source to collect competitive intelligence? In our case, social media is more important for getting our news and content out – but not used as a primary competitive news source.”

The agencies: SCIP, the Society of Competitive Intelligence Professionals, states that social media is “the new frontier for data analysis” and advises, “If you have not yet explored the significant advantages which social networks can bring to your business, put this task on the top of your priority list for the year and don’t miss the chance to convert social media data into real-time, actionable intelligence.”  Further, SCIP, states, “SMINT (Social Media Intelligence) is among the most important trends for the year because it demonstrates the utility of social networks for business.”

You may not hear a peep from some B2B firms on the specifics of how they use social networks to surveil the competition, but one writer offered some “spy techniques” for Twitter.  Among the “5 Ways To Use Twitter To Spy For Competitive Intelligence” is to add your competition to a private list where, according to the writer, businesses can “Secretly receive real-time, competitive intelligence updates of events, updates and news. No one will know who is watching whom. You may have to read in between the lines, but it’s easy to keep tabs on the competitive comings and goings by being tapped into their Twitter stream. You never know there might be a slip up that you can catch!”

America’s Central Intelligence Agency has been criticized in contemporary times for emphasizing technology over human intelligence gathering techniques.  For B2B firms, however, the two go hand-in-hand.  B2B firms must have staff dedicated to the task of monitoring the competition, whether it be one person in a small firm using Google Alerts or a large company employing a competitive intelligence team.  The tools utilized to gather actionable intelligence vary, but if you believe the communication from a vital asset like SCIP, social media intelligence gathering is the trend of the future.

Photo: Perry Paolini, Merritt Bookkeeping

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Kay Mathews

Kay Mathews

Kay Mathews is the owner/writer/photographer at Mathews Professional Writing Services (MPWS), which she established in 2008. She works for various clients, including businesses, nonprofits and individuals, producing and editing web content and providing research reports and analyses. Since 2009, Kay has been a freelance writer for Digital Journal. Find her on Twitter @KayMathewsMPWS.
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