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In the world of competitive intelligence, nothing cuts straight to the source quite like primary competitor research. By gathering information directly from individuals in the know, such as competitor employees, competitor vendors and competitor customers, you can get a better, quicker and more complete story.
Unlike secondary research, which involves sifting through competitor data such as marketing material, social media posts and public records, this targeted, unfiltered data can answer not only the question, "what are my competitors doing?" but also other questions, such as, "why are they doing it?" and "what do they plan on doing in the future?"
In most cases, a 15-minute interview will be more beneficial to a competitive intelligence analyst than an hour-long internet search.
In the past, we at Cipher Systems worked for a large U.S. association who wanted to bring a new type of website domain onto the market — such as www.website.house or www.website.dog. They asked us for market intelligence support to help them understand a) what would be the most relevant term to bring to their market, and b) how should they price it?
To answer this question, we could have simply brought in secondary sources as benchmarks for price comparison, but without primary competitor research, we couldn't tell them why things were priced the way they were, or how a unique domain name was brought to market. So, instead, we conducted interviews with employees of other companies with unique domain names and learned infinitely more than we would have learned through just reading about it — in half of the time.
This is the true value of primary competitor research: it allows you to dig deeper, faster. As you're reading a document, you can't interject with questions like "why did someone take that approach?" or "what occurred as a result of that development?" But in an interview with a subject matter expert, you can evolve the conversation as you see fit to your research queries. Because of their experience, a subject matter expert can take the information you know from secondary research and provide additional insight.
But what kind of primary competitor research is best? How do you ensure a quality source?
When possible, in-person interviews will be the most informative form of primary research, if not the most convenient. That's because a large portion of communication is nonverbal. Reading your interviewee's facial responses and body language will be nearly as informative as listening to their accounts on a topic.
But what's even more valuable than a one-on-one interview? The focus group. An extremely efficient and useful method of utilizing primary sources, a focus group involves:
By creating an environment where interviewees can interact and bounce ideas off of each other, you can gather unique perspectives that would otherwise be lost. This environment can also facilitate greater accuracy. Memories can be fickle, but personal experience can be confirmed by checking statements across different people and perspectives. Then, you can rely on the most frequent responses to a certain question and toss the one-off answers that didn't seem legitimate when compared with the majority. After all, a room of minds is greater than a single person's memory or idea of an account.
When you're collecting a vast amount of first-hand experiences like this, you must remember to take into account the person's potential motivations. Were they fired from the company? What are their biases and filters? Depending on the background of your source, you'll want to corroborate that information using many, other sources. That way, you can maintain a higher level of confidence that the information you've collected is correct and comprehensive enough to allow you to make informed decisions.
Make no mistake — the choice between primary and secondary research isn't a binary choice. In fact, it isn't a choice at all. The most insightful competitor analysis is the result of a two-phased approach to competitor research.
Begin with the more general, secondary research to gather context, and then conduct primary research to filter that knowledge and address remaining questions. Then, corroborate those first-hand stories and accounts against multiple sources to ensure the quality and accuracy of your final conclusions.
Ultimately, good market research requires a symbiotic relationship between primary, secondary and trusted sources. Use a combination of your own personal insights from previous experience, past research and corroborating sources to derive the most actionable intelligence and insights from your research.
Following a 30-year career as an intelligence collector and information operations practitioner in the US Army and multiple civilian intelligence organizations, Fred now draws upon his broad experience in worldwide intelligence collection, information operations, corporate personnel and intellectual property protection to support both government and commercial clients.