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Competitive Intelligence Defined & Explained

Competitive intelligence uses and examples

Question: What is M/CI or Market and Competitive Intelligence?

Answer: The act of gathering information, analyzing it, and distributing the intelligence learned about customers, competitors and markets. The goal of competitive intelligence is to support strategic decision making for an organization.

The terms competitive intelligence, business intelligence and market intelligence are often used interchangeably. While the three may be performed by the same person or team they are indeed very different.

Business intelligence uses internal data from within a company's own operations and customer metrics to provide insights used to improve Key Performance Indicators (KPI) like profitability, utilization and operational efficiency.  

Market intelligence uses external data about the market to understand patterns and trends, as well as other market dynamics to provide insights that drive strategic and tactical decision making. 

Competitive Intelligence may include market intelligence and other external data about competitors gathered by the company or a third party to predict competitor movements, and provide insights on how a company can reduce uncertainty and take advantage of market opportunities. The outward attention that companies need to dedicate to their markets ensure they are headed in the right direction and they are not surprised by change to their competitive landscape. Your competitive intelligence, as it applies to your company, will focuses on three main aspects:

  1. Your Market(s)
  2. Your Customers
  3. Your Competitors

As your company gets a deeper understanding of each of these factors, you will discover how to maximize success in each arena to sharpen your competitive edge and excel.

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Competitor analysis research guide

Read the Complete Guide to Competitor Analysis Research, Data and Information Sources.

Table of Contents

Getting Started With Competitive Intelligence

Which Industries Rely on Competitive Intelligence and Why?

Competitive intelligence as it stands today is often industry driven. Certain industries have adopted it as a necessary practice and regularly focus attention on it to better inform their business strategy. For instance, pharmaceutical, software, and aerospace and defense companies use CI as a key function to develop and deliver unique products to market ahead of their competition. In fast-paced markets with long development cycles such as these, not looking at outward developments is a risk these companies are not willing to take.

Companies use competitive intelligence to look outward to monitor market trends, predict competitor developments and plan a strategy that maximizes opportunities and reduces uncertainty.

However, competitive intelligence also works to protect intellectual property. Counter-CI tactics can be used to protect your intellectual property and doing so is crucial when planning to launch a new product or announce a market-changing merger. The time and money it takes to fund, develop and market a new product could be wasted if a competitor intercepts information about your plans and launches a similar product before your own goes live.

Intellectual property has a range of importance and is managed differently across industries, so it is important to consider the value CI and Counter-CI might play into protecting the intellectual property at your organization as it relates to the rest of your market and industry. Just remember, if you are watching your competitors, your competitors may also be watching you.

Competitive Intelligence for Marketing

In a recent trend, marketers have increased their reliance on competitive intelligence and have turned to it as a way to help spark innovation and stay fresh in a constantly evolving industry. Marketers have the unique challenge of communicating value propositions and information about the business in a new and interesting way that sets an organization apart from their competitors.

Marketers often feel the pulse of the consumers, but when a product is preparing to launch, it is especially important to have a pulse on your competitors as well. Ensuring your angle of approach is unique to competitors', but is still accessible and beneficial to consumers, is key.

Marketers have turned to CI out of necessity, taking on more of the responsibility of competitor research due to the downtrend in companies staffing independent competitive and market intelligence departments. Modern competitive intelligence is a collaborative effort and this responsibility is easily lumped in with a marketer's normal tasks. As a core function that relies heavily on collaboration with other departments, the marketing department is uniquely suited to take on competitive intelligence and act as the "CI Quarterback" for the organization.

In order to make the most of the competitor research a team tasked with CI collects and to manage the increased workload, there needs to be an easy way to share competitor analysis and collaborate across departments. Sharing information effectively ensures there are no knowledge gaps and competitor research won't be siloed to only the marketing department.

Getting a lay of the land on how competitors are positioning certain products will help to inspire different takes on the same idea. Likewise, competitive intelligence can determine and assess the different marketing channels competitors are using to market their product. Analysis of these channels will show which are effective and which channels are open for optimization. Marketers can use this information to fuel creativity and solidify their competitive advantage.

Getting Started With Competitive Intelligence

Commercial competitive intelligence has been around since the 1970’s when the focus was solely on external factors. Today CI is a collaborative function, often housed under the business function of Marketing, Business Development or Strategy, CI helps companies understand external factors that impact their business and communicate these insights across all departments. Below is an example of how and what business departments typically use competitive intelligence. 

Functions supported with competitive intelligence

The field of competitive intelligence is a growing with 200+ companies supporting at least one aspect of CI. A number of resources exist to educate you on competitive intelligence and the way the field has evolved over the years. Learning more about the basics of competitive intelligence will assist you in your attempts to develop a competitive intelligence function inside your organization.

The following are some recommended competitive intelligence resources to explore:


Recommended Read: Today's Competitive Intelligence Function is Collaborative

A word of caution, building a competitive intelligence plan requires a clear understanding of your company's value chain and your differentiators. Value chain is a term Harvard professor Michael Porter coined in the mid 1980's to describe a set of activities performed to design, produce, market, deliver and support products or services. 

Creating a Competitive Intelligence Road Map

Once you understand how competitive intelligence will be important to your company's success moving forward, you need to map out how you plan to accomplish attaining actionable competitive intelligence. Map out your competitive intelligence strategy in layers. First, you need to identify what it is you want to know from your competitor research. Second, identify the time, cost and overall scope of your competitor research. Creating a competitive intelligence plan is crucial to get the most actionable insights from your competitor research and prevent wasted time focusing your attention in too many different directions. It is important to stay focused to strategically invest your team's time, money and effort into the competitor research. In some cases, your competitive intelligence plan will require additional resources to execute. These could include a consulting firm to support competitor research and analysis and/or a competitive intelligence software to support knowledge management and ongoing competitor monitoring. 

We've broken our suggested workflow into the 5 Stages of Competitive Intelligence Maturity. Here are some key takeaways from that resource and some questions to consider when starting out with competitive intelligence.

1. Information Planning:

  • Who are your intelligence consumers and how do they consume information?
  • What is your strategic objective and how does this support your business goals?
  • Where does the competitor information live and how do you access it?

2. Information Collection:

  • Pool your available resources.
  • Utilize primary competitor research when necessary.
  • Corroborate any primary competitor research with secondary research.

3. Information Organization:

  • Rely on your past experience to filter and organize information.
  • Make sure communication on your competitor analysis isn't siloed.

4. Information Analysis:

  • Consider the knowledge management tier.
  • Establish information context.
  • Refer back to your initial competitor research question.

5. Information Production and Dissemination:

  • Determine target audience.
  • Brush up on presentation skills.
  • Use effective and engaging visualizations.

Competitive Intelligence Tools and Software

Use competitive intelligence tools to make your competitive intelligence efforts as streamlined and beneficial to your company as possible. A competitive intelligence software tool can automate a lot of the necessary mundane low value activities associated with information gathering. Making the most of your strategic efforts, as well as researching consulting and software options to add additional support, will make competitive intelligence a regular part of your business plan to identify new opportunities and reduce the risk of market surprises.

Competitive Strategy

Ensuring your competitive strategy can stand the test of time and remain flexibility to change is a matter of defining a strategy that is dynamic and can adapt easily to address changing market trends. Dynamic strategic planning incorporates a higher level, end-goal vision. Instead of thinking in strategic increments, make sure you can loop each activity back to the end goal. This will ensure that if unforeseen difficulties or hurdles arise, your team will be able to plan ahead, instead of getting caught up in the issue of the moment.

Make sure you and your team regularly check in and ask: How does this trace back to our long term goals and how will we maneuver around possible issues to stay focused on our end goal? Work to keep each other on track, or gain an outside perspective to help advise on strategy.

Competitive Intelligence Analysts

Competitive intelligence analysts offer industry expertise and can help to guide your competitor research to be more productive. When high-stakes decisions are on the line, make sure your business plan is backed by more than emotion and personal experience. An outside, expert perspective will offer clarity that internal team members might have lost. A certain level of objectivity and the ability to back decisions with data can be the difference between a successful product launch and taking a large financial hit due to bad timing, marketing or strategy.

Competitive Intelligence Software

Competitive intelligence software can help you filter information, organize and produce competitor analysis, as well as reduce the amount of internal effort, money and time spent on gathering competitive intelligence. A competitive intelligence software tool can automate a lot of the necessary but also mundane and low value activities associated with information gathering. Often, dedicating an internal team member to the task of gathering and organizing competitive intelligence takes that person away from higher value tasks, which can decrease productivity and ultimately produce lesser quality internal work.

Read the Latest in Our 2020 Buyer's Guide for Market & Competitive Intelligence  Software Tools

The right CI software tool for your organization will depend on how mature your CI practice is. Companies just beginning their CI practice may be well served by one or more free tools available. Competitive intelligence software will minimize this impact.

Many organizations find accessing information to be a great challenge. A comprehensive CI software tool should be used as a centralized source of customer, market and competitor research and analysis for your organization to reference. CI tools that offer knowledge management functionality, often reduce the time spent on individual competitive intelligence projects and a reduced chance of unnecessarily duplicating effort across your organization.

Competitive Intelligence as a Lookout

Referring back to our original analogy for competitive intelligence as the external forces (other ships, etc.) impacting the voyage of a ship, ensure your ship is headed in the right direction and is well-equipped to handle and avoid whatever obstacles might arise. Strategic planning, competitive intelligence analysts and software can improve the way your company uses competitive intelligence to its benefit to lookout for new opportunities and potential threats. Likewise, implementing competitive intelligence into your strategy will protect your company's intellectual property, your prospective product plans and your ability to maintain a strong and prosperous standing in your market.

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