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Using competitive intelligence to grow your business

Learn how surveys can help you better understand your market with SurveyMonkey

The sage advice of “know your enemy” holds true in the business world. Granted, it may be a stretch to label competitors your enemies. But let’s face it, they are angling to get the same customers you’re after – and are likely pulling out the stops to attract and retain them. With that in mind, it’s best to know as much as you can about your competitors, their customers, and their go-to-market strategies, so you can outflank them at every turn.

Simply put, competitive intelligence is the gathering of information – from both published and unpublished sources – that you can compile efficiently and ethically. Ideally, the information collected should paint a clear picture of your marketplace and where your top competitors fit into it, so you can anticipate and predict future challenges and seize new opportunities.

Too often, companies skimp on competitive intelligence, relying on intuition, assumptions, and past experience. Yet with the fast-evolving pace of business these days, that can be a costly mistake. A consistent and disciplined approach to gathering competitive intelligence can yield data and insights that can guide smarter business decisions and differentiate your company from the pack.

Surveys are among the most cost-effective and reliable tools to capture this information by providing unique insights into your target audience. You can learn what customers like and dislike about both your company and your competitors, as well as revealing the needs and gaps in your marketplace.

Competitive intelligence is the collection and analysis of information from multiple sources to better understand your competitors and the broader competitive landscape. This can include analysis about products, customers, competitors, and any aspect of the environment that is relevant for strategic decision-making.

Competitive intelligence can be grouped into two main categories: tactical intelligence focuses on short-term issues such as capturing market share or increasing revenues. Meanwhile, strategic intelligence is future-focused, helping you to spot trends and patterns to predict conditions moving forward.

Competitive intelligence is often a key element to developing market intelligence, which is the information that a company collects about the market in which it currently operates – or hopes to enter. Through market intelligence, your company can define its market segment, market penetration, and assess the overall opportunity.

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Here are some ways in which businesses can use competitive intelligence to get deeper perspectives on competitors and the marketplace with the aim of driving stronger, data-driven business performance:

Develop business strategies: The most effective business strategies draw from a wide range of sources and insights to identify the most promising path forward. Data collected via competitive intelligence gives you key insight into the marketplace and your competitors, revealing emerging trends, existing gaps, or new opportunities that can be incorporated into your strategy.

Develop strategies to counter competitor actions: Do you have a competitor that always seems one step ahead in offering new products, or unique services that meet a need in the market? If so, competitive intelligence can be the key to figuring out ways to leapfrog them. Doing a deep dive into your competitors' positioning, products, services, and marketing efforts can help you develop counter-strategies that can blunt the impact of actions taken by your competitors. It can also provide opportunities for you to communicate with your customers in ways that showcase the benefits and advantages of your offerings and develop products or services that fill an unmet need in the market.

Benchmark against competitors: Benchmarking is measuring your company’s performance against that of your competitors. Benchmarking provides you a baseline to know where you stand in relation to your competitors so you can identify areas for improvement, prioritize your strengths, and help set realistic company goals.

Monitor your brand reputation:
Maintaining a positive brand reputation is essential for ongoing success in today’s competitive marketplace. A strong brand reputation can drive sales, help you to attract new customers and retain existing ones, and make a valuable contribution to your bottom line. In contrast, negative hits to your reputation can dampen sales, chase away good customers and make it difficult to attract new ones. It makes sense to consistently track the reputation of your brand to gain a greater understanding of the positive drivers of your reputation, as well as flagging issues that may require you to make changes or quickly course correct.  

Plan for new product launches or other business initiatives: Competitive intelligence is essential if you are launching new products or key initiatives. It can help you gauge the need for a new product or service, and offer direction for ways to differentiate what you’re offering so it is unique from what competitors are selling. Ultimately, this insight garnered through competitive intelligence will help reduce the cost and risks of new product development while also increasing the chance that it will get traction with existing and new customers.  

There are a wide range of data sources that you can rely on to give you a robust picture of the competitive landscape as well as specific competitors. Some of the most reliable sources include:

Competitor Websites: Often, competitive intelligence is out there in plain sight for all to see. The reality is that websites represent your competitors’ strategies in action as they present themselves in ways designed to attract and keep customers. As such, websites make for an obvious starting place to gain a greater understanding of how competitors are positioning themselves in the market, who their target audiences are, and how they are communicating with those audiences. Websites are also an easy way for you to review any product or feature upgrades, new job openings or hires, messaging and positioning modifications, marketing initiatives, pricing, and news announcements.

Annual reports: An annual report can be a great way to gain insight into your competitors’ recent performance, strategic positioning, and upcoming priorities. A logical place to start is a close reading of the CEO letter which typically captures the company’s strategic focus and provides insights into what they will prioritize in the year ahead. Beyond the CEO letter, look closely at what aspects of their business the company is highlighting. In addition to annual reports,  blogs, E-books, podcasts, and research reports can also provide you with insights on your competitors' goals and areas that they are working to further develop.

Industry or other publications: You can sharpen your competitive intelligence expertise by keeping up with key industry news and trends. Industry publications often feature companies that are taking innovative approaches or executing on unique strategies. Additionally, your competitors may be featured in local or regional business magazines. Consistently tracking stories about your competitors will give you greater insight into their current focus as well as their strategic plans moving forward.

Social media: Tracking your competitors’ social media channels can offer real-time insight into how they are talking about their products and services, as well as how they interact with their customers. Businesses often promote new upcoming products via social media, allowing you to see how they are approaching the market and trying to grow their business. This perspective can help you further differentiate your company, and consider ways to develop or position your offerings in ways that contrast with competitors. While all social platforms are useful in tracking your competitors, make sure to pay particular attention to LinkedIn, where companies often highlight key strategic initiatives.

Patent databases: Gaining knowledge about other companies by using patent databases can be a bit daunting – there are thousands of databases, located all over the world, which make an effort to find the information that you are looking for. Yet it is often worth the effort to zero in on a specific competitor’s patent portfolio that reveals what they have in their pipeline, which, in turn,  can help you refine new business strategies and strengthen your own competitive position.

Surveys and other primary data: Surveys allow you to hear directly from your existing customers, as well as from potential customers, some of whom may be doing business with your key competitors. Asking specific questions can help reveal what potential customers like and dislike about your competitor’s products and services, so you take action to meet existing needs in the marketplace.

Surveys can be one of your most valuable tools in collecting competitive intelligence. Unlike secondary sources, with surveys you are gaining direct feedback from respondents that can yield valuable insights to help improve your competitive position. Surveys can provide you with primary data from customers, suppliers, prospects, and more. Some key advantages of surveys include:

Proprietary information: Because you are gaining direct feedback from survey respondents, you can gather information and data that is not available anywhere else.

Comparative insights: Through targeted survey questions, you can gain insights on how people actually perceive your brand compared to competitors. This removes guesswork and assumptions and allows you to zero in on what sets you apart from the competition. This can include what your competitors are doing that resonates with customers, as well as any shortcomings in competitors’ products. Knowing these shortcomings can provide direction for you to fill any gaps with your own products or services. You can also gather feedback on why some customers have chosen to go with competitors’ product/service versus your offerings.  

Marketing insights: By learning how your competitors are reaching and engaging with their customers, you can identify their preferred marketing channels and tactics, and make any corresponding adjustments to make sure you are effectively communicating with your customers as well as reaching potential customers.

You can create your own survey using SurveyMonkey’s market research survey template to get the answers you need, so that you can position yourself to keep existing customers and gain new ones.

Knowing how to structure your surveys can either get you the information you need or leave you in the dark about your customers. Here’s a three-step approach to making sure that your surveys are structured in the way in which they will generate the most useful and accurate results.

  1. Clearly define your target audience: Before you can start asking questions, you need to be sure you are asking the right people. Make sure that you take the time to  - can use screening questions to filter for the best users.  SurveyMonkey’s Audience panel can help you find the exact people you want to reach, allowing you to choose your audience based on 50+ profiled attributes including demographics, employment status, hobbies, and more.
  1. Have a clear idea of who your competitors are: Just as important as knowing who your target audience is, is having a clear grasp on who your competitors are so you can tailor your questions accordingly. This allows you to include in your surveys specific questions about your biggest competitors to help assure you are gathering the most relevant data and information. Make sure you leave space in the survey for respondents to suggest a wider range of competitors – this can help you track if new competitors are gaining traction in the marketplace and should be on your radar.
  1. Use a mix of focused and open-ended questions to get insights you may not have considered: Your surveys should ask direct quantitative questions about your biggest competitors, but make sure to leave additional space for participants to leave comments via open-ended qualitative questions. This additional feedback can capture valuable insights through respondents sharing their opinions, attitudes, and ideas that can give you a much fuller picture of what they are thinking and what drives their behaviors. 

So as the saying goes, keep your friends close but your enemies closer. By leveraging competitive intelligence, you can stay a step ahead of the competition, and grow your business through a blend of strong retention and new customer acquisition. 

SurveyMonkey offers all the tools you need to execute on a comprehensive competitive intelligence strategy that generates the data and insights that can take your business to the next level -- and keep you there.

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