The Ultimate Guide to Competitive Intelligence Research

In any kind of competition, you’re at an advantage if you can predict how a competitor will act and have a plan ready to counteract their moves. This requires paying attention to various sources of information to look for patterns of behavior, as well as other factors that can influence how participants will act. In the world of business, this information is commonly known as competitive intelligence.

So what is competitive intelligence, and what differentiates it from companies outright spying on each other? How does one get the information needed lawfully? And how can your company turn this information into insights that give you an edge over the competition?

No need to worry. When gathered within acceptable bounds, competitive intelligence is not just perfectly legal; it can also be a huge boost to the decision-making capabilities of several of your company’s departments. We’ll explain the basics of what you need to know in the following sections:

  • What is competitive intelligence?
  • Benefits of using competitive intelligence
  • Sources of competitive intelligence: where to get it
  • 7 competitive intelligence analysis techniques
  • How competitive intelligence works: how to perform competitive intelligence research
  • Competitive intelligence examples to learn from

Let’s start off with a competitive intelligence definition to clarify what it is and what it is not.

What is competitive intelligence?

Competitive intelligence is the collection and analysis, by a company, of openly-available data on their competitors, which is then used to develop business strategies that outperform them. Such data can include press releases, advertisements, web content, patent filings, and so on.

There is some debate over whether competitive intelligence constitutes a form of corporate spying. We will address these concerns below.

Competitive intelligence vs. industrial espionage

Competitive intelligence only uses information gained through legally acceptable processes. Industrial espionage, however, involves stealing information that a company would otherwise be allowed by law to keep hidden. Examples include trade secrets or insider information on the company’s operations.

The difference between the two hinges largely on whether the information in question has its confidentiality protected by law, as well as whether competitors obtain it through legal and ethical means. For example, a public company is typically required to publish a public quarterly earnings report. Using information found in a company’s public quarterly earnings report is fair game. On the other hand, if information is procured illegally (bribery, blackmail, privacy-violating surveillance, physical/digital theft, etc.) the information’s confidentiality is considered protected by law.

Benefits of using competitive intelligence

So what are the goals of competitive intelligence? Why pay attention to what your rivals are doing instead of – quite literally – minding your own business? As it turns out, your opponents can be some of your greatest teachers. This is because they’re by-and-large after the same thing: doing what your company does, but better in one or more ways.

The purpose of competitive intelligence can be found in these and other benefits:

  • Smarter sales tactics: If your sales team has a clear picture of how your company’s products and services stack up against competitors, they’ll be better able to address concerns from prospective clients and steer conversations to focus on your strengths.
  • Personalized campaign marketing: Your competitors are your competitors because they’re trying to sell similar products and services to similar types of customers. Understanding how they’re succeeding or failing in reaching audiences can give you ideas on how to position your own marketing to target specific audiences.
  • Better product development: Reverse-engineering a competitor’s product can help your own teams understand how it’s packaged and priced (for example), which can give teams a better starting point when designing products for your company.
  • Risk mitigation: Why make the same mistake that a competitor already made themselves? By looking at what worked and what didn’t from things your competitors have already tried, you’ll minimize the chance that you’ll implement something that either doesn’t work or that your competitors have improved upon anyway.

As great as this all is, we’re guessing that there’s still a rather large elephant in the room: where do you get meaningful information on what your competitors are doing? We’ll discuss that in the very next section.

Sources of competitive intelligence: where to get it

One of the key parts of any good competitive intelligence plan is knowing where you can find the data you need without getting into legal or ethical trouble. To err on the side of caution, these are some safe and commonly-used sources:

  • Open location information: If you’re in an industry with brick-and-mortar stores, looking at data on competitor locations can be informative. How accessible are they by foot or local transit? How much foot traffic does the area get? What space requirements do the stores need? When are their operating hours? Geospatial data like the kinds SafeGraph provides can give clues as to what might work (or not) with your own stores.
  • Websites: Visiting competitors’ websites is a common way to get information on them. You can find clues as to what audiences they’re targeting, how they’re positioning themselves in their marketing, the products they’re selling, their price points, and other updates to their operations.
  • News and press releases: Pay attention to news publications, especially if they specialize in business news. They often contain announcements by competitors on their activity, such as new products they’re launching, new people they’ve hired, or other expansion moves. Competitors may even showcase these updates on their own websites (under a “News” or “Press” section).
  • Social networks: News feeds on social media are also potential sources of intel on competing businesses. They’re often updated frequently, so they can be good places to look for current news about products or services your competitors have in the works. Feeds that allow comments also let you see how customers are interacting with your competitors, including what they like and dislike about them.
  • Job boards: Another way to get hints on what competing companies are up to is by looking at what new talent they’re trying to bring on. By searching job listing websites to see what positions competitors are hiring for, you might be able to tell if they’re expanding their businesses in new directions.
  • Industry conferences: Trade shows and conferences are some other good opportunities to gather intelligence on your competitors. They’ll often be showcasing or speaking about their latest ideas for products, services, or business directions. You can also talk to participants and attendees to get their perspectives on what’s being presented.
  • Marketing materials: Competitors’ advertisements can also be a source of information. What are their messages, and how are those messages communicated? How are the visuals (if present) designed? What products, services, or features are they focusing on? What audiences do they appear to be appealing to? Questions like these can help you figure out your competitors’ marketing strategies.
  • Financial statements: Those of your competitors who publicly offer assets for trade on a stock exchange are required, by law, to periodically release earnings reports. You can look at these as indicators on whether or not your competitors’ business strategies are working.

As you can see, there are many legally-acceptable options for finding out what competing companies are up to. And again, even data regarding their store locations and the surrounding areas can provide valuable insights when put in the proper context. For example, looking at brand foot traffic share in particular areas can give hints about how popular your stores are versus competitors based on demographics of those who live nearby, accessibility, pricing, advertising, and other factors. Check out our SafeGraph Patterns datasets for more information on aggregated and anonymized mobility data.

Okay, so now that you know where to get the data for competitive intelligence, how do you actually put it to work? The next section will cover some competitive intelligence analysis techniques that you can use to get the most out of the data you’ve found.

7 competitive intelligence analysis techniques

Having raw data on what your competitors are doing doesn’t mean a whole lot on its own. You need to be able to organize it into a framework that allows your company to see patterns and themes that it can leverage to get ahead. With that in mind, here are a few analysis models that are commonly used for competitive intelligence.

1. SWOT / TOWS analysis

SWOT stands for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. It involves looking at your business through four lenses: what your company does well or uniquely compared to your competitors; areas in which you could improve or your competitors are doing better than you; chances for positive things to happen to your company; and things that may negatively impact your business. Based on this information, you can do a TOWS analysis. This reverses the focus by asking how your company can seize opportunities and avoid/lessen threats by taking advantage of its strengths and shoring up its weaknesses.

2. Porter’s Four Corners

Michael E. Porter is a famed Harvard Business School professor who has developed several competitive intelligence methods. The goal of this one is to use competitors’ motivations and actions to predict their future behavior.

On the motivations side, you have to consider two factors: drivers and management assumptions. Drivers represent your competitors’ goals, strategies, corporate cultures, leadership backgrounds, and values/missions. Management assumptions are what you think your competitors believe about their strengths and weaknesses, as well as their ability to take advantage of opportunities and deal with threats. Ask yourself what assumptions they may be making about these things, as well as about their overall involvement in the industry.

There are two factors to consider on the actions side as well: strategy and capabilities. Strategy refers to how well your competitors’ actions are aligning with their stated goals. Capabilities represent the strengths, partnerships, and other resources that allow your competitors to execute their strategies or respond to threats. Weaknesses or incorrect assumptions here may provide opportunities for your own company.

3. Porter’s Five Forces

Another competitive intelligence framework created by Michael E. Porter, Porter’s Five Forces analysis, helps to gauge how competitive and profitable an overall industry is. The five forces are:

  • How many companies in the industry are directly competing with each other
  • How easily a new company can break into the industry and become a competitor
  • How many companies supply the industry, and how costly it is to switch between them
  • How many customers a company has, and how costly it would be to find new ones
  • How easily a company’s products or services could be replaced by alternatives

Generally, industries that have fewer directly-competing companies, higher barriers to entry, more suppliers, more customers, and fewer alternatives tend to be the least competitive and the most profitable. The inverse is also generally true. However, there are a few caveats to this, so we recommend using this model in combination with other analysis methods.

4. Value chain analysis

Value chain analysis is a third competitive analysis method from Michael E. Porter. It involves looking at the cost (money, time, and human resources) of each activity involved in creating and delivering a product or service, and then comparing that against the value that customers get out of said product or service. It commonly divides the process into five types of primary activities and four types of support activities:

  • Inbound logistics (primary) – managing supplies of raw materials, unsold products, and other necessary equipment or items
  • Operations (primary) – converting raw materials into finished products
  • Outbound logistics (primary) – delivering finished products to customers
  • Marketing (primary) – creating awareness of a company’s products and services, especially to target audiences
  • Service (primary) – providing customer support and product maintenance
  • Procurement (support) – sourcing raw materials
  • R & D (support) – inventing manufacturing techniques and ways to automate processes
  • HR management (support) – hiring, training, and retaining employees who fit the company’s business strategy
  • Infrastructure (support) – managing the composition of a company’s operational systems and leadership teams

Consider your company’s value proposition – what sets you apart from your competitors – and how you can fine-tune these activities to most optimally fulfill it. Also, think about how your competitors’ value chains may be configured to support their individual business strategies.

5. BCG growth-share matrix

The BCG growth-share matrix is a business decision-making tool developed by the Boston Consulting Group. It weighs the success of a company’s products and services against the competitiveness of the overall market. Assets are grouped into four colloquial categories: “dogs” (low success, low competition), “cash cows” (high success, low competition), “stars” (high success, high competition), and “question marks” (low success, high competition).

Generally, businesses want to focus mainly on “cash cows” and “stars”. The former are reliable sources of profit because they are not only very successful, but also don’t have many alternatives. Money from them should be invested in the latter, which are also highly successful but require lots of resources to make them stand out from a large number of other competing products and services. The potential benefit, though, is that a “star” may become a “cash cow” if it remains a market leader as competition dwindles.

“Dogs” are assets that aren’t doing well in a market where competitors have already staked out most of the market share. They may be able to succeed if given different strategies, but usually are best abandoned. “Question marks” are assets that may quickly become profitable in a highly-competitive market, but will take a lot of resources to undercut established competitors. This makes the latter, along with “stars”, the best assets to concentrate competitive intelligence on to see if they are worth sustaining.

6. Scenario analysis

Scenario analysis involves estimating how a company’s financial standing may change if key factors change or critical events happen (or don’t) over a specific period of time. It is often used as a risk management technique in response to unfavorable events, in order to conceptualize and avoid a theoretical worst-case scenario.

Scenario analysis works in four steps. First, it identifies key events that could affect a company’s financial standing within the designated time period. Then it hypothesizes how likely each of those events is to happen, either independently or based on another event happening. Third, it estimates how much impact each event would have on a company if certain other events do or do not happen. Putting it all together, this type of analysis uses math and statistics principles to theorize how these various scenarios could play out. It often does so through computer simulations in order to process many of these outcomes quickly.

The important thing to remember, though, is that these outcomes are only as accurate as your assumptions on what factors are important (and to what degree), and the data you use to support those assumptions. That’s why it’s important to have thorough business intelligence (or competitive intelligence, if using this model on competitors to predict their behavior) and minimize bias when performing this type of analysis. Otherwise, your conclusions could end up being wildly inaccurate.

7. PEST analysis

PEST stands for political, economic, social, and technological. It’s an analysis framework that looks at major external factors that can affect a company’s competitiveness in the marketplace. There are also variations of PEST that cover additional factors, such as SLEPT (which adds a legal dimension), PESTLE (which also adds the environmental/ecological dimension), and STEEPLE (which additionally brings in ethics).

Political factors that might affect a company’s competitiveness include a country or region’s legislative changes to things like corporate tax and employment standards. The state of international trade relations can also greatly influence a company’s competitive power. Economic factors that can affect competition, meanwhile, include national interest rates and currency exchange rates; supply and demand for specific products and services; and a region’s level of economic growth (or lack thereof, including inflation).

Social influences on a company’s competitiveness can include demographics, lifestyle trends, and changing cultural attitudes. The importance of these factors may depend on how broad or specific a company’s target audience is. Finally, technology can influence market competition based on scientific and technological developments within a particular industry, or within society at large. Additionally, this can be affected by the degree of national government investment.

You can use PEST analysis to think about how outside disruptions and shifts may affect your business – and its competitors. This technique is especially effective when combined with methods like SWOT analysis, which lets you compare how prepared your company is to take advantage of opportunities or manage threats next to the competition.

How competitive intelligence works: how to perform competitive intelligence research

So what is the competitive intelligence research process? How do you collect data on your competitors, and formulate winning business strategies from it, without breaking the law? This section will put everything we’ve talked about so far together and show you how to build a competitive intelligence report from start to finish.

Step 1: Identify both direct and indirect competitors

Start by doing some basic market research for your competitive intelligence. Look at the products and services your company offers, as well as what demographics your target market consists of. Then look for nearby businesses that sell similar products and target the same demographics. These are your primary competitors.

It’s also good to identify your secondary and tertiary competitors. Secondary competitors are businesses that offer some of the same products or services you do, but tend to offer variations that attract customers in different demographics. Examples include luxury brands for affluent shoppers, or low-cost substitutes for those on tight budgets. You can use these types of companies to gauge where your company’s niche should be.

Tertiary competitors are businesses that don’t sell the same products or services as your company, but still attract the same types of customers. You might be able to look to them for potential partnerships, or at least as inspiration for how to outmaneuver your rivals. However, you should also keep an eye on them because if they expand their product offerings, they could turn into secondary or even primary competitors.

Our Places data and open US census data may be able to help you get started with this sort of analysis.

Step 2: Determine what data you want to collect, and for what purpose

Depending on what you (or the company shareholders) want to accomplish with your competitive intelligence research, the type of data you’ll need on your competitors might be different. For example, in many cases, marketing research plays a critical role in developing competitive intelligence. You might want to look at which products or services your competitors are really pushing, and why (maybe great customer feedback and testimonials). You might also want to see if you can find things like products or services that your competitors used to provide, but don’t anymore, and try to figure out why they discontinued them.

The point is to specifically define what you’re looking for so you can narrow down where to look for it in the next step.

Step 3: Find sources of data, and collect it

Once you’ve decided what information you want to find out about your competitors, you have to go find it. Financial data and marketing content are good places to start, but there are many other alternative sources of data you can consult. For example, SafeGraph data can give context to geospatial insights on competitor locations.

Competitors’ websites and blogs show what they’re offering, advertising, or otherwise writing about. Similarly, social media feeds hold plenty of public information regarding feedback from your competitors’ audiences about their products and services. Be sure to check your company’s own social feeds to see if people are providing feedback for your own offerings.

The actual data sources your company consults may vary, of course. Use your specific objectives from step 2 as a guide so you aren’t wasting time looking in places that don’t have relevant data.

Step 4: Analyze the data you’ve found for strengths and weaknesses

When you think you have enough information on your competitors to start drawing conclusions, it’s time to get analyzing. One thing that is helpful here is to build a competitive intelligence model (or two, or three, or more) based on your objectives from step 2. This allows you to organize the data you’ve found based on the metrics that are most relevant to your business.

For example, you may want to do a comparison of which products or services your company and its competitors have in common, and which ones you do not. Or, you may want to compare keywords and specific messaging across marketing materials. You may even want to look at what the most common compliments and complaints are across customer reviews. You can use our examples of competitive intelligence techniques as starting points as well.

Again, how you build your model (or models) depends on what your company is trying to achieve with its competitive intelligence analysis. The point, however, is that you don’t need to limit yourself to looking at the problem in just one specific way. If you’re finding it difficult to extract insights from a particular model, don’t be afraid to try a different approach.

Step 5: Transform your conclusions into action items

The last part of the process is convincing the appropriate stakeholders in your company to take action and make decisions based on the observations you’ve made. Think of this step as your chance to be a storyteller: you’re trying to communicate not just what conclusions you drew from your data analysis, but also why they matter for a particular department or the company as a whole.

How to do this effectively can differ depending on whom you’re presenting to. So if you’re not sure, ask them about the kinds of things they’re looking for. To give an example, a sales team might prefer battlecards: short summaries of key points on offerings, features, and pricing that show how your company and its products or services stack up against one or more competitors. These are useful when your salespeople only have a very brief time to impress upon potential clients why your company, product, or service is superior to the competition.

Step 6: Rinse and repeat regularly

Competitive intelligence shouldn’t be a one-time or even an every-now-and-then thing. Set a regular schedule – ideally, at least once per week – for when the company (or at least specific departments) should expect to receive competitive intelligence data. Also be sure to include historical data, insights, and trends in your reports if they’re applicable.

This helps your company avoid three key problems. First, market conditions can change quickly, so gathering competitive intelligence irregularly can cause you to overlook events that present critical opportunities or threats. Second, presenting competitive intelligence reports irregularly means that the people in your company who need them don’t know when to expect them. This increases the risk that they’ll act rashly on the information. Third, without regular updates to look back on, stakeholders won’t have the necessary context to make decisions based on observed trends and other factors.

Competitive intelligence examples to learn from

So what do market research and competitive intelligence look like in practice? We’ve explained where to get the data, how to analyze it, and how to present it in order to inspire action from the appropriate stakeholders. Now, we’re going to show off a few competitive intelligence examples so you can see what the finished data product looks like.

Global QSR market footprints

A dashboard showing the global location distribution of five popular quick-serve restaurant chains: Burger King, Domino’s Pizza, Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonald’s, and Pizza Hut. It can be filtered by country to see what brands have significant presences in a particular nation. Or it can be filtered by brand if one is planning to compete against a specific chain, which lets them see in which countries (or regions thereof) the target brand already has a large market share.

Top brands in the US

A visualization that charts the number of points of interest associated with particular brands in the US. It also contains a map outlining the POI counts of the top three most prevalent brands in each state. It can be filtered by specific industries to show the level of competition in each industry throughout the country.

Retail pharmacy brand distribution

A map that displays the store locations and proportional market share of three retail pharmacy brands – CVS, Walgreens, and Rite Aid – throughout the state of Connecticut. This has a couple of different potential competitive intelligence uses. For the pharmacy brands themselves, it could inform site selection strategies to set up in locations where competitors don’t have large presences yet. Or for brands that sell their products at pharmacies, market share in certain locations or with certain demographics could be considerations in which brands to approach first for business deals.

Retail cross-promotion opportunities

This measures foot traffic trends around retail locations in the US from March to April of 2020. That includes the number of visits, average dwell time, and average distance traveled to reach a location. These metrics are also sorted by industry.

The purpose of this is to show how patterns in foot traffic to retailers – including those in specific industries – changed over the course of a month in response to shelter-in-place orders being issued to combat the spread of COVID-19. This could be used as competitive intelligence to see which businesses thrived or struggled through COVID-19 restrictions and make decisions on cross-promotion opportunities accordingly.

Validating store counts for brands against company reporting

A discussion of how to properly attribute store opening and closure metadata for branded points of interest, then compare it against official company reporting. It tackles issues such as limiting analysis to specific countries, counting child brands as separate from their parent brands, and differentiating between stores that are closed temporarily (due to renovations, health protocols, being outside operating hours, etc.) and stores that have been permanently closed.

It’s a primer on how to use POI data as a form of competitive intelligence to gauge competitors’ business strategies. That is, you can compare a competitor’s reporting on their number of store openings and closures versus a geospatial measurement of those metrics to see if their strategy really is what it appears to be, and to what extent it’s working (or not).

Mobile network footprints

A story map examining the market share of the three biggest mobile network providers in the US – Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile – throughout 2021. The map illustrates which carrier was dominant in each census block group, and also plots the retail store locations throughout the US for each carrier. Furthermore, the map shows what percentage of visitors to each retail store were on which network, and has an accompanying graph showing how many customers on each network also visited stores for the top 10 brands in the US. 

This has several potential applications for competitive intelligence. It can be analyzed to see to what degree network adoption correlates with store locations, how competitive the mobile network market is in specific regions, and which big brand(s) a carrier might want to approach for cross-promotion opportunities. 

We hope this guide has demonstrated to you the importance of competitive intelligence and analysis for your company’s strategic decision-making, as well as taught you ways to to get the right data required for it. In fact, you can start right here with us at SafeGraph. Visit our site for samples of POI and building footprint data, along with aggregated and anonymized foot traffic and location-based transaction data, to start building on your company’s competitive intel.

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Learn more about how competitive intelligence can reveal patterns in market penetration and brand loyalty.