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7 min read

Gathering and staying on top of competitor intel

Competitive Intelligence | Interviews | Sales Enablement | Growth

In the very first of our Ask Me Anythings (AMAs), IBM’s VP of Product Marketing, Priya Doty, took to the stage to answer tonnes of questions around gathering and staying on top of competitor intel - here’s the lowdown.  

Want to get your own question answered? It’s too late to ask Priya, we’re afraid, but we’ve got plenty more opportunities coming up. Check them out here.

Q: I often find that competitor intel comes in as little breadcrumbs from the people in the field, dropped here and there throughout our dispersed organization. What's your best advice or tools you love to keep a pulse on all of it and collecting it in one place?

A: This is so true! It's the signal vs. noise problem. Having a shared location to gather the intel is good - a Slack thread or a shared folder, for example. It's important to try to categorize what you're hearing by topic too, and from what type of customer (prospect, size of prospect, existing customer, competitive bid, etc.) so that the data over time can form useful information.

Q: In your experience, what's the most effective way to gather competitive intelligence if you don't have the budget or dedicated tools?

A: I love this question because it’s so right, competitive intel can become a super expensive and time-consuming process. It totally depends on how many resources you have to throw at it, but the fastest path to me is first and foremost understand your competitor's motivations and strategy. Pick 1-2 competitors, learn what they are saying to their investors in investor relations, their customers through press releases, and what is happening in paid messaging (things like paid media, paid search and events where time and investment is made in getting the messaging right). Chances are, if you dig into what they are saying in these places, you'll get a very good idea of their strategy and how to counter it. At its heart, competitive intel is a strategic exercise.

Q: Competitive intelligence often comes from Field Sales. What (practical-tactical) advice could you give a Product Marketer on how best to engage sales for consistent feedback, and how to get Field Sales comfortable with asking their customers (often uncomfortable) questions around competitive solutions?

A: So the best practice for absolute true feedback is to conduct win-loss interviews through a third-party (not your sellers) on a regular basis. Especially those loss interviews, because few sellers want to dwell on their failures and you may also be dealing with a buying circle (multiple people making a buying decision) where multiple people make a call. As product marketers, we are often wanting to hear that it's some specific product feature or message or price that didn't close the deal, but the reality is that most deals are lost for other reasons. A lot of times it comes down to things like:

1. Status quo bias (not wanting to change from the existing path).

2. No decision at all (too many choices led the consumer to not choose at all, or perhaps it wasn't a priority in their minds),

3. Politics/preference - no matter what data-driven information is shared, the decision was already cemented in the buyer's mind.

If I could go on a tangent, one of the best ways to think about how to manage your losses is to think about politics. Who are your persuadables or swing voters? Those are the people you want to reach and those are the messages you really want to craft.

Q: In your experience what are the three key pieces of information most important when gathering competitive intel?

A: The three things you want to know are:

1. What is my competitor's strategy?

2. What have they already done to effect that strategy that’s visible in product announcements, marketing messages, acquisitions, statements, etc.?

3. Where might they head next if they were continuing that strategy, and how might I get ahead of it?

Q: Which business areas do you share your findings with? And how?

A: For product marketing, findings are shared internally with groups whom we work with the most: sales, product, and other marketers.

But don't forget customers!! Yes, customers are THE audience to share competitive with through comparison sheets, bake-offs, competitive case win stories and more. Obviously you've got to sanitize what goes out externally - i.e. make sure it’s defensible and ownable - and that it fits your brand position and appetite for risk. Challenger brands? They are all about taking on the big guys!

Q: How much do you automate the process? And would you recommend automation over manual?

A: Automation and the analytics which comes with it, particularly for data that’s easily accessible and digitized - think social media, websites, search, is a smart way to go. One great way I've used automation tools before is to help understand "Okay, when your competitor said this thing, how effective were they at creating a social and media conversation that might steal away share of voice?" That's where an automated tool can really help bring insights into the picture. Was my competitor successful in creating any traction with my target audience? That's what I wanted to know.

Q: Considering IBM is a huge organization, I'm curious to know how you measure the effectiveness of the competitive intel collateral that you share with the GTM folks? How do PMMs collect feedback from the sales teams? And what's your internal communication strategy?

A: For the most part, materials are distributed via a central website and repository and individuals can subscribe to topic channels of interest and choose frequency of communication. As with any "service" to other users, customer satisfaction of materials is what is important  - are internal customers finding value?

Now regarding your question of how to collect feedback from sales teams. #ASK. Join their calls or set-up your own call and ask them questions about what's working or not working in their market. Focus on where the pipeline challenges are and see if you can drill into the questions from that perspective. Another aspect of feedback is win-loss.

Q: How often do you gather market data (refresh and big overhauls)? What are your go-to-market reports (specifically for products/services vs. SaaS)?

A: A goal is 1x yearly update of your top 1-2 competitors and then periodic (maybe monthly or quarterly) updates of what is happening in the market. Competitive data can become quite voluminous and time-consuming, and if you aren't careful sending out flash reports or reviews can begin to feel rather academic. A lunch and learn session every couple of months probably goes much further than email clutter.

Really, the important thing to challenge yourself with is "What should I be doing with this data?" So when you think about how to be actionable with all that data and go-to-market reports that matter for a product marketer, two things come to mind.

1. Offense: What should your sellers need to know about upcoming product announcements, marketing messages that make your stuff way more competitive? Perhaps it's claims, or a customer you've signed that you stole away from your competition, or a capability you offer that your competitors don't. Always differentiate!

2. Defense: At some point, your competitors are going to say things or create gaps in the market that they can fill. So when you see those gaps, as a product marketer, seek to arm your sellers to defend themselves.

Q: Compare and contrast the sharing of competitive intel across different teams and audiences: Sales, Marketing and Product.  What will Sales care about that is unique? What will Marketing care about that is unique? Product? Aside from the 'what they care about', are there different delivery methods depending on the team?

A: Sales: What can you do to help me sell in the next three months? Here's a real-life example. Let's say there's a new regulation coming out like GDPR or the ACA. What can you do to educate your sellers on this market change and how to take advantage of it? Sometimes competitive is actually a reaction to a market change.

Marketing: What marketing message gaps exist that my competitors are filling OR worse,  creating? I have to say this one is rarely about product features (my product does X and they do Y). It's more like existential crises and paradigm shifts. Market making, where a competitor is spinning a new story that I'm not even aware of.

Product: What competitive strategy and platform decisions are being made by competitors that will be difficult to catch-up with in the long term? For example, if a competitor makes a platform decision that will give them an 18-month advantage, that's what I want to know about.

Delivery methods?

  • Sales - short & sweet.
  • Marketing - lunch & learns.
  • Product - have a competitive expert join their design session.

Q: How do you deliver competitive information and objection handling material to your sales teams? I'm interested in learning about process, templates and tools that your teams use.

A: The most common templates are a sales battlecard and a sales objection handling script. The value a product marketer can bring here is that many times, you'll need to help sales respond to situations that have not yet been resolved by your product teams. For example, a competitor comes out with something before your product can catch up. How do you frame it? It's not acceptable to wait six months until the new product comes out to have that conversation. So I would encourage you to not just fill out a template battlecard, but really think about 2-3 counter-frames that can help your sellers, that net down the key points quickly and are written down in an objection handling script, for the tough conversations they might be having out in the field. Sometimes, as with many things, less is more.

Q: Who owns competitor intel at IBM?

A: Market research owns it. It's everyone's job to be aware of what competitors are doing and be accountable to read the market research and understand how it affects their area.

Q: IBM is a huge organisation, so I’m keen to learn which business areas you share your findings with? And how?

A: Competitive is shared with every function. Sales, marketing, offering management, engineering, R&D, HR, Finance and more. I don't think that's unique to IBM. Every function these days is benchmarking itself to other competitors. It's just a part of business.

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Written by:

Richard King

Richard King

Founder, Product Marketing Alliance

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Gathering and staying on top of competitor intel