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13 min read

Writing a competitive news briefing that helps everyone keep their cool

Membership content | Competitive Intelligence | Product Marketing Strategy

This presentation was delivered by Alex McDonnell, Market, and Competitive Intelligence Lead at Airtable at the Competitive Intelligence Summit, 2022. Catch up with a variety of talks with our OnDemand service.

Hey! I’m Alex McDonnell from Airtable, speaking to you from Toronto, Canada.

You’re here because you’re the go-to person at your organization for all things competition, or you soon will be. When a competitor drops some major news about say a new product launch or a major acquisition, that’s your time to shine and help the organization make some sense of it.

But it's not always so easy. Sometimes competitive news can cause panic. Other times it gets dismissed completely. How do we navigate that? How can we help our organizations process competitive news while keeping their cool?

I'm gonna do my best to give you the tools to do just that. You're gonna learn from all the mistakes that I've made running three in-house competitive intel functions over the last nine years.

In this article, I’ll specifically be focusing on:

You know you have a problem when…

… you recognize the chat below. Whether it's on Slack, Teams, or whatever chat channels you use at work, somebody drops a link to some competitor news with a message like, “Have we seen this?” or “Did we catch this?” and you get extreme reactions one way or the other.

A pretend Slack conversation between three co-workers. The first from someone called Skyler who has sent a link with the caption "Have we seen this?", then a reply which is competitor dismissive from Finley that says "Whatever, this is going to suck!" and then a competitor obsessed response that says "This is not good news, thats our main differentiator right now... I'm freaking out!" This interaction is labelled the "Link and stink".

You might see competitor-dismissive reactions, where your colleagues aren’t paying enough attention to what the competitor is doing or thinking about how we might be able to learn. That sounds like, “Who cares?! That product’s gonna suck!”

Alternatively, you might see competitor-obsessed reactions, where they panic about every little thing without putting any of it into context. “This is not good news! They're closing in on our differentiators. I'm totally freaking out!”

Just dropping the link to some competitor news, with no context or no takeaways, creates these extreme reactions. This isn’t constructive and doesn’t help anybody. That's why we call it “the link and stink”.

I've been there. It still happens – people post the link to something that they've just seen, and an emotional reaction ensues. It's on us as competitive intelligence pros to help the organization make sense of this news in a more constructive way.

Crucial competitive intelligence principles

To help us on our mission to eliminate the link and stink, I want to offer a few helpful CI principles that I've had to learn the hard way.

#1: It’s not important whether you were the first one to share the news

Shout-out to Jason Oakley from Klue for this one. He put out a LinkedIn post explaining that it doesn’t matter if you’re the first one to share competitive news. The important thing is that you can help make sense of it.

Sure, it feels nice if you're the one to say, “Hey, we just picked up this news and the full briefing is coming.” It makes you feel like you're on the pulse of market changes, but you should take it as good news in its own right if somebody else is paying attention to the competitive environment and they’re the first to share.

If they're sharing it in a panicky or flippant way, we want to steer the conversation in a more constructive direction. But don't dwell on this, and don't beat yourself up if you don’t get there first.

#2: Make no tradeoff between honesty and confidence

Our goal in writing crispy competitive news briefings is to make no tradeoff between honesty and confidence.

If there's tough news about a competitor running up one of their strengths or closing a key weakness, we have to face those facts. We can't gloss over hard truths if we're to get to a shared understanding of our competitive landscape.

At the same time, it can't be dark clouds and thunderstorms every time the organization hears from competitive intel.

Part of our job is to conclude our analysis with a confident point of view about how we're going to navigate our way through this. Maybe this news validates some things that we were already doing; maybe it exposes new opportunities for us.

I'm not saying that you should be positive for the sake of being positive. I'm saying our job is to face up to hard facts and end up in a place where we feel confident that we've got the right strategy and programs to compete and win.

#3: Be careful about making judgments based on your own product experience

In today’s world of product-led growth, people are quick to try competitor products themselves and make judgments about them, but you need to tread carefully here.

My rationale isn’t what you might think. I don’t advise against this only because it’s unethical (although the recent $2 billion – with a B! – in damages that Appian won from Pegasystems over some unethical CI might serve as an important lesson in being careful with our competitive research tactics). I have a different reason for this, entirely.

If I'm going to use a competitor's product and make judgments about it, I need to be extremely careful. This is because I'm not the target customer, nor am I an ordinary user.

Because I'm somebody that thinks about this product category all day, I could pick up on trivial things, that might represent hours saved for a new user of this product category. Conversely, things that seem novel to me might be irrelevant, overkill, and hard to understand for a user that's coming to this category or product for the first time.

The operating principle (which if you follow me or you've taken my course you've probably heard a lot about) is ‘customer-obsessed, competitor-aware’. Part of being customer-obsessed is not rushing to make judgments without putting the customer's experience and perspective at the very center.

It's okay if you want to investigate competitor products to round out your understanding. However, make sure you take a step back, listen to how customers are responding, and maybe look at how the competitor’s community is responding - especially for new products. Put more weight on those signals than on your own experience of toying around with a product that isn’t designed for you.

You might be thinking, “Well, I'm a product marketer, and we sell a product to marketers!” or “I'm a researcher, and we sell products to researchers!” I still don't buy it. You're someone who thinks about that product category all day long. That's the key issue, so just be careful.

Tune in to the second episode of Meet the Masters: The Product Marketing Podcast, where Alex McDonnell speaks with host Charley Gale about how to communicate findings to your team to get a proactive response, the ethics and legalities of CI, Alex's biggest CI success, and more.

Breaking news! Your action plan

Imagine you're using a competitive intel tracking platform, and it catches some big competitor news.

We're gonna take a tour through the steps you can take in less than a business day to create that real crispy competitive news briefing that’s going to help everybody keep their cool and make sense of this competitive news in a constructive way.

Step one: Acknowledge the news

First, acknowledge the news on your competitive intel channel with a message like, “Hey, we're working on a full briefing, but here's what we initially noticed, and here are some of the questions we have. If you have any thoughts on this, please comment below.” Keep it all out in the open.

Step two: Do some digging

Then, we can do a little digging. If we can pick up customer signals in reaction to the launch, we're going to want to put more emphasis on those than any judgments that we might make as the competitor. As I said, our judgments are going to be biased.

Look at social media. Maybe there are posts in the competitor’s go-to community. Look out for new help articles too and any questions on those. Customers might be asking about the limitations of the new product, and you can work those into your briefing. Any customer signal we can pick up in the early moments after launch is precious.

Step three: Write your first draft

Next, we've got to do some synthesis and distill all the information we're collecting into a first draft. Really do think of it as a first draft – it's going to be messy, incomplete, and not quite right.

These are the guiding questions that I keep in mind when I'm writing the draft for a competitive news briefing:

  • What might this mean for customers? Is there a new functionality or a simplified functionality? If it's an add-on product, is it going to complicate the way that customers deal with our competitor? There are all kinds of things that a new product launch or acquisition might mean for customers.
  • What might this mean for our positioning and messaging? Does this sound similar or different from what we're saying? If so, we can tweak our competitive messaging pretty quickly, although we may need to do some training and enablement to make it stick.
  • What might this mean for our roadmap and strategy? This takes a longer-term view. We need to think about whether this is going to impact the product investments and bets we're making.
  • What does this tell us about our competitor’s strategy? If you have a competitive intel tracking tool, go back into the archives, look at past briefings, and think about the overall strategy of that competitor. Does this recent move represent a change of direction?

The answers to these questions are going to help you add some much-needed context to your briefing and avoid the dreaded “link and stink.”

Step four: Meet with a small group of collaborators

Next, you want to turn to a trusted group of collaborators and share your first draft. You might want to have a meeting to discuss it and get their feedback before you share your briefing with the rest of the organization. You’re not looking for a chain of approvals. You just want their feedback and to get different perspectives before you take your briefing to a broader audience.

This is a lesson that I learned the hard way. In past CI roles, I was keen to be the first one to break the news, so I'd just get the briefing out there without running it by anyone. My interpretation of what the news might mean for us was usually way off.

It's not bad to have a point of view and then be proven wrong, but if I had just started with a smaller group, we could have had a much smoother journey to the right conclusion.

Who you want to include in this group can depend on the type of news you’re breaking. If it's a new product launch, I might go to a product manager who has been thinking about that area of the product or the problem space. I might also go to a product marketer who has been developing our story as it relates to that area or that problem space.

Maybe there's an executive whose two cents I would like to get on what the competitor is trying to achieve as a business. I might also bring in a seller and a solution engineer. The aim is to get a diverse but fairly small set of perspectives.

Step five: Publish the briefing as a living document

Finally, let's get this thing out in the open. Once you’ve worked on the questions and feedback from your group of collaborators, you can publish your briefing as a living document and encourage further comments and feedback from your wider audience.

One of my favorite things to do, and it's such a simple little tactic, is to shout out all the people that helped me come to that more refined point of view.

Shout out the Product Manager who gave you this insight about how we're thinking about the problem a little differently than the competitor. Shout out the Sales Rep who helped you think through how customers might respond to this. Thank all those collaborators and include their quotes in the final document.

The ultimate format of the briefing is pretty simple. I usually include a TL;DR – no more than one or two sentences about what this is and why it matters in the most summarized form possible. That's easiest to write last.

Go through all the details, take an hour away from it, then come back and ask yourself what crucial insight you need people to understand. After the TL;DR, I share what the competitor announced, keeping it as plain and non-judgmental as possible.

A title that says "Distill to a simple format" and then writing then says "TLDR", "What they announced", "What matters for customers?" and "What matters for us?"

Then I get judgmental. The next section is about what matters for customers, and if there are any oversights or limitations in this solution, I call them out here. The last section is about what matters to us. In there, I cover how this announcement might collide with either our story or our strategy.

Common takeaways

I've now written enough of these briefings that some of them are starting to sound very familiar. Let’s have a look at some of the patterns that have emerged among the takeaways from these briefings.

The competitor is now doing something we already did…

If the news is that a competitor is launching a capability or product similar to one of ours, the takeaway might be that this validates our approach. This is a signal from our competitor that this is indeed an important customer problem to solve. We’ve known this for years, and it seems like they’re catching up.

It might feel like one of our differentiators has now been closed, but that’s okay because we're already onto the next thing that will differentiate us. You might want to cite your friends from product about what that next thing is.

A title which says "Common takeaways I've seen" then two columns and three rows of writing, that says "Competitor is now doing something we already did" which leads to "this validates our approach... they're catching up... we're on to the next thing." The next row says "competitor is now doing something we don't do, and don't plan to do" which leads to "they're going in a different direction... we don't think that's the most important customer problem to solve." and the third row that says "competitor is now doing something we don't do, but we plan to do" which leads to "we'll watch this rollout and learn from any missteps ... our existing differentiation remains strong..."

The competitor is now doing something we don’t do and don’t plan to do…

Another common type of news is that a competitor is doing something that we don't do and we have no plans to do in the immediate future. The takeaway here is that they’re going in a different direction and focusing on something that we think is not the most important customer problem to solve.

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The onus is now on us to articulate to customers why we think the problem we're focusing on is more important. Sure, the competitor has added these new capabilities that are different from what we do, but that doesn't mean it's the right solution for the customer.

Maybe, if your strategies diverge enough, you’ll start to see customers using both of your tools. They might use you for the part that you're really good at, and the company that you thought was a competitor for this new capability that’s a little bit divergent from yours.

The competitor is now doing something that we’ve been planning to do

The third type of news is that a competitor is doing something that we don't do but we do plan to do. This one is tricky. It can sometimes induce panic because we had a vision of adding this product capability in the near future and they got there first.

A constructive way to break this news is to say yes, we're working on something similar, but we're going to watch their rollout, listen for what customers find limiting, missing, or incomplete, and learn from any missteps; that way, we can be a fast follower.

In some markets, the first-mover advantage matters a lot. Being the first one to acquire users in a new space can give you a great head start, but it’s quite costly and risky because no one's jumped into that pool yet. If you're the second one in, you can watch what the first person did, learn from it, swim a little faster, and potentially overtake them. That’s what it means to be a fast follower.

Your takeaway from this news can be that your differentiation remains strong and here's the updated battle card that’s going to help your company continue to stand out.

Your cool and crispy briefing

Returning to the CI Slack channel, let’s look at a more constructive way to talk about competitor news than the old link and stink.

As the CI person, you can just send a little message like, “Hey, here’s our briefing on [competitor]’s latest launch.” Then, drop the link to your briefing document and give your TL;DR – maybe something like, “They’re addressing one of their weaknesses, but we still have strong differentiators. Oh, and battle cards have been updated. Here's the link to those.”

Clean. Crispy. Everybody keeps their cool.

You'll know you're on the right track if the response is less like those obsessive or dismissive responses we saw earlier and sounds more like, “This is really interesting and timely. The product team is about to start some research in this area, so we’ll see if this comes up. Thanks!”

Another pretend Slack conversation between the same 3 people, but a redo of the first image had they had the information on how to create a supportive competitive news briefing. Skyler says "Hey team, here's our briefing on Zenforce's latest launch. TLDR: They're addressing one of their major weaknesses. But our core differentiation remains strong. (Battlecards updated.)" Then Finley says "Super interesting - we're about to start user research in this area, so we'll see if this comes up. Thanks!" and Charlie says "Just what I needed, I'm competing against them this afternoon."

Or maybe someone in a customer-facing role says, “I'm competing against them in a customer conversation this afternoon. I’d seen the press release but wasn't sure how to respond. Perfect timing! Now I've got the battle card and I'm good to go.”

These are the kinds of constructive conversations we can have if we just take a little time to process competitor news and share it in a way that's practical and useful for your organization.

How to improve competitive intelligence briefings

I’m running a course with Product Marketing Alliance called Competitive Intelligence Certified, in which there’s a whole module dedicated to competitive news briefings.

The course covers all things competitive intel, including:

  • Win-loss analysis
  • Setting up the listening stack
  • Bringing CI to sales and customer success
  • CI for product, design, and engineering
  • CI for executives

… and much more.

This course is the summation of everything I've learned over nine years of doing competitive intel. It’s going to show you how to become the go-to person for all things competition in your organization.

Join me and enroll today

Written by:

Alex McDonnell

Alex McDonnell

Alex McDonnell is the Market and Competitive Intelligence Lead at Airtable.

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Writing a competitive news briefing that helps everyone keep their cool