Product Management

4 min read

How to Ace Competitive Analysis

Constantly comparing yourself to your peers might be silly when you're in high school, but in the work world, it's a different story. Keeping tabs on the competition in business isn’t a petty affair. Your company’s ability to know what other players in your market are up to is essential to hold onto your current customers and achieve the growth your stakeholders are counting on.What your competitors are up to touches your business across the spectrum:

  • It can drive your roadmap to add new items or shift prioritization to “keep up”
  • It can influence which strategic partners you engage with to remain on par with your peers
  • It can alter your messaging, from updating talking points to remain accurate to inspiring new value propositions to flesh out
  • It can impact your packaging, promotions and pricing (both up and down)
  • It can shake up your sales pipeline: a key prospect comes off the board when they sign with a competitor, or a new sector starts showing interest in your field, opening up a new sales vertical
  • It can cause your valuation to skyrocket (or your follow-on investments to dry up) when a peer takes on a new round or starts to crash and burn

Who owns it?

Because your competitions’ actions can involved so many aspects of your company’s tactics and strategies, it can be difficult to figure out who should “own” competitive analysis. In some ways it’s EVERYONE’s job, but it’s not a great plan to have multiple departments duplicating work.Product management is one logical landing place for competitive analysis, as they “own” the product and therefore should be optimizing it to be as competitive as possible in the marketplace. Product marketing is another obvious home for this activity, since they’re external facing and are constantly working on how to position your solution as attractively as possible, including how it stacks up against the alternatives.Either area should be fine, but competitive analysis definitely does not belong on the plate of your sales organization. While they might be an excellent source of information (based on what they’re hearing from prospects on sales calls), their focus on the hunt and closing deals doesn’t really align with thinking strategically and they may not recognize larger trends or asynchronous competitive forces.And if you’re not sure who should be considered a competitor, it’s anyone who could take your potential business, even if it’s an alternative replacement vs. a pure substitute. While you and IBM may not be competitors, if one of their services is a viable option for customers instead of buying what you’re selling, then it’s worth keeping track of.

Where does it come from?

While decades ago most of your competitive intelligence might have come from reading the paper or chatting folks up at happy hour, there’s now a plethora of sources that can unearth nuggets of useful intel.While traditional news sources (or their digital equivalents) are still a great source for data, there are a whole lot of other methods to learn about what your rivals are up to. If they’ve got a blog or a newsletter, subscribe to it. If they tweet or Facebook or YouTube or post on Instagram, you want to be following those outlets as well. And if you’re concerned about exposing your identity, make yourself a new, random email address for sign-ups.But beyond catching everything that your competitors WANT to broadcast, there’s all the other stuff out there they may or may not be bragging about. On social media, that means running searches and setting alerts for the company names and product names that you care about, which is where you’ll hear from customers both praising and complaining, shedding light on where those products may have issues, where they’re excelling and who’s actually using them. You can also set up Google news alerts to make sure you don’t miss any articles or press releases where they’re mentioned.Aside from digital sources, there’s also your human investigative arm. Getting trade show attendees to report back on what they’re seeing in the exhibit hall and hearing on the concourse should be part of your firm’s standard operating procedure, as should salespeople reporting back on what they experienced during customer calls and visits. As these people are hearing about what your potential customers are experiencing with your competitor products - and sometimes even demonstrating for comparison purposes - it’s an invaluable ingredient in painting a complete picture of what your competition is doing.

It’s all about sharing

Competitive intelligence is only valuable when the people who can do something with it are properly (and promptly) informed, which is why its findings shouldn’t be hoarded for months and then unveiled in a grand presentation. Instead, there needs to be a steady, consistent and predictable flow of information to stakeholders and individual contributors that will benefit from it.While there are obviously exceptions to the rule (“Google just bought Competitor X” or “Competitor Y just signed Amazon as a customer”), most competitive intelligence isn’t urgent and can instead be aggregated and distributed on a regular basis. A weekly competitive intelligence update is usually more than sufficient, ensuring that news doesn’t pile up but also giving you time to provide a little context along with the headline.Providing a regularly scheduled competitive analysis bulletin also ensure you have everyone’s attention. A one-off email with a link to TechCrunch on a Tuesday afternoon can easily get lost in the shuffle, while a dedicated communication gives your intel a fighting chance to be consumed by people when they’re actually paying attention.If you’re included in regular executive team meetings, including a competitive intelligence briefing as part of your regular presentation is a great habit. Otherwise, a well-formatted email update can also do the trick. Try to stick with a consistent format that highlights customer deals, features and functionality, strategic partnerships and impressions/anecdotes separately. Remember, context is also crucial. “CI is a perspective on changing market conditions. This means identifying risks and opportunities early enough to allow the company to adapt its strategy or in extreme cases, change it,” says Benjamin Gilad of the Academy of Competitive Intelligence. “Information alone is not a perspective on change — information does not automatically lead to insight.”So don’t just parrot the headlines or throw out an anecdote from a sales call; pair it with actual analysis and an action item, even if that action item is that more investigation is required before a recommendation can be made. And don’t forget, those action items shouldn’t always be for yourself. This is your chance to assign homework to other teams when it makes sense for them to delve further into what you’ve learned, validate it with a customer or relay it to a salesperson.

The CI baseline for product managers

Beyond keeping track of what’s new, every product manager should have the following items within arms reach on all of their direct competitors:

  • Product name(s)/packages/bundles
  • Features
  • Integrations
  • Pricing
  • Marquee customers

An up-to-date matrix with this info for the key players who always come up (and new ones that show up on the scene) lets you quickly answer questions and keep your sales team educated so they can answer basic questions if they come up during a sales call.Remember that competitive intelligence is no replacement for innovation, execution and aggressive pricing, but it’s an essential part of understanding your solution’s standing in the market. After all, it’s not just about doing a great job, but doing a better job than the other guys.