You may know your company inside and out, but it is much more difficult to know the moving pieces in the industry around you. By industry knowledge, we don’t necessarily mean well-worn metrics like annual forecast demand or largest buyers, though these are important. Rather, we’re referring to a deeper knowledge of the market’s ins and outs: current and future players, underlying trends, weaknesses, and possible disruption points. While it may seem like a lot of work to stay up-to-date on market forces and your competitors, it’s definitely worthwhile to maintain a macro-level perspective of business activity occurring around you and your company.
What Are People Talking About?
Search engines and similar internet tools are an obvious resource for learning about competitors and potential future disruptors, but you can do more than just search. Use features like Google Alerts to notify you when your competition’s name is mentioned in the news, or even when your industry gets noticed. Spend time keeping up with aggregated search-based trends as well, which can give you a picture of what currently matters to people at little to no cost. There are also websites that can tell you what keywords and Google AdWords are being bought by your competition. Knowing what’s important to other players in the market is one data point that’ll help you decide what is important to you.
Supplier and Partner Intelligence
Want even more information? Don’t overlook the great resource you have in suppliers. This may not work for all industries, but it can be very beneficial when it does. Suppliers often won’t answer questions about your competition – nor should they – but if you ask the right questions you can get some helpful answers regarding trends and trajectories.
A very high-level example: if you manufacture a product in a competitive space, you could ask your supplier how much of a certain part is ordered this time of year, or ask what they are selling the most of and what products are being pre-ordered. Much of this can be learned in due diligence with your procurement process as you shop around for suppliers anyway. Use supplier information to your advantage, and keep in mind that if they are publicly traded then there may be a lot of usable intelligence in their investor relations materials (e.g., an aluminum company starting a joint venture to make aluminum through an ecofriendly process presages a large purchase of aluminum for high-end consumer electronic goods). You can also question suppliers and partners about where they send their product. Questions such as, ‘Do you ship a lot out of state?’ or ‘Do you find you sell a lot of X product to X demographic area?’
Competitor Hiring Trends
Another thing to pay attention to regarding competitors is their hiring trends. If they are suddenly hiring many people, you want to know why. For example, what positions are they filling, sales people or production? If they are filling sales positions, they are likely to be kicking off a marketing campaign soon. If they are hiring in production, then they have successfully sold and need more people to fill orders. Analyze their hiring behavior.
And, look through their job descriptions. This is particularly helpful with IT-related positions. Companies will often list software and technologies that a job candidate must be familiar with. This will let you know what kind of technology your competition is leveraging and give you better insights into their value chain.
Wargaming to Understand Competitors
Whether good or bad, your company is not an island with a captive audience. In most markets your customers have at least one alternative choice. With this being the case, they have other companies targeting them. On top of that competitive pressure, your existing customers have new and evolving needs to address – they are rarely a source of fixed revenue (and even when they are over a certain amount of time due to contractual requirements, that does not mean that they will be at the end of the contracting period).
To keep and stay relevant to your customers, you need to have your finger on the pulse of your market. Even though it is a common approach (perhaps the most common that we see with our clients) relying chiefly on your sales history to understand your market and industry leaves you significantly exposed to a number of potential and external threats. One approach that we take with our clients is called Wargaming, where we allow them to play the role of their competitors and think strategically about the market, their competitors next moves, their own next moves, and the full chain of reactions and counteractions over a 5 to 10 year period. Questions that we have them ask in this context help them drill down into how their competitors think about their organization, the broader market, and the economy as a whole.
Michele is Aspirant's Director of Marketing & Innovation, and is a senior marketer and facilitator with 25 years of extensive experience in brand management, strategy development, Design Thinking, and innovation. She works with various corporations and non-profit businesses as a consultant to help them grow their business through strong strategy, marketing plans, and skills development. She has worked with companies in the Fortune 100 and Global 1000 as well as mid-sized companies in a range of industries, with a focus on healthcare.