Social media: The pathway toward gaining competitive intelligence

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Do smart b-to-b marketers use every available source of information to learn about developments in their competitive spaces? Not necessarily, according to a recent Hoover's poll gauging our audience's use of social media for gathering competitive intelligence.

The poll—which surveyed 314 marketers online in May—asked a simple question: “Does your business use social media for competitive intelligence?” It was heartening to learn that 33% of the more than 300 respondents chose the answer “Yes, we find valuable competitive information this way.” These pros grasp that people who care about their industries use blogs, Twitter, forums and other social media to talk about their companies, their competitors and the entire competitive space.

However, 21% of those polled answered, “We use social media, but not for competitive intelligence.” They're missing that boat—but not by much. If they already use social media for marketing, customer support and the like, they'll have an easy time setting up simple tools to deepen their understanding of their competitive space.

That opportunity only gets bigger for the additional 21% who said they didn't use social media at all.

Even though the ROI of social media is sometimes tricky to measure, with each passing day more companies, including savvy b-to-b companies, are building better connections with customers and prospects through social media channels. Those just venturing into the social media sphere can build parallel processes for gathering competitive intelligence right from the start. In fact, it makes perfect sense to do so, since many of the best thinkers in social media say that the first thing a company should do with social media is to listen.

Good marketers, of course, above all listen to prospects and customers, but it's easy to improve your company's ability to listen to all the players in your competitive space, including your rivals and their customers, vendors, regulators, analysts, journalists, bloggers and other mavens who influence decisions.

Most worrisome are the last 25% of respondents in our survey. These folks answered our question about competitive intelligence with this response: “What is competitive intelligence?”

My hope is that they actually do monitor their industries but simply don't call that process “competitive intelligence.” Some of them may also be small-business owners who are so in tune with their locality or niche that they don't think of CI as a separate function. At least, I hope that explains it, because the alternative—that companies are simply ignoring the competitive arenas in which they operate—is frightening.

I got a similar fright earlier this year when I made a presentation on social media to a group of competitive-intelligence professionals. The average IQ and level of experience in the room were sky-high; but it was amazing how little most of these industry veterans had even experimented with social media tools, much less used them formally.

Are you in the same boat?

B-to-b marketers have a distinct advantage when it comes to social media, whether we're using it to gather competitive intelligence or for prospecting. Since we typically deal with competitive spaces that are much smaller than the ones large retailers play in, we can carefully track the right audience of hundreds or thousands of prospects, rather than trying to keep up with millions.

You can start the process with the simplest of free tools—saved searches from Google and Twitter Search that feed automatically into an RSS reader such as Google Reader. If you've resisted getting on the RSS train before, it's time to hop on board. The technology takes maybe 20 minutes to learn, but it saves you so much time afterward that you won't know how you lived without it.

Some of the social platforms, like LinkedIn, don't work with RSS, but you can get around that by saving a list of industry-relevant searches in a text file and then using cut-and-paste to work through your list quickly during research sessions. Day in and day out, this setup will bring you vital information from both the “regular” Web and from the social media sphere, and this intelligence will clue you in to new prospects, new marketplace developments and even emerging competitive threats.

Give this method 20 minutes a day and you'll be amazed at what you learn from the conversations people have in the social media about your company, your competitors and your market. (At some point, you may also want to consider such heavy-duty social media monitoring services as Radian6 or Crimson Hexagon.)

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