Creating a Competitive Intelligence Practice in a Nascent Product Marketing Team

Competitive intelligence is a core part of any Product Marketing operation. For example, you can’t write a product positioning statement without explaining how your product is different to alternatives.

Larger organizations have specialists or entire teams dedicated to competitive intelligence, with cool names like “Competitive Intelligence and Analysis (CIA).” How do you handle competitive intelligence when you don’t have the people to dedicate even a single specialist?

Understand that competitive intelligence is happening in your company even if nobody has formalized it as a practice. Similar to product marketing’s positioning statements, other teams are collecting information or reacting to competitors as part of their work:

  • Your product team is assessing features and capabilities of competitors in building their own features.
  • Your sales reps are having to explain to their prospects why they need your product in addition to potential alternatives the prospect may already own.
  • Your field engineers are conducting proofs of concept and benchmarking against competitors.
  • Your sales executives and sales ops teams are having to forecast sales pipelines with competition in mind, as well as negotiate pricing and contract concessions when faced with competitive pressure.

Without a competitive intelligence practice in place, many of these individual efforts become one-off projects, and the opportunity to glean wisdom is lost. Your company doesn’t learn how to compete better.

An early CI practice you can build is essentially a crowd sourcing and curation process between all these teams. Here are 6 steps to develop such a practice.

Step #1 – Agree on a Curation and Reporting Strategy

“Eisen @ Schloss Stainz” by Universalmuseum Joanneum is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Normally I advise that the product marketing team should be the curation point for all competitive work and feedback. This can be a single person on the team (or if you are the single person). If a project comes up that any of the previously mentioned teams work on, your CI curator ideally is consulted as the project begins, and time allowing they might participate. Most importantly, the CI Curator should receive and review any deliverables.

Second, there needs to be clear responsibility for reporting competitive contacts. At a minimum, this should be your sales teams reporting whenever they hear about a competitor’s presence or evaluation in their account. Ideally this presence is recorded in your CRM system, such as Salesforce.com. You may need fields both for direct competition for opportunities, and an “ecosystem landscape”. For new, unique, or competitive situations they are unfamiliar with, sales teams should also report to the CI Curator to provide feedback, and for potential assistance.

Step #2 – Define Your Competitive Domain

Think of this as the universe of alternatives that your sales teams will encounter whether they are direct competitors, indirect competitors, or adjacent solutions that a confused customer won’t know the difference. This domain is the list of all competitors your CI discipline needs to track, and should also mirror the data choices that your sales teams should be reporting into the CRM system.

Obviously your curation efforts will be focused on more frequently seen competitors. This domain should include alternatives that your product can replace, alternatives that can replace your product, and adjacent products your product can work along side or interoperate with. Expect this domain to shift over time as new products enter the market, and as your product begins to serves additional markets.

Step #3 – Define Your Range of Competitive Deliverables

“machinist tools DSC_1710” by el cajon yacht club is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Determine the kinds of deliverables your CI operation will be curating, who should be responsible for creating these, and the priority by which they be created. More curation and development effort should be focused more frequently seen competitors, particularly if these competitors represent large threats or sources of sales opportunities.

Here’s my shortlist of typical CI deliverables, their source, and prioritization:

DeliverableProducerPriority
Sales Enablement contentProduct MarketingAs needed with other sales enablement deliverables
Sales Rep Battle cards per competitorProduct MarketingPrioritize most frequent, biggest threats and opportunities
RFP / RFQ answersProduct Marketing or FEsAs needed
Feature comparisonsProduct team or FEsAs needed, or as can be poached
TCO comparisonsProduct team or FEsAs needed, or as can be poached
Technical FUD & antidotesProduct and FEsAs needed, or as found
Bake-off tacticsProduct team and FEsAs needed
Anti-competitor sales & marketing contentProduct MarketingAs sales & marketing strategy dictates

I’ll get into more detail about these deliverables later on. You might be thinking there’s a lot more deliverables I don’t have listed, and that so many of them are labeled “as needed”. Recall that we’re talking about a CI operation in people-limited circumstances. Also realize that we’re curating & crowdsourcing materials from other teams where CI is also not their primary job. Finally, it’s also easy to over invest into CI will little return, so choose projects carefully.

Once your CI contributors agree on the types of deliverables and the prioritization & cadence, its helpful to predefine what these formats might look like. This lets your contributors more quickly develop materials as the need or opportunity arises, and you get the content in a form that’s more reusable.

Here’s some more detail on different types of competitive materials:

Competitive Sales Enablement Content

A wide variety of different formats and deliverables fit into this category. Your sales enablement needs, and the time you can spend will dictate what these will be. At a minimum, assume you need general background material for your sales reps to know the domain of product categories they will encounter at their customers and in opportunities. A portal for this information also makes a great place to post competitor-specific information and deliverables as well.

Sales Rep Battle Cards

There’s many different formats for battle cards. I have my own specific opinion of what these should cover. Ideally the information in a battle card should be actionable and allow a rep to position a competitor in conversation with their prospect, determine potential threats and objections, uncover potential opportunities, and further qualify their opportunity.

RFP/RFQ Answers

Its common for an RFP or RFQ to include questions about competitors. As these arise, record them in your RFP question database and develop standard answers.

Feature Comparisons

These are frequently asked for by sales teams, and require a fair amount of research and maintenance to ensure they are accurate and up to date. In people-constrained circumstances, I recommend reusing findings from research projects in the R&D team as they come up, or having your FE team run such a study for a highly qualified opportunity when up against a frequent competitor. You can develop your own comparison grid that follows your messaging and shows product capabilities to your advantage. You, you can also input findings into relevant public product comparison sites. I generally consider it dangerous to distribute judgements about competitor’s features to a customer unless it can be backed up by third party sources. So use this kind of asset carefully.

TCO Comparisons

Similar to feature comparisons, these would be developed as needed. I break this out separately since the format of such a piece will be quite different from a feature list. Your points of comparison are ideally quantitative, but qualitative comparisons are also useful.

Technical FUD and Antidotes

I’m usually very careful about suggesting wide use of Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt, but sometimes its needed and it can be very effective when strategically used. Sales rep battle cards will typically include widely known FUD, be it at business or technical levels. There may be specific opportunities related to what the customer is trying to achieve where additional points of FUD can be tailored.

Of course, competitors will also use FUD against your company. If there is a widely known or effective question they can raise, expect to see it again and again. Antidotes should be created when a tactic is first seen from a competitor. You may even need to deploy the antidote ahead of an anticipated FUD tactic from a frequent competitor. Update a competitor’s use of FUD tactics and the antidote response into your competitive battle card.

Bakeoff Tactics

In an ideal world, a sales team is able to position other competitors out of consideration, allowing your product to try to win unopposed. However, sometimes you are late to an opportunity, or sometimes the value your customer needs doesn’t allow you to clearly differentiating your product vs. other alternatives. Then you find yourself in the bakeoff such as a benchmark or POC.

If your sales team can influence what this trial will be, ideally it showcases your product’s strengths, and puts competitors at a disadvantage. Descriptions of winning or failed bakeoffs vs. competitors should be curated by the CI team for the next time such a competitive trial arises.

Anti-Competitor Sales & Marketing Content

Your sales teams will always ask for a hard hitting piece of content that makes your product look great, and the competition look bad. Only provide such content as makes sense for your sales and marketing strategy. Many companies take the position that they don’t directly disparage competitors as it detracts from their own brand experience.

There are cases where you might make an exception. First, maybe your company is the new small fry against established competitors in an otherwise consolidated market. You want to make yourself known as a better alternative to established players, and be associated via SEO, direct marketing campaigns, and in your sales process. Second, There may be a well-known problem with in an established competitor that is causing their customers to look for alternatives. You may very well have a sales play organized around this competitive take-out.

As far as formats, you can create content that explains the problems with competitors in a generalized basis. For example, heaven-hell sales slides work well. Third party quotes and articles are especially effective when you can find them. Your CI curation operation should capture these as they are developed or discovered.

Step #4 – Communicate Competitive Intelligence Best Practices

“File:Musician in Cophenhagen Phil 08.jpg” by Toxophilus is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

Here is my list of best practices I communicate to my CI contributors and consumers:

  1. Treat CI materials as company secret and perishable.
  2. Assume any anti-competitor content you provide to a customer will end up in the competitive sales team’s hands.
  3. Try to compete at the business level, and avoid technical bake-offs.
  4. Keep your customer focused on what they can achieve with your solution and what they can’t achieve with the competitor. Just being “better” often isn’t “good enough” versus incumbent competition.
  5. Positioning competitors with truth is far more powerful than with falsehoods.
  6. Competitive replacements are much harder to win than adjacent opportunities.

Step #5 – Communicate Frequently

“Paperboy Equipement #news #sunday #kids #jobs #iphoneography #iphonephotography” by Podknox is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Marketing Departments need to frequently market their progress to their own company. This is true of your competitive intelligence operation as well. Always re-communicate CI best practices to contributors and consumers, and drive awareness of new sales enablement and new CI assets available. Measure consumption of your materials to see how widely distributed they are. Communicate in monthly or quarterly newsletters, and try to guest star in product and sales team meetings at least quarterly.

Step # 6 – Know What’s “Good Enough”

Realize that your CI operation is always going to be starving when its a part time job dependent on opportunistically capturing and repurposing work from other teams. You have to carefully balance proactive and reactive work, and this work has to fit in with Product Marketing’s other priorities. CI assets are also usually perishable as competitors continually evolve and improve, so they need periodic updating.

A good “Minimum Viable Product” for a part-time CI practice is a complete sales enablement portal describing competitive categories and products, and creating battle cards for all frequently seen competitors, especially largest threats or sources of sales opportunities.

All other CI materials are developed and curated as they become available, or as need arises. They should be dated, and assumed to be potentially stale if they are more than a quarter old.

Of course, this standard for “Good Enough” will improve as you are able to better staff your CI operation.

Happy Competing!

Trackbacks

  1. […] a followup to my last blog Creating a Competitive Intelligence Practice in a Nascent Product Marketing Team, I thought it was worth talking about the most commonly expected deliverable of a CI program: the […]

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