How to do competitive intelligence research in B2B

How to do competitive intelligence research in B2B

Competitive intelligence plays a key part in supporting growing businesses.

The vast majority of high-growth companies – 92% – see competitive intelligence as critical to their success, according to SCIP.

You can have an outstanding product and provide an incredible service to your customers. But if you don’t understand the similarities and differences in your competitors’ offerings, it’s very difficult to find white space to capitalize on and drive growth.

Competitive intelligence in B2B involves analyzing not only your rivals’ performance but the market environment in general.

It can encompass individual competitor research as well as much broader activities around market sizing and market assessment.

Often, it has a supporting role in other research projects to inform the recommendations or next steps. For example, before beginning a thought leadership program, an audit of recent reports from your competitors helps make sure your content doesn’t retread old ground.

Competitive intelligence in B2B should not involve unethical practices, such as anything that could count as corporate spying or espionage. It should not seek out any confidential or insider information. 

Mystery shopping research provides a useful example here – it’s one of the most common competitive intelligence tools in B2C research but often inappropriate in B2B. That’s because B2B products or services tend to be higher value and take providers a long time to sell.

In a business environment, mystery shopping would often involve acting as an interested customer during a lengthy sales process and then declining at the very end. In our view, it’s unethical to waste well-remunerated sales employees’ time in this way.

As we’ll explain shortly, there’s no need for these tactics. In B2B research, there tends to be a vast amount of intel that’s publicly available and a wide range of sources to access it from. 

Benefits of B2B competitive intelligence research include:

  • Finding nascent challengers
  • Identifying threats to your business
  • Evaluating competitor strengths and weaknesses
  • Understanding which segments they target
  • Benchmarking your performance
  • Finding white space
  • Informing your go-to-market strategy
Contents

Competitive intelligence examples

Competitive intelligence research: step by step

Best practices for B2B competitive intelligence research

 

 

Competitive intelligence examples

There’s a lot you can find out about competitors by consulting the right information sources, such as:

  • Overall performance: Including revenue, profitability, and financial resources (even for private companies e.g. via trade media)
  • Headcount: How many staff they have and how many they want to hire, or you can get insights into employee morale through sources such as Glassdoor
  • Sales approach: The structure and locations of their sales teams, their messages, and customer feedback on their approach
  • Product and service range: Including any gaps, plus customer feedback
  • Pricing strategy: Their pricing strategy, models, and tactics
  • Proposition: Their brand building including how they communicate their values or mission and how it lands with customers or prospects  
  • Marketing strategy: Their channel usage, key messages, and which segments they target

From a marketing perspective, you can also do a deep dive into their specific activities:

  • Search ads: Typing relevant keywords into Google Search lets you see how competitors target them; tools such as Moz show you which keywords they rank for
  • Company website: Compare their websites with your own in terms of load speed, user experience, services provided, etc.
  • Content marketing: Review their blogs and other content for insights into their strategy
  • Social media: Explore their social media channel and post usage – what is their approach, how frequent is it, how successful, etc.
  • Offline marketing: You can also get insights into their offline marketing activities e.g. trade show presence

A lot of this information will be publicly available, while some of it will be gated behind paid reports.

However, conducting competitive intelligence market research is often a tough balancing act between quality and quantity.

Without the right approach, lots of the information you collect on competitors won’t be useful. During analysis, you may cast aside plenty of it and realize there are still several big gaps in your competitive intelligence.

Therefore, you need to have the right approach and allocate enough time so that the market research delivers meaningful results.

Competitive intelligence research: step by step

The following steps tend to drive an efficient research process:

  • Prioritize competitors
  • Use appropriate fieldwork methods
  • Choose the right sources
  • Set an initial structure
  • Plan for the presentation

A competitive intelligence program can be very open-ended. Without the right parameters in place, it’s easy to go down rabbit holes that waste time and effort.

#1 Prioritize competitors

It can take many hours to comprehensively research just one competitor, but in most cases that isn’t a good use of anyone’s time. 

You probably don’t need a full review on each as it’s unlikely you’ll learn enough useful information from that level of detail.

The trick is to identify which competitors you need to know more about. It’s not always the most obvious ones, e.g. the ones with the highest market share.

For example, the priority for competitive intelligence market research could be the ones who are starting to take your customers. They could also be indirect competitors who don’t offer similar products or services to you but are impacting your sector nonetheless.

Depending on your business and research objectives, begin with an initial evaluation. Work out which competitors are the most relevant to focus on, then take it from there.

One way to identify indirect competitors is by using the jobs-to-be-done (JTBD) framework. It encourages you to focus on the job customers and prospects are hiring businesses to do, rather than who you perceive to be your current competitor set.

#2 Use appropriate fieldwork methods

With competitive intelligence market research, you have a choice between primary and secondary research methods.

In the case of publicly available market intelligence, secondary research is usually the way to go.

It’s often the most efficient method for collecting online information and unless you pay for gated reports, it’s cheaper than recruiting and incentivizing decision-makers.

Again, it depends on your objectives though. If your priority is insights into prospects’ customer journeys, for example, you may find that getting buyers to walk you through the process step-by-step is what you need.

But bear in mind that there are limits to the information that competitors’ customers will share about their relationship, especially if they see them as more of a partner than a supplier.

Therefore, in most cases, it makes sense to see if the information you need is available via secondary research first and foremost. Then if there are gaps, see if you can fill them using primary research – for example, by using a few targeted depth interviews.

#3 Choose the right sources

If using secondary research data sources, there’s much more to it than typing a few words into Google Search and clicking on the results.

In our experience, these are the ten most useful sources to focus on for market intelligence:

  • Government data: e.g. Bureau of Labor Statistics or Census.gov
  • Government reports: e.g. FTC rulings
  • Company directories and databases: e.g. Zoominfo, Crunchbase, or D&B
  • Market research reports: e.g. Statista or Marketresearch.com
  • Company websites: In particular, look for annual reports on an Investor Relations page if they’re public companies
  • Online communities: e.g. LinkedIn groups
  • Academia: e.g. Google Scholar
  • Trade associations
  • General, business, and trade press
  • Social and search tools

For international market research involving competitors based in different countries, it often helps to have local language analysts browse these sources.

For primary research, the right source may not necessarily be competitors’ customers – instead, industry commentators or sector experts may have the information you need.

#4 Set an initial structure

With so much information available, there are two common traps to fall into.

The first is to ‘data dump’ information into documents and folders on your server. The documents will be too long and confusing for people to read and analyze.

Competitive intelligence gathering needs a clear structure for the fieldwork. One of the best ways to make the findings easy to scan and digest involves using spreadsheets.

For example, put the competitors in rows and the criteria you’re researching in columns. Populate the cells with a succinct summary of the information you find and include hyperlinks to the full source for wider reading.

You can expand on this too if you need more detail – for example, with one spreadsheet per competitor or country.

Be prepared to adjust and iterate your structure mid-fieldwork in case you notice there are some key extra criteria you’re missing, or some you’re focusing on too much.

#5 Plan for the presentation

The second trap is to collect information without thinking about how your sales or marketing team and other stakeholders will receive and action the key insights.

It’s a good idea to have a visualization framework or two in mind at the outset and factor that into your fieldwork structure.

For example, if your competitor intelligence market research is part of a wider market assessment study, a SWOT competitive analysis may help convey the key findings.

If so, plan for this – ensure you capture the strengths and weaknesses of each competitor, as well as their threats and any opportunities you could capitalize on. Another popular alternative is Porter’s Five Forces.

Best practices for B2B competitive intelligence research

#1 Reframe your competitor set

A business’ biggest competitor isn’t necessarily another company that sells similar products or services.

The most disruptive players are more likely to come from outside your sector, bringing over an approach from their industry and redefining yours with a fresh perspective.

For example, as an online bookstore, Amazon didn’t initially look like an obvious internet market share rival to Microsoft. That all changed when Amazon Web Services launched and it now dominates in terms of Cloud market share.

It shows the importance of looking beyond your current competitors and reframing the threats. Again, using the jobs-to-be-done (JTBD) framework early on in your research can help with this.

#2 Activate the recommendations after presenting your results

Without strong activation efforts, there’s a risk that the results from your competitive intelligence program won’t deliver long-term benefits for your business. 

According to a report from SCIP, competitive intelligence professionals spend approximately 76% of their time gathering and analyzing insights, but only 24% administering them.

In many cases, that risks a lot of hard work for little payoff. Ideally, with the right planning in place, the research should provide long-lasting benefits for your business.

Aim to embed the results and recommendations from the research into any relevant ongoing and upcoming activities. Whether the goal is to inform sales and marketing efforts, or a one-off new product development, the ROI lies in how effectively you activate the research outputs.

#3 Refresh the research at set intervals

Over time, your competitive landscape will change. New opportunities will emerge but so too will new threats.

The most efficient competitive intelligence research is set up to be built upon in the future. To check in and see what’s changed in a couple of years, you don’t want to start all over again.

A brand tracking program is a great way to monitor competitor performance over a lengthy period and spot any changing trends that need your attention.

Summary

Benefits of a B2B competitive intelligence strategy include: finding nascent challengers; identifying threats to your business; evaluating competitor strengths and weaknesses; understanding which segments they target; benchmarking your performance; finding white space; and informing your go-to-market strategy.

Competitive intelligence examples

There’s a lot you can find out about competitors by consulting the right information sources: overall performance; headcount; sales approach; product and service range; pricing strategy; proposition; and marketing strategy.

From a marketing perspective, you can also do a deep-dive into their specific activities: search ads, company website; content marketing; social media; and offline marketing.

Competitive intelligence research: step by step

The following steps tend to drive an efficient market intelligence research process: prioritize competitors; use appropriate fieldwork methods; choose the right sources; set an initial structure; and plan for the presentation.

Best practices for B2B competitive intelligence research

We recommend that you: reframe your competitor set; activate the recommendations after presenting your results; and refresh the research at set internals.

Chris Wells
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