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Why creating a culture of competitive intelligence should be every brand’s next move

By Peter Mertens / March 24, 2020

One of the first questions people often ask me is how I got into a career in competitive intelligence. And what’s funny is that after three years of leading Sprout’s competitive intelligence practice, I really don’t think of it as my job. Instead, I consider myself to be a competitive intelligence evangelist and teacher.

Sure, I manage the day-to-day strategy for how we collect, synthesize and disseminate competitive insights across our company. But I believe that my overall objective is much bigger than that. I ensure that departments all across Sprout know how to incorporate competitive intelligence into their own work and, more importantly, that colleagues understand how to do their own competitive research when the time comes.

Competitive intelligence is a culture, not a department

Most organizations aren’t fortunate enough to have a standalone team that is dedicated to competitive intelligence. But that doesn’t mean a company shouldn’t create an environment where decisions are made only after considering any competitive ramifications. And that’s true for executive, product, marketing, sales and customer success teams.

When I first joined Sprout, I was the go-to resource for nearly every team that needed competitive help. The product team wanted to know what our competitors’ killer features were. The sales team needed to know how to outmaneuver the competition. Marketing wanted to understand who our competitors considered to be their core audiences and how they spoke to them. Departments across Sprout had a voracious appetite for competitive intelligence.

It quickly became apparent that I wouldn’t be able to satisfy this hunger by myself. While I was encouraged that we clearly had a company culture that saw the value of competitive intelligence, I had to adjust my strategy and empower these teams to conduct some of it on their own reconnaissance.

A good competitive intelligence team doesn’t just deliver insights for others; the team helps others understand what they need to look for and how they can get it on their own.

Convincing your company that CI is important

This begs the question: how do you build a company culture that values competitive intelligence? Maybe you’re the market leader and you think there isn’t anything to learn from the competition. Or maybe you believe your product is the only one in the market that does what it does.

I can assure you that in both cases, you are wrong. Business across the world is more competitive now than it has ever been. According to Crayon’s 2020 State of Competitive Intelligence, 90% of businesses report that their industry has become more competitive in the last three years, and 48% say it has become much more competitive. Failure to keep tabs on today’s core competitors will cost you business in the short term. Not actively surveying potential challengers in the future could kill your business in the long term.

Start small and help departments understand how they can use competitive intelligence in their decision-making process. It is so easy to get bogged down in day-to-day work that teams often forget to take a step back and survey the bigger picture, which helps turn using CI from a behavior into a habit.

Successful businesses build a product or service that their customers love and that is differentiated from the rest of the market. They do this by understanding what works and what doesn’t with competitive products and taking that into consideration. In both your competitors’ successes and failures, there’s a lesson for your company.

I am not advocating for decisions to be made solely because of competitive updates. Reactionary moves like that are too often impulsive and focused on short term gains. But as your company determines its future strategic direction, what your competition is doing should be a critical input.

Putting competitive intelligence into action

When Sprout launched our Social Listening product in 2018, my team played a critical role in supporting other departments as we worked towards the finish line. Here’s a sample of what that looked like:

  • Product: We worked closely with the product managers to map out what features were nice-to-haves vs. must-haves. This was critical to understand what a minimum viable product represented. We also surveyed the market for greenspace that we could carve out as our own through a unique set of functionalities.
  • Sales: Our sales team was going to see a brand new set of competitors and needed to be prepared to talk about how our product was different. This meant we needed fresh competitive battle cards for sales to have on hand.
  • Marketing: We needed to understand what messaging resonated best with our target audience and how we could make that different from what others in the market were saying. This required a full messaging audit so we were prepared to launch with a position and point-of-view that stood out among the noise.

At no point in this process was competitive intelligence calling the shots. We weren’t the ones building, selling or marketing the product. But we were an integral part of the process of bringing the product to market. In a world where only half of businesses use the intelligence they collect, I feel lucky to work at an organization that has a culture that values these inputs.

If you want to go far, go together

I’ve talked with others in this field about how to balance the need to drive competitive insights for other teams and giving them the autonomy to uncover them through their own efforts. I’m surprised by the number of folks that want to have total control over the outputs. This is an incredibly shortsighted approach. If you want to build a company culture that values competitive intelligence, you must empower everyone to get it when they need it, not when you can get it to them.

I was talking with one of our sales directors a few months ago, and he let me know that a manager on his team had led a competitive training session on how to beat one of our top competitors. At first I was frustrated because I wasn’t consulted. That’s my job after all. Was I doing a bad job? Did they not trust my work?

But it dawned on me that this was actually a positive. I’d led this individual through several training sessions, and now he felt comfortable enough to do one himself. The student had become the teacher and I had created another evangelist. The competitive culture is alive and well.

Peter Mertens

Peter Mertens

Peter Mertens is the Senior Manager of Marketing Strategy at Sprout Social. While he spends hours each week keeping track of what's going on in the marketing world, he makes sure to carve out (arguably too much) time on how the Portland Trail Blazers will play this season.
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