Spying On Competitors – Staying Ahead

It’s a bit negative really isn’t it? I mean spying on your competitors implies they are better than you and you are devoting time just to play catch up. Or you could turn it around and say that by employing ALL the industry best practice from all your competitors you will be ahead of almost all of them! Depends how you see it.

This article considers a few easy ways to ethically get more information on your competitors and then show you how to easily integrate all that information into your web browser so it’s there to use on an ongoing basis whenever you have time in the future. Fantastic long term investment merely for investing your time.

We look at:

  1. Google Alerts;
  2. Competitor News Feeds;
  3. Industry News Feeds; and then finish by
  4. Putting it all together in one place using Netvibes.
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Skip to the end of the article if you want the URL for the example created.

Let’s create a real life example by pretending that we are a Hotel/Hospitality focussed interior design and architecture practice. Now, I’ve only been to LA once so with my very minimal internet research I’ll pretend further that my main local competitor is Ralph Gentile Architects (www.rgastudio.com) – I don’t know this company  and  they seem to be in the hotel interior design industry. Also we will look at WATG (www.watg.com) who are a leading design consultant for the global hospitality market.

We are looking at the business area here called “Competitive Information” or “Competitive Intelligence”. It’s part of your research. If you are a small or even medium-sized business then you will probably not do this in any structured way as, historically, it has been both time-consuming and often expensive. Maybe you only did it when you started your business and never since? Well it’s time to change! Let’s get going!

1. Getting the information: A google alert for www.rgastudio.com.

Your competitors and their customers use the internet widely and create much useful information. It can be a huge amount of information, so the trick is to find a way of just getting the information you need.

An easy, quick and cheap way to do this is with Google Alerts.

In essence to create an alert you first create a search eg “interior designers hospitality Los Angeles / london” or a search for a specific company such as your competitor “Ralph Gentile”. When Google finds new information on this search they alert you to it. Hence Google Alerts. Simple enough in principle right? And you see how it only gives  you new stuff not 1,000s of pages that might be returned by a normal Google search?

a. Go to http://www.google.com/alerts if you have not already done so you will need to create an account with Google. This is all free so go ahead if you need to before going to the google.com/alerts page.

You can play around with the few options that are presented to you, I just chose a comprehensive alert that looks at all sources of information; videos, blogs, news, etc.. Click on “create alert”

b. OK now you’ve done! Now you have to be able to look at the alert. Google creates an RSS feed to do this. Technical phrase, sorry. An RSS feed is a stream of information, you can tap into this feed of information whenever you want it’s under your control. You can use any number of tools to do that including Microsoft Outlook 2007 and your Facebook page. It really is nothing special. The difference here to marketing of the past is that you tap into your customised bit of information when  you want it NOT when someone else decides to send you an email or a letter.

Once you have created the alert Google will encourage you to use their software (Google Reader) to look at it. Feel free to do that. If you want to use something else then you need to find out what the special name of your particular RSS feed is. In the google column where it says “Deliver to” you will see the word FEED. Right click on that and copy the location (if you are using Firefox). You will get something like http://www.google.com/alerts/feeds/07075794331265745468/15166974667481998431 . That is the name of the feed and you can use it anywhere. Remember this, we’ll come back to it soon.

2. Competitor News Feeds

Sometimes a competitor will do all the hard work for you. They will have a blog or a RSS news stream. I’ve taken the easy example of watg.com just because larger companies tend to have these information streams, Ralph Gentile Architects do not at the time of writing. WATG already have a blog where you can take an RSS feed from, it’s hidden away a bit but can be found at http://www.watg.com/?rss=067f5578-3048-7b3d-c5276d2a3b2d0291. Again, remember this.

3. Industry News Feeds

There are LOTS of these sites out there which give you feeds on specific business areas. My favourite for the example we are considering is IDFX magazine. They have a feed specific to parts of the interior design industry, helpfully one on hospitality at http://hotel.worldinteriordesignnetwork.com/rss. Again, remember this.

4. Putting it all together.

All those web addresses/URLs look a little ugly don’t they? Well we will pretty it all up now. This next step should take ten minutes from start to end. You can skip to the end of the article to see the example I have left on the web for you to look at.

a. go to netvibes.com and open a free account. They are a reputable company and their kind of product will become big over the next three years I believe.

b. Create a page and make sure it is private. Spies don’t normally let people know what they are doing!

c. Click the big green “ADD Content” button

d. Click the orange “Add a feed icon”

e. Paste in one of the feed urls you remembered earlier

f. The feed is checked and a little box appears (the box is called a widget, again you WILL hear much more about these over the years to come) which you then drag onto your page, sometimes they automatically appear on the page.

g. Repeat d, e, and f for each feed.

Sorted! i’m sure you can see how you could have a page for: each competitor; each product area you work in; each major supplier; and so on.

Here is the finished PUBLIC netvibes page: http://www.netvibes.com/kothea#CI . I’ve added a few more feeds as widgets and also used an HTML widget to display Ralph’s web site. If you look at the associated tab for KOTHEA’s public page you can see that you can integrate images as well – might be useful if one of your competitor releases new designs on their blog? There are very many more varied widgets that you can add, hopefully you can see how useful information really is available out there. Just work out the sources, what you need and why then once you have built a PRIVATE netvibes page you can share it securely within your organisation and, more importantly, you’ve now done all the hard work you just go back to that one page in the future – you don’t have to keep going from page to page all over the web. Of course you can refine and add as your thinking moves on.

A closing thought. Of course competitor intelligence requires more information that is not available electronically. I’m not suggesting this is the panacea. You will still gain much valuable information from trade shows and customers. This is just part of the picture. I may also be returning to netvibes later in the year as a way of monitoring your brand identity.

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