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Starting a Competitive Intelligence Program Journey: Best Practices

A Product Management View: Why You Need It and Best Practices

Software Competitive Intelligence Programs

Most organizations fail at competitive intelligence. They rely purely on sales feedback and hearsay. On the other end of the spectrum, a few organizations have built out extensive competitive analysis teams that often know more about a competitor’s offering than the competitor itself… but this requires a huge investment. 

For organizations that need strong competitive intel but need help getting started and don’t have the luxury of a large, dedicated team, this blog is for you.

The Value of Competitive Intelligence

Competitive intelligence provides immense value, but don't get competitive tunnel vision!

We don’t mean to confuse you (ok, maybe a little), but we’ve seen too many companies over-focus on what their competitors are doing instead of focusing on what their prospects and customers want. See our blog "A Roadmap to Creating Roadmaps" for when Competitive Intelligence matters the most.

Risk of tunnel-vision aside, competitive intel can help you accomplish your growth goals in three core ways:

  • Roadmap Creation: Understanding what capabilities your competitors have that are reducing your sales win rate allows you to negate their competitive advantages and allows you to win on your differentiation.

  • Messaging Development: Knowing and communicating your strengths over the competition highlights your value to the customer. 

  • Sales Positioning: Awareness of your competitors’ strengths protects sales from walking into a trap. Having a well-constructed response when your prospect brings up your competitors’ abilities can quickly neutralize the perceived value of the competitors’ capabilities.

But all of these require competitive knowledge and confidence in your findings.

Competitive Intelligence Best Practices

When it comes to competitive intel, Product Insight clients hire us for two reasons: 1) to bring objectivity, and 2) to develop their competitive program. We typically establish their competitive framework, build out the initial analysis of their top 2 to 3 competitors, and enable their product management or product marketing teams to take control of their competitive practice. In broad strokes, below are the best practices we follow and teach our clients.

Step 1: Identify a Framework to Compare Yourself to Others

Too often we see companies only assessing their competitors on topics that they deem important rather than an objective framework that focuses on what the market deems important. This type of head fake only ends up hurting an organization. We tend to try to find established frameworks that already exist in the market by analysts or research firms. For example, in the cyber security space, we might use a framework from MITRE, NIST – National Institute of Standards and Technology, or Forrester. If an established framework doesn’t exist, then must create one that objectively covers the full spectrum of capabilities for a product in your market space. 

A framework enables you to compare products at both a category level and then at the capabilities level that fall within each category. Depending on the complexity of your product space, the framework matrix can easily extend beyond 100 rows deep, with each row containing validated knowledge backed with cited references.

Competitive Intelligence Framework

NOTE: If you need to develop a framework, a good source of categories and capabilities is to examine RFP/RFI templates from prospects. These can show you how your prospects think about solutions in your space.

Step 2: Know Thy Self

Once you have a framework of categories and capabilities built out, look no further than into a mirror.  Go through the framework and gather detailed knowledge about all your product’s capabilities.  Make sure you cite your sources of information.  The key here is to be objective.  Find facts and understand your solution's true strengths and weaknesses. You will likely need to hold interviews with internal experts on each category or capability. Caution: This turns out to be harder than you would think it would be.

Step 3: Competitive Research & Sourcing

By performing a self-assessment, you are now better prepared to examine your competitors. The hardest part of competitive intelligence is finding and extracting information from publically available resources. Here are some recommendations:

  • Website, data sheets/brochures, and technical briefs – oh my! Due to ‘marketing-speak’ this approach doesn’t always provide hard facts, but at a minimum, you will gather what the competitor feels are their strengths.

  • User Guides / Manuals Search the internet and sometimes you can find user guides and manuals. If found, these documents tend to be long and require a lot of reading but are pure gold. They include screen captures, steps to follow, inputs/outputs, definition of terms, and a holistic view of the product.

  • Published demos & YouTube More and more companies are turning toward videos to attract and get the attention of prospects and customers. From a competitive perspective, this is pure gold. Often you get to see the competitor’s product interface in action, allowing you to not only learn the topic they are discussing but also the other menu items and features observed on screen.

  • Reddit and other online forums Product users seek help and go to online forums like Reddit to ask peers how their thoughts on products and how to accomplish objectives using a product. These forums help you to identify both strengths and weaknesses of the competitor (and your own product)

  • FAQ sections of a competitor’s website With so much marketing-speak on the main pages of a vendor’s website, they often create a FAQ to address the most common prospect questions about their solution. While this is a great practice for the vendor to help prospects learn the answers to key questions about their product, it also helps you to quickly glean a product’s real capabilities.

  • Leverage AI For hard-to-find topics in your competitor matrix utilize AI tools like ChatGPT, Google BARD, or Perplexity AI. Ask the AI engines specific questions to gather intelligence; however, most importantly check the AI engine's sources to ensure you are comfortable with the answers they provide.

As you gather information about a competitor, you capture the intelligence and the source of the intelligence into your Framework Competitive Matrix.

Competitive Intelligence Matrix

NOTE: Often our clients ask us about Secret Shopper activities or purchasing a competitive product. Our recommendation is to start with what you can obtain through publically available resources before dipping your toe into these advanced options. Often there are legal concerns to consider or costs that are beyond your budget.

Step 4: Build Out Deep Competitive Matrix for your Internal Facing Audience

Upon completion of Step 3, you will have a vetted matrix of knowledge for both your solution and your competitor(s). But often it is an overwhelming and unconsumable amount of data. So now you must refer back to your Competitive Framework of Categories and Capabilities and concisely summarize the relevant and important information.  Your audience for this output is typically the Product Management and R&D organizations that need the detailed information but in a consumable deliverable.

NOTE: This level of detail can also be valuable to your sales engineering organization.

Step 5: Simplify for your External Facing Audience

Upon completing the deep competitive matrix in Step 4, you must then simplify further for your external facing audience such as marketing and sales. We recommend focusing on the Category levels of the competitive matrix and providing relative scoring of capabilities using Harvey Balls or similar in comparing your product to your competitors.  You want to provide contextual information to support your scoring. As this is an internal document, you should still be objective and highlight the strengths and weaknesses of both your product and your competitor(s).

Competitive Intelligence Comparison

Step 6: Use It!

This circles back to the value of having a competitive intelligence program… reaping the rewards.

  • Roadmap Development: Examine where your product is weak compared to your competitor and then assess if the competitor’s strength matters to your prospects. If it does, then you have some work to do on your roadmap.  Equally as important is understanding your strengths compared to the competitor, and if prospects care about those strengths, then identify ways you can continue to differentiate. NOTE: The output of Stages 3 and 4 will go a long way in helping your R&D team understand your competitors.

  • Messaging: Product Marketing should take the outputs of Step 4 and 5 to then create all sorts of artifacts and collateral:

    • Competitive battlecards for sales enablement

    • Gated competitive white papers to generate leads

    • Competitive landing pages that explicitly compare yourself to prime competitors

    • Elevate your RFP responses, setting traps and highlighting differentiation

  • Sales Positioning: An informed salesperson is a confident salesperson. If they know what to highlight and know how to not walk into a trap, they will be more successful. 

Getting started

These broad strokes to start gathering competitive intel are possible for most organizations with dedicated product marketing or product management teams and we wish you the best of luck in your endeavors. If you need a pointer or two, reach out to us. But like any new initiative, it requires a big effort to get the foundations in place. If inertia is keeping you from making progress, then call Product Insight. We will be happy to help you get started and coach you so you can easily continue the competitive intelligence program for your company.


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