AS SOUTH EAST ASIA DISCOVERED after devastating tsunamis struck it in December 2004, the importance of an early warning system cannot be underestimated. A message received in Hong Kong 4 hours before the tragedy suggested the possibility of a tsunami near Sumatra, but no system existed to turn this information into actionable intelligence.
In the business world, that's the job of an information professional--creating intelligence that can be acted upon from raw data. An operational early-warning system alerts management to potential threats and opportunities, strategic intentions, and immediate future actions of competitors, all of which are of vital importance in today's cutthroat business environment.
With the vast array of research resources available to an information professional, it's difficult to work out just which tools are the best for keeping up-to-date with your competitors' activities. Should you rely on traditional online commercial databases, subscribe to Web clipping services, or use a mixture of both? This article provides an overview of a number of major Web clipping services, media analysis tools, and consumer Web sites that can be used for keeping tabs on your competitors. It suggests sources for five specific topics when putting together a competitive assessment--management, strategy, marketing, customers, and employee morale. While it concentrates on publicly available data, known in the CI (competitive intelligence) world as "open source" intelligence (newspapers, TV, radio, books, journals, and other public documents), be aware of two other major sources of CI: human source intelligence and image intelligence. Both these categories are very important and no CI work is ever complete without them.
DIGGING FOR MANAGEMENT INFORMATION
Knowing as much as you can about the management team of your competitor gives some insight into their thinking and how they might intend to drive the company forward. For this category of information, good sources include the traditional commercial online databases and established biographical sources. Management changes are frequently the subject of press releases, particularly for top management positions, and often appear in local newspaper articles as well. Marketing collateral published by the company, as well as its annual reports, are also good sources, but obviously show a positive bias.
Don't overlook human source intelligence--talking with suppliers, customers, and people in your own company. These conversations can often be more insightful than any open source intelligence you find on the Web.
Is your competitor going to move into new geographic markets, launch a new product, develop a new customer segment, or grow through acquisition? In trying to work out your competitor's next move, it's good to start from a solid base of understanding its past strategy. Again, traditional online sources, particularly DataStar, Dialog, Factiva, and LexisNexis, are an effective way of gathering some of this information.
When it comes to current and future strategy, however, Web clipping services and media analysis tools have an edge. Granted, the traditionals have had current awareness services for years, including Dialog Alerts and LexisNexis Eclipses. Factiva has almost-real-time feeds from both Dow Jones and Reuters. Thomson NewsEdge is a newer entrant, capitalizing on its categorization skills. In the case of Web clipping services, articles are usually uploaded faster than is the case with some of the commercial databases, and coverage can include many sources that traditional online sources do not have, giving potential additional insights into the marketing environment, such as industry information, suppliers, markets, brands, and customers. Additional sources include such things as blogs, Web sites, news groups, and message boards.
CHOOSING A CLIPPING SERVICE
Choosing a Web clipping service depends on a range of factors, including your budget and breadth of coverage required. …