With so many employees working remotely these days, engaging in competitive intelligence has never been easier. The Internet as a whole, and social media specifically, create a data-rich environment in which you can uncover a wide variety of information on what your competitors are up to. All you or an employee need do is open a browser tab and start looking.
But should you? Well, competitive intelligence — formally defined as the gathering and analysis of publicly available information about one or more competitors for strategic planning purposes — has been around for decades. One could say that a business owner would be imprudent not to keep tabs on his or her fiercest competition.
The key is to engage in competitive intelligence legally and ethically. Here are some best practices to keep in mind:
Know the rules and legal risks. Naturally, the very first rule of competitive intelligence is to avoid inadvertently breaking the law or otherwise exposing yourself or your company to a legal challenge. The technicalities of intellectual property law are complex; it can be easy to run afoul of the rules unintentionally.
When accessing or studying another company’s products or services, proceed carefully and consult your attorney if you fear you’re on unsteady ground and particularly before putting any lessons learned into practice.
Vet your sources carefully. While gathering information, you or your employees may establish sources within the industry or even with a specific competitor. Be sure you don’t encourage these sources, even accidentally, to violate any standing confidentiality or noncompete agreements.
Don’t hide behind secret identities. As easy as it might be to create a “puppet account” on social media to follow and even comment on a competitor’s posts, the negative fallout of such an account being exposed can be devastating. Also, if you sign up to receive marketing e-mails from a competitor, use an official company address and, if asked, state “product or service evaluation” as the reason you’re subscribing.
Train employees and keep an eye on consultants. Some business owners might assume their employees would never engage in unethical or even illegal activities when gathering information about a competitor. Yet it happens. One glaring example occurred in 2015, when the Federal Bureau of Investigations and U.S. Department of Justice investigated a Major League Baseball team because one of its employees allegedly hacked into a competing team’s computer systems. The investigation concluded in 2017 with a lengthy prison term for the perpetrator and industry fines and other penalties for his employer.
Discourage employees from doing competitive intelligence on their own. Establish a formal policy, reviewed by an attorney, that includes ethics training and strict management oversight. If you engage consultants or independent contractors, be sure they know and abide by the policy as well.