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How do you obtain competitive intelligence on a competitor's product that has very little public-facing marketing around it?

I'm about to just call and ask them if they still sell it.
16 Answers
Grant Shirk
Grant Shirk
Cisco Head of Product Marketing, Cisco Campus Network ExperiencesApril 13

I'll start with the assumption that this isn't a product you can personally go out and procure on your own. Hands-on is always great. 

Review sites are good, and can often generate a list of targets to call for more qualitative research. My biggest piece of advice here is to always do compete research above board. Don't hide who you are or who you work for. Tell them you want to learn more, and be open about your goals. Honesty is truly the best policy. 

The other thing that can work (though it takes longer) is to employ the field. Give them discovery questions that can uncover users of the product and then ask them to drill in a little bit. How do you use it today? What problems does it solve for you? How effective is it? 

Andrew McCotter-Bicknell
Andrew McCotter-Bicknell Head of Competitive IntelOctober 18

I had one gut reaction when I read this question.

"Why isn't there much public-facing marketing around it?"

A few thoughts come to mind:

1. They discontinued the product (try checking publicly-facing knowledge centers, if they have any, to confirm)

2. They rebranded the product (this happens all the time)

3. The product was in beta, got a bad response from users, then went back into stealth

4. They're bad at marketing (in which case, you probably don't need to be too worried about this competitor at all)

To answer your question though, you could find out for sure with a formal win/loss program. Identify accounts that you lost to against that specific competitor, ask them for an interview in exchange for an incentive ($50 - $100 for a half hour), and then ask them about the product in the interview.

Desiree Motamedi
Desiree Motamedi
Salesforce CMO - Next Gen PlatformNovember 16

We typically begin by looking at their financial information, social media channels, and forums like Reddit to get a sense of what their customers are saying. We sometimes call competitors directly, acting as a customer. We can also get some great insights from our own customers about why they left a competitor. Partners who know the ecosystem are also vital in providing additional benchmarks and insight into where the needs, gaps, and opportunities are. There are a variety of third-party services that conduct interviews and offer valuable intelligence as well. The information’s out there; you just have to get creative.

Dave Steer
Dave Steer
GitLab Vice President of Product MarketingJanuary 31

Be resourceful! Even when there's little public-facing marketing, there's always a ton of other public resources that you can look to. Here are a few:

1 - Audit their social media, press coverage, and press releases -- Companies like to talk about their products and the success they are having in market. This is a great resource for intel. Another great resource is LinkedIn. You'd be amazed about how much information you can glean by looking at the background of people who work for your competitors -- what are their background? what's their current focus?

2 - Look at 3rd party review sites, such as G2 and Peer Insights. These usually have a wealth of information -- from the customers of your competitors -- about your competitor's (and your) strengths and weaknesses.

3 - Read industry analyst reports and, if there's relatively little info, schedule an inquiry with the most relevant industry analyst.

4 - Talk to your salespeople. If they are seeing competition in market, they have insights to share.

Daniel Kuperman
Daniel Kuperman
Atlassian Head of Core Product Marketing & GTM, ITSM SolutionsJune 1

The first source I would go for is your own customers. If you have a CAB (customer advisory board), that's a perfect forum for finding competitor intel. It is likely that your direct competitors are all still marketing to your own customers in hopes of winning them from you. Your customers could share which vendors they are hearing more from, and which ones have been quiet lately. Your customers can also share if they have seen competitor demos and what they liked or disliked about what the competitor showed.

When I worked at another company, I had some loyal customers that would forward to us competitor emails to show what some vendors were telling them or how they were trying to lure them away from us. If you have channel partners, they can be a good source of competitive intel as well and share with you which vendors they have seen more active in both marketing and also in competitive sales situations.

Trade shows are another good source of competitive intel gathering. Now that the pandemic is over and in-person events have come back, you can stop by a competitor booth and talk to the team there, get product literature, and even watch a demo (note: always disclose who you are and who you work for). As people come to your company's own booth you can also ask them what other vendors they visited and if they mention a competitor you can ask them what they liked/disliked about them in comparison to your own offerings, this is a great way to get some good intel.

Sean Lauer
Sean Lauer
Instruqt VP of MarketingFebruary 16

That's definitely a challenge! There are a few things you could try to gain more insights:

  1. Utilize your sales team to ask about a competitor in discussions with prospects and customers. 
  2. Hire a third party to do win/loss interviews with prospects/customers. They may be able to get more information that a salesperson might not be able to obtain. 
  3. Hire a secret shopper. I realize this can be controversial, but there are firms out there that will do this for you. It can be a great way to uncover insights about the competition. 

Or... you could just call yourself and ask if they sell it! Why not?

Greg Gsell
Greg Gsell
Attentive VP, Product MarketingMarch 23

Call them! It is all fair game. Going deep on youtube and searching their exec team is also a great resource. Odds are even if they don't have public content, the CEO has spoken at a conference at some point. I always get a lot of info from new hires who came from competitors as well. You can work with recruiting and HR onboarding to create a process to ask where employees came from 

Katie Gerard
Katie Gerard
Workhuman Head of Product MarketingApril 27

This is a tricky one and there are definitely some more above and also below board answers. I've known people who have made up fake identities in order to get demos from competitors. If you're not a great actor, here are some other approaches:

  • Ask your customers. You may have a customer you won over from that competitor. Maybe you have a customer who considered your competitor and remembers their pitch.

  • Ask your partners. Your partners often have a pretty good idea of how your shared customers feel about a competitive product.

  • Find an internal resource. A little more below-board, but maybe you have an employee who used to work for your competitor or has used their product in a past role.

  • Look online. You'll be amazed what you can find. Youtube videos are super handy.

  • Throw some money at it. Depending on what you want to know about the product, there are CI agencies who can help you out.

Jennifer Kay Corridon
Jennifer Kay Corridon
Yelp Product Marketing Expert & MentorJune 20

I'm all about being resourceful and creative. If you can call and ask directly do it. If you are at a tradeshow, stop by the booth and ask.

1. Network within the Industry: Reach out to industry contacts, attend conferences, or participate in industry-specific forums and communities. Just asking around can net a ton of intell.

2. Leverage Online Sources: Explore alternative online sources beyond the competitor's official marketing channels. Look for industry publications, blogs, or forums where discussions related to the competitor's product may take place. Sometimes, users or industry experts may share their experiences, comparisons, or insights that provide a deeper understanding of the product.

3. Analyze Job Postings and LinkedIn Profiles: Job postings or LinkedIn profiles of employees working for the competitor may provide some clues about the product's features, technology stack, or strategic initiatives.

4. Leverage Competitive Intelligence Tools There are some great ones out there but they cost money.

5. Engage with Sales and Customer Success Teams: Collaborate closely with your sales and customer success teams. They often have interactions with prospects and customers who may have evaluated or used the competitor's product.

Axel Kirstetter
Axel Kirstetter
Guidewire Software VP Product MarketingMay 23

I love this question as it puts competitiveness into context. If you can't find anything about a 'competitor' how is a prospect going to know anything about them? No information on review sites. No analyst overview. No social proof or testimonial. No website. No LI profile. No ads in support of key words. No financials. No incorporation records. No participation at industry events. How will a buyer buy from an entity that is hard to find. Answer: they were contacted by the competitor. An outbound sales motion. Said competitor has probably a personal relationship. Which already gives them a leg up and puts you on the losing street.
Is one really competing with an entity that has little public facing materials? To be competitive one needs to operate in a category with somewhat known boundaries and criteria. As long as you are competitive against those criteria you can be confident of your offering and its value. In practical terms all you can do against the unknown is to play up FUD (fear, uncertainty, doubt). Is it a financially viable business. Would you be their first client. Is ownership shady etc.

Mary Sheehan
Mary Sheehan
Adobe Head of Lightroom Product MarketingAugust 8

I would say it's time to get scrappy! Calling them (or even having a consultant do so) can be tricky because most companies that are secretive or demo-shy screen for this. But it's amazing what you can find online. Look at YouTube, often there are past speaking gigs or presentations that can give you more information. Check out upcoming conferences in the industry - is anyone from their company speaking there? Follow their social media - often you can get product screenshots from that or blogs they post. The thought leadership they post may also give you some good clues. I would also search for the product/ company and "help center." You'd be amazed at home many companies have open help center content.

In general, if I could only spend my time in 3 places when doing customer research, it would be Owler, G2Crowd, and Glassdoor.

- Owler gives the macro perspective of the company. Here you’ll find valuable info like estimated revenue, number of employees, and sometimes even product screenshots.
- G2Crowd is a great place to see real customer reviews of how the product works. This is critical in understanding how the product works and is perceived by real customers.
- GlassDoor gives you an idea of the inner workings of a competitior. Is the engineering team unhappy? Salespeople leaving left and right? A quick purview of the top negative comments will uncover a lot about what’s going on behind closed doors.

Leonardo Vergani
Leonardo Vergani
McKinsey & Company Engagement ManagerJanuary 10

Although @Mary (Shirley) Sheehan and @Mark Officer already posted great answers, I would like to add two other great sources.

1 ) A source of data is reading what their employeers are posting on LinkedIn (through posts, summary or job descriptions).

From those descriptions, you can learn:
- Projects: which projects are they prioritizing? What could be rationale behind it?

- KPIs: which metrics are they reporting (or bragging about)? Usually, those are the metrics the leadership is pushing their employees to track/improve
- Organization structure: by looking at roles, you can see which kind of roles they are hiring for. In addition, you can guess how is the team structured (by customer size, industry, location, product, etc). If they are structured by industry, for example, this could give you an idea of where they are going next (e.g., focus on health care).

2) Also, you could interview current or previous customers of your competitor. Instead of reading reviews (which are a great source), you could interview your competitor's customers directly and ask them to demo you how they use the software. Depending on the seniority of the customer and how much you are willing to pay for this interview, you can get a significant number of customers.

Mark Officer
Mark Officer
Right Networks Director of Product MarketingAugust 8

Capterra is another good review site.  

Along with YouTube, check out SlideShare for the same reason, often times there are presentations from conferences etc. that have been posted. 

And speakingof conferences, often time the presentations from a conference can be downloaded by attendees, so check out where they were conference sponsors or speakers.

If you have LinkedIn Premium, you can view the employee count, employee distribution and new hiring breakout to give you an idea of how fast they are growing (or not).

Crunchbase is a great site to get all the funcding information.

🤘 Dejan Gajsek
🤘 Dejan Gajsek
Grow and Scale Co-founder and CEOFebruary 16

OOOOhhhh I love that question. 

There are always tracks you just need to start looking for them. I call this operation Ghost Recon. 

  •  Play a Secret Shopper - all of us have some sort of email account for checking messaging levels. Opt-in to the product and check its positioning and messaging. 
  •  Online Fishing holes - While G2, Capterra and TrustPilot usually hold at least few reviews those might be gamified or there are just not that many. Better source? Reddit and private forums or channels like Slack / Discord. Reddit is particularly useful since "all" opinions are unbiased.
  •  Objective Research - Use tools like SpyFu, SimilarWeb, Ahrefs/SemRush to check unusual discrepancies. Did they increase their PPC spend, have they received a bunch of new backlinks (it might be a PR campaign). 
  •  Social Listening - There are specialized tools that capture mention of your competitors ranging from free (Talkwalker, Google Alerts, Reddit tracker) to Paid (Mention, AgoraPulse,...)
  • Social Media - although it could be a bit tedious to search, tools like Social Blade or Vicinitas will reveal top-performing posts in the last short history. Look for "fins" and reverse-engineer what contributed to those spikes.
  • Employee Data - Places like Glassdoor submit anonymous employee reviews. You'd quickly get an inside scoop on the team culture. 

There are a lot more tools and tactics to get the information. Once you do the analysis, you gather all the data, identify patterns, and construct a clearer and more reliable picture of your competitor. 

Joe Abbott
Joe Abbott
Brex VP of Product MarketingJune 22

This is a really great question. For stealth products that are competitive in your sales cycle, it's worth asking your sales team to try to gather information from prospects that are evaluating your competitors. 

Alternatively, you can dig around the internet - suprisingly, Twitter threads and Reddit forums can be just as useful review sites like G2.

I'll go back and say - this is why it's so important to do thorough market research and define super sharp brand positioning pillars with truly unique claims. Makes playing defense so much easier.

Daniel Palay
Daniel Palay
KPI Sense Chief Executive OfficerMarch 1

Two questions about the lack of public-facing marketing that I think can help guide the search:

1. Is the lack of public-facing marketing in fact part of their narrative (secrecy) or marketing ineptitude (which in itself says something)?

2. Does lack of public-facing marketing equate to lack of public-facing discussion (initiated either by the company or the market)?

Knowing the answers to these questions will help direct the search for information. 

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