Getting in-depth information on competitors' performance from the internet can give organisations a distinct business advantage.

For many years, technology was never particularly high on the re/insurance sector's agenda. Although systems were developed and standards were set, it never appeared to develop to its full potential. More recently, however, certain parts of the sector, in particular the personal lines insurers, have seen the opportunities offered by using the internet as an online marketing and sales operations. Now, there is a plethora of products available, and an increasing number of commercial coverages can be accessed using the world wide web. The growth of insurance offerings on the net reflects the growth of the net in general, and one of the more frequent complaints nowadays is that it is just too large to be able to navigate successfully.

But this wealth of information does have its upside. Cyveillance International, a business intelligence consultancy, sees positive advantages in the amount of data available. “While the internet has been embraced as an unparalleled data source for traditional competitive intelligence, few have exploited its full potential for providing strategic competitive intelligence,” said Cyveillance's senior director of client services, Brian Murray. In a recent white paper, Competitive Intelligence Mined from the Internet, Mr Murray outlines how organisations can get one up on their competitors from internet-derived information.

Gathering this information can help an organisation answer some vital questions about its competitors:

  • where, and in what context, do my competitors have a presence online? What insights does their brand reach provide regarding target customer and marketing strategies?
  • What are my customers' partnership strategies, and who are their top online partners? How are my competitors leveraging the value of their partnerships to drive sales and gain market share?
  • What kind of commentary is available online about my competitors? What can it tell me about consumer perceptions and product direction?

    “While adoption of the internet as a competitive intelligence resource is now prevalent, there are still a surprising number of major corporations that have not taken advantage of the internet for this purpose,” commented Mr Murray.

    There is, he said, an “unbelievable wealth” of information online, adding “while the amount of data on the internet can be overwhelming in terms of collection and processing, the breadth of data at one's disposal increases the likelihood of uncovering information that, when analysed, supports smarter business decisions.” The secret, then, is to find and collect the right data.

    The most important thing, recommends Cyveillance, is to “throw a broad net”. According to Cyveillance data less than 2% of a company's online brand presence is within its own domain, on average. In order to get a broader picture, it is necessary to turn not only towards commercial search engines, but also to proprietary data mining and analysis technologies, it recommends. “Some of the more valuable kinds of information that can be extracted ... include an assessment of brand reach, partner identification and analysis of online commentary,” commented Mr Murray. “Brand reach reveals who is seeing competitors' brands and in what context, by analysing data related to the audience exposed to the competitors' brand online. Partner and commentary analyses focus on discrete segments of a competitor's online presence that are of most value in competitive analysis.”

    Brand reach
    Brand reach is a reflection of where on the web a brand exists, and who has access to it. It is not just a factor of internet-based advertising; it is also determined by third party and offline marketing activities, for example. Identifying and monitoring these provides “more robust insights into a competitor's strategy,” said Mr Murray. “For example, an analysis of brand reach allowed a leading insurance company to determine that a head-to-head competitor was actively pursuing a highly targeted, profitable market segment for people engaged in a specific lifestyle. Internet intelligence further revealed the tactics that the competitor was employing to penetrate the market and allowed for the rapid deployment of a counterstrategy to protect market share.”

    Knowing where competitors are absent is just as strong a tool, identifying either a lack of focus or a change in marketing strategy. And analysing the linking relationships of competitors can give a better understanding of brand placement and proliferation, identifying their online partnerships. “Putting these pieces together can provide insights into the internet's role in the consumer experience offered by a competitor, as well as a competitor's customer acquisition strategies,” he commented.

    Analysing online partnerships is a particularly strong tool, and partner sites “deserve perhaps the most attention of any type of site within the context of evaluating the competitor's sale and marketing strategies,” said Mr Murray. “At a higher level, an analysis of these partner sites can help provide insights into competitors' business models and how, if at all, they are leveraging the value of their partnerships on the internet. Competitive business models on the internet do not always mirror offline models.” Identifying the internet models can provide strategic insights, and allow an organisation to put together counter-strategies.

    “As with brand reach, the more results suggest that a competitor has a focused online marketing strategy, the more value to be gained by analysing their partners,” he said. “A focused strategy that includes a well-managed partner network is generally the result of a well thought out plan of attack and substantial investment of time and resources. The intelligence resulting from analysis of such a direct competitor can be used to create or enhance your own network of partners,” though if a competitor's relationship is already cemented, it may become difficult to establish what is essentially a competing relationship.

    Commentary
    Tactical online information can come from a variety of sources: competitors' sites, SEC and other government filings, financial message boards, patent filings, job listings, news articles and the suchlike. In addition, the Usenet environment can provide insights into the range of opinions on an organisation, though the challenge is often in analysing the comments from such sources. Commentary and opinion in these and other areas can help identify strengths and weaknesses of an organisation, and can be exploited for competitive advantage. “Best practices can be adopted and ‘worst' practices can be exploited,” commented Mr Murray.

    But just as more information can be gleaned about competitors from the internet, so can competitors get to know more about you.

    It is now far more difficult to protect sensitive information, and some organisations are limiting the amount of information they post in an effort to protect their positions. “In addition to the need for controlling the outflow of information, it also means that monitoring one's own presence on the internet can be as important as monitoring that of a competitor,” he warned. “Knowing and managing what intelligence is available to a competitor can help limit risk and improve decision-making.”

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