Shirl Kennedy Beyond Online: In-Depth Report from SLA
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Thursday, 31st May 2007

By Shirl Kennedy

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Shirl KennedyEvery once in a while, I think, it's not a bad idea to venture outside your personal comfort zone. For me, that means getting away from the computer. I spent my formative professional years as a newspaper reporter, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth and there was no Internet, but I am woefully out of the loop these days when it comes to offline information gathering - eg, talking to people. Which is why I chose to attend the three-part presentation 'Beyond Online' at the Special Libraries Association 2007 conference.

The programme description promised: 'A comprehensive competitive intelligence (CI) program requires competitor profiles that go beyond a traditional online search for trade industry news. Attendees will learn how to gather intelligence while attending trade shows and exhibitions (and creating a strategy for maximizing your time at those events); techniques for convincing your organization's sales force to provide intelligence on competitor products gleaned during visits to customers' facilities; and how strategic searching of patent applications and awards can strengthen your competitor profiles.'

Here's how it delivered.

Conference and Trade Show Intelligence

Anne Barron is the president of ABComm <http://www.ab-comm.com/>, a Canadian firm that provides exhibit management and event marketing services as well as competitive intelligence. Her presentation, Conference and Trade Show Intelligence, explained how events like this can be mined for the type of information you are unlikely to find anywhere else.

A conference/trade show is essentially in the public domain. According to Barron, who cited Center for Exhibition Industry Research <http://www.ceir.org/> data, 60% of attendees are there for the first time, which means you may be exposed to new viewpoints, different perspectives, etc. Attendees, she explained, 'tend to be open to new ideas' and 'are quite used to being asked for their opinion'. Additionally, she said, 34% of attendees are senior executives; these are people you would not normally have direct access to under other circumstances. Also, at events like this, you have an opportunity to talk to your competitors (or your client's competitors) as well as competitors' customers. And there are likely to be members of the media and analysts on site as well.

Because these events are such rich environments, Barron said, they provide the opportunity to 'gather in 2-4 days what it would normally take you 6-12 months' to obtain. Be aware of:

  • New product launches. These generally take place at one key industry event each year

  • Who is visiting a competitor's booth. Also observe what is going on in the booth - ie, technology problems, squabbling employees, etc.

  • Overheard cell phone conversations - ie, someone conversing with the home office while on a conference shuttle bus

  • Theatre demos - 'What is being pushed?'

  • Traffic patterns on the exhibit floor, as well as quiet vs. busy times. 'No one wants to be first and no one wants to be the last to leave.'

  • Key products, which are usually displayed at the back of an exhibit booth because the vendor would like you to 'show your commitment' by actually walking into the booth

  • Product literature. 'If you don't see any, ask.'

  • Where you choose to sit during a presentation. Sit up front if you want a chance to talk to a speaker afterwards. 'Loose cannon' speakers can be a valuable source of information.

Above all, these industry events are a key venue for face-to-face communication. 'I love networking where there is food and booze,' Barron said. 'People talk.' She advised mingling - floating in and out of different conversations rather than sticking with a particular group.

If possible, Barron recommended obtaining several different badges - eg, exhibitor, delegate, daily pass - which may give you access to different areas and events. But, she said, you should 'never conceal your identity or misrepresent yourself or your organization'.

Patents and Competitive Intelligence

'Patents show factual information ... true commitment on the part of the organization,' said speaker James L. Grant of the Global Legal Information Science Team in Pfizer's Corporate Legal Patent Department. 'You are hooking into data that is extremely concrete.' According to one EU statistic, he said, 80% of the technical information in patents is not found anywhere else. Points to consider:

  • Look at the images in the patent document. 'Often, a picture says a thousand words to your client.'

  • 'The value of patents is reflected in the investments.' Roughly $800 million is required to develop a prescription drug through all stages

  • Use the patent collections in Dialog or STN to rank inventors (eg, key people working in field) and patent owners (key players).

Techniques for Convincing Your Sales Force to Provide Intelligence

Stephen Schulz - Line of Sight, LLC <http://www.lineofsightgroup.com/> - spent a number of years as a sales professional prior to becoming aCI consultant. So he knows that the sales force can be a rich source of valuable information; they see and hear plenty during customer site visits. But you must make it worth their while to provide this information. Tell them why you need it and how it can work to their benefit, and 'cultivate trust that you will treat that information properly'.

If you don't communicate with the sales team, they feel like their CI contributions go into 'The Black Hole'. That's why it's important to provide feedback. Schulz recommends integrating this information into sales meetings, etc, since it gives the sales reps a chance to share their expertise. Also, he said, 'Salespeople as a rule are very recognition-motivated. A little bit of recognition can go a long, long way.' So when they share information with you, don't forget to send a thank you note or e-mail, with a copy to the boss. Other hints and tips:

  • Be specific about what you want in terms of information so you don't get a lot of 'junk'. Tell them what you want, want to ask for, what to say - eg, 'I heard a rumour the other day that ...'

  • If you're starting a sales force CI programme from scratch, pilot the concept with a few reps first. Among other things, it's a good way to 'turn them into advocates'

  • Remove obstacles to make it easy to contribute. Provide tools such as a discussion guide, comparison form, checklist, contact information, field on a CRM form, etc

  • Consider making it mandatory to contribute information - eg, a policy that is enforced. Make it an expectation of the job.

A Competitive Intelligence Magazine article by Schulz, "Capturing CI Through Your Sales Force", is available at <http://digbig.com/4tcps> (PDF; 27 KB).


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