Being thin can be a good thing. But not when it comes to your marketing department. Working lean can mean you don't have an adequate budget, the proper supplies, or nearly enough help.

How Can You Continue to Work in These Conditions and Be Effective?

This issue's dilemma queries all of you about how to put some meat on your marketing team's bones—without adding bodies. What tips can you give to improve daily productivity without working overtime or adding staff members?

Thanks go to all you international “spies” who gave such valuable advice on how to gather relevant information about the competition. Read below to see your peers' best advice about being more competent than James Bond.

If you don't think thin is in, or if you're tired of spying on your mates, write to us and ask our SWOT Team about your own dilemma. Tapping into our collective experience, strength and hope really works. You could win a copy of our book, A Marketer's Guide to e-Newsletter Publishing.

SWOT Team, unite! Here's how you can make a difference:

This Issue's Dilemma

SWOT Category: Internal Weakness

Any tips on marketing with a bare-bones staff?

I know a lot of you are the same position, and so I'm crossing my fingers that you can give me some coping advice. Our marketing team consists of three people: one focused mainly on public relations, one director, and me—the project manager. I'm supposed to do all and be all, but I'm having a hard time prioritizing things and meeting deadlines.

Currently, I develop marketing campaigns for individual business units, oversee market research, interface with the sales staff, coordinate details for many projects, including working with outside vendors, and help the director get all of my stuff approved by the executive team.

Without working 70 hours a week (because I have a life, too), how can I be more effective and better prioritize my time?

—Serena, Project Manager

Previous Dilemma

SWOT Category: External Opportunity

What is the single best source for competitive data?

Every marketer knows you can't plan and implement a full-blown marketing campaign without first verifying what your competitors are doing.

So, my question to you is, Where do you get benchmarking information to fuel your campaigns? Do you call the competition and act like a prospect to get info about how they market their offering for the best return on their investment (number of leads)? Do you order reports from consultants? Do you contact your competition's customers? I know there are many valuable ways to get this information.

I'm just wondering, in your opinion, what is the best source of competitive information for your company, given limited budgets?

—Paul H., Project Manager

Summary of Advice Received

Paul, the advice we received from your peers makes James Bond look like a sissy. Many people responded with strategic, logical and sophisticated ways to go about finding out more about your competition. (Incidentally, several of them concealed their identities—quite fitting for the top-secret theme.)

Being a “spy” seems less about being covert than using common sense. One anonymous SWOT Team member describes the complexity of this dilemma and the possible dangers of working undercover:

There is no best single-source of competitive intelligence. It depends on the market segment, product, information being sought, etc. Good competitive intelligence also requires the use of multiple sources and the ability to put together pieces of the puzzle from: competitive sales force, public information, annual reports, investment analysts, ex-employees, industry pundits, and many others. This can be done on a budget, but it requires time, patience, and creativity. Lastly, doing competitive intelligence in a deceitful, underhanded way can backfire. The company seeking the information has only one reputation. Ruining it by lying will have long-term consequences.

Even though several suggestions for compiling competitive information include a variety of approaches, the main five categories for the majority of the SWOT Team members' advice are as follows:

1. Rely on existing relationships for information.

2. Contact the competition directly.

3. Conduct actual surveillance.

4. Hire free or professional resources.

5. Develop analysis tools and remember your goals.

1. Rely on existing relationships for information

Many of the responses we received insinuate that you don't need fancy gadgets to find competitive information. Much of this info is right in front of your nose. Count on your relationships with current customers, suppliers and your sales force to help assemble competitive profiles.

An anonymous respondent suggests the following ways of finding answers through these relationships:

Here are some of the things we do on a very limited budget: When your customers use multiple suppliers like they do in our industry, building a good relationship with them creates opportunities where they will gladly share detailed information about what your competition is doing. Build good relationships, and you'll pave the way to getting great information for nothing. This method has allowed us to find out about unpublished, special deals that the competition offers select customers, as well as a lot of other interesting policies that help us to shape and direct our own campaigns. Every year we do a highly detailed customer survey and ask customers to rate us against the competition. This way we know how we are doing comparatively in the marketplace on everything from timeliness of deliveries to having enough phone lines.

A vice president of marketing and communications for National Cable Communications adds:

We draw from our customers. We're in the advertising business approaching $1B in annual sales. Obviously, in this highly competitive business, we need to know many things about our competition. Using our key customer relationships provides a very credible source of business intelligence, since most published data from competitors very rarely mirrors actual sales processes.

Along with customers, an anonymous SWOT Team member recommends gathering information from suppliers:

In our experience, the most accurate information on future competitive actions comes from two major touch points—our customers and our suppliers. This information has been more accurate than reports from consultants, and is much less work and more ethical than pretending to be a prospect. The best part of implementing this type of process is that it is forward looking, and not relying on the competitors' past reactions, although those are important to consider as well.

Erin Robinson, in Sales Communication for Reynolds & Reynolds, advises you to look to your current sales team for help:

We receive a lot of our competitive information from field sales. They are the associates in the trenches with our customers every day. Once we receive the information, we do some research to verify its validity and then we publish it back out to the field. This works very well to inform the field of the competition's selling strategies and how they are approaching customers.

2. Contact the competition directly

Some of the advice we received encourages you to come out from under your camouflage and confront the competition openly. Other recommendations include altering your identity or using an accomplice to get closer to the competition.

What would Agent 007 do? Probably something far different from what most of you would do.

Stefanie Antunes, Consultant for MC3 Intel, provides the following strategic guidance:

As someone who's done competitive intelligence (CI) both in an internal function and now as a CI consultant, I think the best way to get competitor information is at trade shows. Most CI professionals pride themselves on getting great information in legal and ethical ways—and a trade show is the best way to do this without compromising your, or your company's, value system. Learning the art of asking the right questions is another story. Ask a question that will lead to what you want to know, without making your competitor feel like they're telling you something they shouldn't.

Mayra Harley, President of Smart Marketing Concepts, suggests collecting competitive materials:

It is good to collect marketing materials and product brochures as they provide *hints* into their thinking. But for me, the best place to seek information is to read the company's press releases archive. Even better, if the company is public, then more in-depth information is made available through public filings with SEC.

An undercover SWOT Team member adds:

I have found the most effective way of finding out information about the competition is to call them. I make a list of questions on what I need to know, then make at least three different calls to the competition. I often get tips that something is going on when customers call to find out if we have something better. I find it is useful to have my customer service team ask questions and give me the heads up. The Internet is also a good source of detailed information if your competitors update their sites regularly.

Business owner Ken Moore gives this advice for contacting the competition directly:

Sign up as one of their clients. I have found similar services to those that I offer and I sign up as a user. This has several advantages:

1. I get great ideas on services.

2. I learn the going price.

3. Marketing techniques are very useful.

4. Very important: I see the over-inflated promises and I can springboard off them into real advantages.

5. I do my spying and my initial inquiries using a spam catcher e-mail address.

Charles Von Thun, CEO of PositiveWare, Inc., recommends relying on current relationships as well as contacting the competitor's employees to ensure you do not launch a new product release “into the teeth of a competitor's spending”:

The competitor's employees are really the best source. Someone at a lower level in a sales or marketing role will probably cough up the best information, with no deception required. You are definitely interested, after all, and that is all you need to express. It is their job to qualify you.

3. Conduct actual surveillance

One SWOT Team member is a practicing secret agent. He describes how he uses surveillance:

As an independent specialty retailer, I have found that surveillance is a great way to gather info. On more than one occasion, I have watched customers come out of my competitors' stores and made note of what the customers are carrying out. This provides a snapshot of what they are selling. (Fortunately, the products in my business are large and heavy, so they are not often bagged.) Another trick is to buy something small from your competitor first thing in the morning and at the end of the day. Most cash register receipts have an invoice number, so you can see how many customers they have had in a day. This only works with certain register operations.

4. Hire free or professional resources

A few external organizations provide competitive data for free. Others charge a fee for their consulting services.

Constandse, in Market Research for Unimills, describes free services:

To find competitive data, some companies look at annual reports, search on the Internet for news about the competitor and visit their Web site. These are free sources to get good competitive information about the company, their products, strategy and financial information and more.

Kitty Delaney, Director at Delaney Woods and Associates Pty. Ltd., explains how consulting services work:

Information brokers develop an overview of the competition and the client's industry. This includes finding data online, telephone research, sourcing newspaper articles, financial research and so on. Brokers put together a package from this information for the client who makes decisions based on this secondary information. Sometimes research indicates there is a need for primary data gathering—but most of the time secondary information is sufficient information to get the client started.

Another secret agent gives this tip for unearthing information:

There are several ways to get competitive information on a shoestring budget. The trade-off is often time. If yours is an industry or product where little information is available, consider developing a survey about product features and share the results with participants. (Be sure to check with your legal team to avoid anti-trust issues here).

If you have a sales force, ask them for competitive information. Troll the publications (and save articles written by or about your competition) for clues as to their products and strategies moving forward. Finally, most people are pretty open on the phone. Just call them up and ask them questions. Be prepared to share information about your product in return.

5. Develop analysis tools and remember your goals

Whether you get help from another organization or consultant or do the research yourself, use an analysis tool to document the information. One anonymous SWOT Team member gives this tip for analyzing data:

The starting basis for any research should be a Competitor Matrix and a Product Matrix whereby all competitive offerings are listed by attribute. Initially, this can be populated by using competitor advertising material. Once the basics are completed, the next step is to request the sales force's help in obtaining additional information. This is easily obtained from customers or prospects and could range from copies of competitor proposals to quotations. The information gleaned from these should be used to further populate the matrices. Only once all these inexpensive sources of data have been exhausted should one, in my opinion, resort to external research consultants. The reason being that these companies often do not have the same industry and product insight as you and your staff have, and the answers they come up with are often not at the level or depth that are required. The amount of time spent on briefing them often outweighs the benefits of their input. Lastly, a point to note is that a SWOT analysis should not be an event but a process. SWOT analysis is a living document that should be constantly updated and reviewed. All too often this is done only once a year at strategic planning or budgeting time. The same applies to the Competitor and Product Matrix. By following these principals, you can take a lot of pain and aggravation out of the SWOT process.

One thing to remember when analyzing any kind of data is that the outcome should reflect your goals for collecting the competitive information. Mr. Yaman of Fidelo states eloquently that you should contact those in the marketplace directly or indirectly. His zen advice supports all ways of learning about the competition:

Contact your customers, those who you wish were your customers, and your competitors. The goals are where the answers are.

Hurrah for SWOT Team Espionage!

We did our best to provide a thorough overview of your thoughtful responses to this timely topic. Thanks for your participation, and if you would like the complete text of all responses for your own analysis, please click here.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Hank Stroll (Hank@InternetVIZ.com) is publisher at InternetVIZ, a custom publisher of 24 B2B e-newsletters reaching 490,000 business executives.

Tamara is a writer at InternetVIZ and is available for freelance work.