Billion dollar companies rely on competitive intelligence to stay ahead in their markets. What lessons can the rest of us take from how they use CI to make better decisions?
This week on The Inbound Success Podcast, Cipher Systems VP of Marketing John Booth talks about what competitive intelligence is, and how companies can use it to inform decision making.
Cipher's customers are some of the largest companies in the world, and they have highly specialized units dedicated exclusively to competitive intelligence.
Not every company has the budget, or the team, to support that, so John explains what the rest of us should be looking at, and how we should use information about our competitors to develop marketing and business strategies.
Highlights from my conversation with John include:
Many marketers use the terms data, information and intelligence interchangeably, but they are very different things. Intelligence is the product of analyzing information and data, and it requires people to do it.
There's also a lot of confusion around the difference between business intelligence, market intelligence and competitive intelligence. BI is the information you have within your own business, whereas MI is the information about what is happening in the market.
Competitive intelligence is information about your markets and also your competitors and how that influences your ability to sell within your markets or deliver the services that your business does.
There are three kinds of software tools used in competitive intelligence: 1) Generic tools like Sharepoint or Google Alerts that can be used or many things: 2) Specific tools like Klue that are built to fulfill a very particular need, such as sales enablement; and 3) Purpose-built tools like Cipher's Knowledge360, which are built specifically for competitive intelligence professionals.
Before any business engages in competitive intelligence, it should start by developing a deep understanding of its differentiators, strengths and weaknesses.
Competitive intel is used by businesses to make strategic decisions about things like pricing, sales strategies, messaging, and marketing.
Cipher uses competitive intel for its own business decision making, and specifically has a dashboard it calls the "competition crusher" where it tracks what its competitors are doing.
I'm Kathleen Booth and I'm your host. This week, my guest is none other than my husband John Booth. Welcome John.
John Booth (Guest): Well, I mean, it only took 150 some odd episodes for me to get an invitation.
Kathleen: Saving the best for last. So I don't know if my listeners know this, but John and I, so John and I used to own a marketing agency together for 11 years and somehow miraculously, we're still married.
And when people ask me what he does now, I always say he does the same thing I do just at a different company. He is also a vice president of marketing. He is VP of marketing for a company called Cipher Systems, which is in the competitive intelligence space.
So John, for those who may not know you, who may not know Cipher, can you just tell my audience a little bit about yourself as well as about Cipher systems and what it does?
About John Booth and Cipher Systems
John: Sure. So as Kathleen said, I was a part of our digital agency for about a dozen years or so. And before that I held different sales positions started out in the staffing world and then held lots of different positions there. But since Quintain, I have joined Cipher systems and Cipher is a small, there's probably about 20 of us now, competitive intelligence firm.
John: And we'll give to the definition of that because it's, I think it's very important. I see a lot of similarities in the competitive intelligence to what I saw in the content inbound marketing world maybe 10 years ago.
So it's it's a, it's a developing industry and I think more and more people within the organizations, particularly certainly larger organizations are finding the need for, and using competitive intelligence today.
But so we have a classic kind of services side of the business. And, and then in addition to that, we have a technology or a software side of the business where we have a software platform.
It's a cloud based competitive intelligence platform that acts as a knowledge management system, as well as the competitive intelligence tools for all of your competitive Intel and dashboards and reports and newsletters and, and information like that.
Kathleen: And what kinds of companies does Cipher work with?
John: So Cipher works with large organizations. So our ideal buyer has more than a billion dollars in revenue. Typically at least 5,000 employees, they're headquartered in the United States and they operate in industries that have one or one of two key kind of characteristics.
The first is they're either highly regulated. So think financial services, insurance, healthcare, or the industries are incredibly competitive. So think about things like technology government contractors those types of industries. So those are, those are kind of the, the ingredients that make for the need for competitive intelligence.
Kathleen: So side note, I just think it's really funny this doing this interview because I am interviewing you like I don't know the answers to these questions already. But everyone listening doesn't so I still need to ask them.
So one of the reasons I wanted you to talk about who you work for or with the kinds of companies you work for is that, it's the thing that I have found interesting, kind of watching as you've worked there is that prior to you working at Cipher, you know, I was familiar with the field of competitive intelligence, you know, roughly but there are such different levels of it, right?
I mean, the stuff that you guys do, like you were saying, it's really big companies that have, you know, the stakes are high. They have a lot to lose. It's highly competitive or regulated or this or that. It's serious business.
And they have teams of people whose jobs are just to do competitive intelligence. And then you have like the kind of competitive intelligence that, that smaller companies do where you're like, I've got a Google alert on my competitor, you know, that sort of thing. And so it's, it's very interesting to me the different shades of it.
So segwaying from that, you mentioned defining competitive intelligence. So like how do you guys see it? What is it, how do you define it?
What is competitive intelligence?
John: So so there are a couple of key definitions, just so the audience and, and the two of us are on kind of the same page here. So the first one is the difference between let's define data, information and intelligence.
So an example of data might be the number three. Okay. So that is data. Alright.
Information is a series of data pieces. So an example, a pretty example of information is a streetlight. So a streetlight has three different colored lights, right? Red, yellow, and green. All right. And so when red is on, I stop when yellow is, I slowed down or hit the gas.
And when green is, I continue on my way. So that is, so that is information. So there's several different data points there. There's the number of lights, what the, the, the meaning of those lights.
Intelligence is the product of analysis. So intelligence requires people today. So so you might hear a lot of the impact of artificial intelligence on competitive intelligence and market intelligence and things like that. So today, intelligence requires a human being to perform some type of analysis and deliver some types of insights to the business that's intelligence.
And that is that's what has value. So just simply gathering information, there's no value that's delivered to the organization. It's not until a person actually applies the filters and understandings and kind of teases out what this might mean that there is any value delivered, and that is intelligence.
So then I'm going to define three other terms that are often kind of used interchangeably. And they shouldn't be much like a, when we had our agency often found that people would use marketing, advertising and PR interchangeably, when, as marketers, we all know that those are completely different you know, services and they mean different things, but to the lay person, they kind of get interchanged interchangeably.
So competitive intelligence market intelligence and business intelligence are often interchanged kind of the same way.
So let's use business intelligence. So business intelligence, we define that as the, the information that the business intelligence is based off of information on your business. So if you think about if all of the information that we have within our four walls of our business, that is our business intelligence.
Okay. So if you manufacture something that might be how many widgets that you can manufacture in an hour and how many people you need and the profitability of those widgets, et cetera.
So business intelligence really means focused on your business, right? No external sources or information, it's all internal data.
Market intelligence is just that it is the market. It might be trends in the market. It, it might be consumer behavior and how consumers are responding to certain trends or, or things along those lines.
And then competitive intelligence is information about your markets and also your competitors and how that influences your ability to sell within your markets or deliver the services that your business does.
Kathleen: So earlier you mentioned that competitive intelligence requires people, but you guys sell competitive intelligence software. So like, how does that work?
John: Because software, obviously it doesn't have people in it, but so think of it as think of it as this. What's a good analogy?
So if I am a marketer and I have a tool like HubSpot, which we love, because it allows me to host my website, allows me to post and schedule my social. It allows me to have my content and edit it and do keyword work. All of that helps me with my marketing strategy and deliver a strategy.
So you wouldn't buy HubSpot and say, Oh, well, HubSpot is going to do my marketing strategy. It's, you know, it's going to, you know, help me be a better marketer. Yes. But it still requires people to deliver that strategy.
You know, you you're using a tool. Yes. but the tools can never, they, there are at least the tools today can not replace what an analyst, a researcher, a strategist, a person, a marketer, could be a product marketer. You know, what a person does.
What kinds of tools are available to support competitive intelligence?
Kathleen: And I feel like there's this vast array of tools out there for competitive intelligence. Like I mentioned earlier, it's everything from a simple Google or all the way up to a platform like you guys have that is used by huge corporations. So maybe you could speak to like, kind of what that landscape looks like.
John: Right. So one of the one of the things that we're trying to educate people that are looking for tools are the different types of tools.
We believe there are three different kinds of tools out there. There are what we call generic tools, and those are tools that are typically they've been built for a different purpose, but they're often adopted or adapted to a competitive intelligence use.
And a good example of that is SharePoint. So SharePoint wasn't built for competitive intelligence, but SharePoint is, it can be an adequate kind of knowledge management source.
It can, you know, you can have teams adding information to it and downloading information. You could even, you know, use some of the collaborative features there, et cetera. And so that's like the use of a generic tool.
And then you have your your second type of CI tools, a tool that is built for a specific really for a specific person purpose. And, and an example of that is, so there's a company, one of our competitors, Klue. And they do a very good job of sales enablement.
So if you have a large sales team and you want to empower your sales team to close more deals, and you want to give your sales team the resources that they need to have the right information at their fingertips, when they're on calls and and kind of, and, and sell against other competitors, they're a great tool for that.
And then you have the third category, which is kind of that the tool that is built specifically for competitive intelligence and, and those are tools that do primarily three things. They gather information.
So they're going to allow you to aggregate information and that information could come in from newsfeeds. It might come in from subscriptions to information, the research that you have it, it might be internal documents that you have kind of those business intelligence documents that we talked about.
It might be information that your sales or marketing team uncovers maybe during the course of their day.
So one of the things that, that we help companies with is most companies have just, just dozens, if not hundreds of nuggets of information within the organization, but they just don't have the ability to give it visibility.
So, you know, it's, you know, the salesperson that knows what he's up against for a particular deal, because the prospect shared this with them and it's sitting within his inbox and he's the only person that has access to his inbox.
So the product marketing team that is getting ready to do the roadmap for their product, can't see what the customer, the prospect is looking for because they don't have access to this information.
So that third tool allows all of this information to go into it.
And then with our tool, we use artificial intelligence and natural language processing to automatically tag this information. And we use semantic learning for it to identify things like location company and individuals by reading through and analyzing the, the, the content that you're adding to the system.
So, there are those types of tools and, and it's interesting.
We did some research a couple of years ago. The pharmaceutical industry is by far kind of the most advanced commercial, competitive intelligence kind of industry. Most other industries, they're still kind of developing CI practices and, and most outside of the pharmaceutical industry.
And I kind of call that life sciences. So not strictly just pharmaceuticals. Most organizations have I think it's like 1.2 people working on their CI. So not big teams, not, not at all.
How can marketers use competitive intelligence?
Kathleen: Yeah. It's so interesting. It's such a specialized field. I feel like you know, now coming back to kind of, the focus of this podcast obviously is inbound marketing.
So a lot of marketers are listening and this can seem very unapproachable because like, for example, if you guys, you work with really large companies and they have these dedicated people let's start with what, how are those companies using competitive intelligence and how is that helping them make better business decisions or get better results from their businesses.
And then we can kind of bring it back down to, for smaller companies, what are ways they could begin to approach this? So let's begin some like actual examples of how this plays out.
John: Okay. So so I think that that, that the marketers marketers today, this is, this is my own belief. I believe they're, they're waking up to this need for competitive intelligence because your inbound marketing is no longer delivering the results that you were seeing before.
So for just about a decade or so, we have as marketers, we've been really focused on the content I'm creating and attract, creating content, solving problems, answering questions, et cetera.
And we've been rewarded with that with prospects and customers and results, and kind of the, you know, Marcus shared approach. They have questions kind of, you know, answer their questions and, and, you know, you'll be rewarded well.
In the beginning that was really, really successful because there were fewer people doing it and, and the people that were doing it for the most part were really doing it.
You know, it's not until much later that you're downloading the ebook and it's actually just 18 PowerPoint slides with two bullets on each slide and has nothing to do with an actual book.
So we have to, as marketers look for things that are going to give us results. And so, as we were focused kind of internally on what we're talking about, what our prospects and customers are talking about, we're really ignoring what was going on in our market and our competitors. And so we were ignoring these macro issues.
And so competitive intelligence is kind of the other side of the equation. So you know, you've take your prospects and your customers, and that's one piece of success. And then, but, but you can't do that in a vacuum.
Those that do SEO work understand that. So you find out what your teams are, you know, what you want to rank for and what your competitors are ranking for. And then you do SEO work to help change those rankings.
Well, your competitors, don't just sit still. They're also looking at what's going on in the market and looking at the actions that you're doing.
And so, you know, we found this need to to address, well, how do I understand what's going on in the marketplace and how do I position myself against my competitors or the other options that that my prospects and customers have.
So that's a long roundabout way of explaining how companies are using competitive intelligence to better deploy their resources.
And so when, when you're doing this before, you can get to actually doing competitive intelligence work, you have to have a really clear understanding of your differentiators and, and your vulnerabilities.
So that's where, you know, somebody who wants to begin doing competitive intelligence work, I would challenge them to to, to sit down and do the, the work on how are you different from your competitors, you know, and, and where do you have overlap and where is that overlap?
Where does that lead to, or where could you be vulnerable because of that overlap?
What impact does competitive intelligence have on businesses?
Kathleen: So the larger companies that you guys work with, obviously have that part figured out. They, you know, they have their teams in place, they understand their differentiators. So when they undertake competitive intelligence, how are they using it? Like in practical terms to get better business results?
Do you have some case studies or some success stories or anything like that that you can share of how, like, how does competitive intelligence produce better outcomes for these companies?
John: Yes. So this was this was a very kind of rude awakening coming from the marketing agency world where you know, you have clients and you're working with clients and you're doing great work for them.
And you ask your clients, Hey, you know, would you mind providing a testimonial, a quote, being a part of a, you know, a white paper case study you know, sharing your experience and, and usually it's, Oh yeah.
You know, they're very supportive of that when you are in the competitive intelligence world, nobody wants to talk about the tools that they're using, what you're doing for them, because by nature of it, you are, you know, you're giving away intelligence for your competitors to use against you.
Kathleen: You know what other industry is like that? Cybersecurity. I know that, of which you speak.
John: So let me, I can talk in some kind of in general terms. So we estimate and Cipher has been around for 20, 25 years.
We estimate that most most people doing CI work spend about 70% of their time gathering and organizing information. If we go back to the definitions that we had of data, information, and intelligence, data and information add zero value to the business.
So you're spending 70% of your time on things that have no value add to the business. Only 30% of your time is on the analysis, developing the insights, you know, all of that information that your CI consumers, whether it be your sales teams, your, your C suite, your product development team, your marketers, they all need this information, but the bulk of your time is spent gathering it and, and organizing it.
And, that is because your business is complicated and information comes in lots of different forms, and some of it is structured. And some of it is unstructured. You know, you have information internal reports.
You have, as I mentioned before, you have emails that are received from salespeople. You have teams that are out in the field and going to trade shows and seeing you know, what your competitors, their messages at their trade show boots, you have competitor websites that are changing and messaging.
And so so what our tool does is it automates a lot of that. For example we have many customers before they started using our tool Knowledge360, that would have 18 number.
And some of them would have more that would manually go out to competitors' websites and look at their websites and look for changes in their websites.
And that could be pricing changes if you're in an industry or, or, you know, a market that is price sensitive, you want to know about those changes. And, you know, it could be messaging changes.
So by using a tool like Knowledge360, we can automate that. And so the tool goes out, it gathers the information. It says, Hey, this page has changed. It highlights the, the, the new information, you know, and, and that's, that's there in one color, it highlights the information that has been changed or removed and another color.
And now an analyst can take a look at that and say, Oh, this is really meaningful. You know, so that's, that's an example of how are a tool like ours or how anyone can use competitive intelligence.
So, to monitor the messaging that your competitors are using, or if they have a pricing page, you know, you can, you can monitor that for changes in their pricing.
How do companies use competitive intelligence?
Kathleen: So it sounds like the tool itself can be used to save time to streamline the process, but like, what are these companies doing with this information? How, like, why are they spending all this money on competitive intelligence? What is it doing things successful?
John: So if you think about this so it's helping them be successful by giving insights and providing this intelligence that your decision makers are looking for. And ultimately, hopefully you're, you're enabling them to make better informed decisions.
So if you think about think about someone that has you know, you're wearing glasses, but they have blinders on, and you can only see right in front of you. And you're making your decisions based on your field of vision that is just in front of you.
Now, you take those away and you have a wider field of vision, and you have more information. You may, you may make a different decision.
Kathleen: What's an example of something, a marketing thing that I might do differently based on the information I would find?
John: So here's, here's an example. So if I have a, let's say I'm a nationwide company and I compete with someone on the East coast. Okay. And they're a good competitor. I went against them. Sometimes they went against me sometimes. But I have offices on the East coast and also on the West coast.
Well, if I had a CI department, one of the things they might be monitoring or looking for is job postings with my competitors. So if all of a sudden, one of my competitors is posting a sales manager position in the Seattle market, and they're not in the Seattle market. And one of my key customers is in the Seattle market.
Oh, that's something that I want to know about because it looks like my competitor is coming into, if they're going to invest in building out a sales team, putting an office in Seattle.
Now, all of a sudden, my sales people that have only had to deal with maybe the competitors that were in that local market without this East coast competitor, they now need to be aware of this new competitor coming into the market. And that may change how we position ourselves. It may change how we price things. It may change, you know, the terms of her contracts. It could have all types of different information, you know, of, of business decisions that we make.
How Cipher uses competitive intelligence for itself
Kathleen: So I'm assuming that you guys are, as I like to say, drinking your own champagne, because I don't like the phrase eating your own dog food. So how does Cipher use competitive intelligence?
John: So so we use this fantastic tool called Knowledge360. It's very comprehensive.
We have several dashboards that we use. And one in particular that is called our competition crusher. And so with our competition crusher dashboard, it's a feed of news announcements on it's a feed of social. It has intelligence that our salespeople gain talking to prospects and customers.
Our marketing team will add information like messaging changes that we might see and all of this battle cards.
So if we know we're going up against a particular competitor, we want to, you know, we want to draw attention to these benefits of using our product.
And, and if we know that there are gaps, you know, we want to ask our prospects about, you know, the gaps that we know our competitors have.
So, that's one example of how we're using it to kind of gather all of that information, organize it in a way, you know, and the beauty of using something you're using a tool that provides dashboards is the dashboards are updated in real time.
So unlike, you know, most people, if they have any experience or exposure to CI work it's typically a part of the, you know, quarterly sales meeting. And there's somebody that comes up that says competitor ABC is doing this.
And then, you know, they share the PowerPoint deck and, you know, a quarter later another report comes out, but there's a lot of time and a lot of change that goes on between, you know, the publishing of those two different reports.
And, you know, you may make different decisions having a dashboard that's always on always available, always monitoring. You're always getting the most up to date information.
And so we share that with our leadership team, our sales team, marketing team, customer, all of them add to, and, and consume information from those dashboards.
Prediction markets and the future of competitive intelligence
Kathleen: And then real quickly, because I feel like this could be an entirely other podcast episode. I feel like with competitive intelligence, you're looking at things that have already happened, right?
You guys have something I find fascinating, which is this other side to your business where you can do much more predictive stuff. It's super cool. And you have something called predictive markets.
So can you, somewhat quickly because we are coming up on our time, just give people a sense of what I mean, cause that's really like competitive intelligence looking into the future, if you will, or trying to figure out what's gonna happen in the future. So how does that work?
John: So that is really cool stuff and it is relatively new. So Cipher systems and another company Consensus Point, we merged towards the end of last year.
Consensus Point is a a research company. So as competitive intelligence professionals, they gather information and they do research.
You have two primary types of research yet. Primary research and secondary research, secondary research being research that's available to anyone and those might be market reports or things that are publicly available and anyone has access to those or they're not restricted.
Primary research is research that you do, you hire someone to do on your behalf and that's information that you have. And that if, if done correctly and on the appropriate things could be a competitive advantage having this primary information or more information about a particular topic.
Well, what you're talking about is predictive markets research. So if you think about primary research, most people are familiar with polls and surveys. And so that is a traditional kind of primary research method that is it's, it's very effective for certain things.
It's also riddled with problems for other things, for example human beings in general, we are very poor predictors of our own performance. So you know, just ask anyone with a child and ask them how bright their child is.
Nobody is going to tell you that their child is below average average, you know, they're Oh, you know, top 1%, 10%, 5%. Well, that's not true because most of us are average.
Kathleen: That's why it's the definition. 90% of us are not in the top 10%.
John: That's exactly right. So what a prediction market is, is it is think of a market, probably one of the most common is the stock market.
So, you know, the stock market is a platform where people have are placing wagers on whether or not, you know, the value of a company is going to increase or decrease.
So if you think about this, and this is a great book that I'll have to give you. It's by a poker player. I'll give it to you so you can add to the show notes, but basically if you ask somebody, you know, do you think Apple stock is going to be higher than it is the value of it is going to be higher in one month from today's point you know, you might say, yes.
Okay, well, how much are you willing to bet it's up? So if you put real money, your hard earned money, like how many shares of Apple stock are you willing to purchase at today's price?
John: You know, and it is, are your beliefs, do they change? So a prediction market is, you are using the social behavioral characteristics of individuals and their collective kind of wisdom of the crowd, thinking about whether or not the probability of something becoming true or taking place.
And so that is a much more accurate indicator of actual events that happen than simply asking someone in a survey or a poll.
So now, what we're so excited about is the two of those together.
So now you know, our platform, not only do we help aggregate information that you're gathering and do that analysis on it, we are now adding this research component to the tool as well, so that you can do your research. You can, you know, you can store it within one central repository and you can make it available to the organization as it needs to be
Kathleen: Cool. And I know you guys are using it for things like trying to predict what the world post COVID is going to look like and all kinds of other really interesting forward looking applications. So thank you for sharing that.
Kathleen's two questions
Kathleen: We are now coming towards the end of our time, so I wanna make sure I squeeze in my couple of questions that I ask everybody. The first is, of course we are all about inbound marketing on this podcast. So is there a particular company or individual that you think is really killing it with inbound marketing right now?
John: Let's see, you know, I I just recently became aware of a tool MarketMuse. I think that they're doing a very good job with their messaging, kind of very classic, kind of inbound marketing freemium model, et cetera. So I would say that they're one company that does a really good job of inbound marketing.
And I have to say then another one that comes to mind and you know, full disclosure here, I'm a customer and and a big fan of Databox. I think Databox, and Pete Caputa's doing a phenomenal job there. He cranks out more content and they use their chat panel to support customers and are really all about helping customers solve problems. And they're, they're doing a fantastic job. I think, of inbound marketing.
Kathleen: Yeah, Pete's awesome. And fun fact, he was a very early guest of this podcast. So if you want to get some insight into how Pete does marketing, you can listen to that episode with him. And I will put that link in the show notes.
Question number two. The biggest challenge I hear marketers share with me is that so much changes so quickly in the world of digital marketing. So how do you personally keep yourself educated and up to date on everything that's going on?
John: I have a hugely unfair advantage being married to a fantastic marketer who is constantly scouring the interweb for the latest and greatest tool and slacking me at home because yes, we have our own personal Slack channel for our youngest son and Kathleen and myself. But, selfishly I rely heavily on what you share with me.
Kathleen: Well, that's a valid answer and it's true.
I mean, it's so funny. So we're sitting here, it's during the COVID pandemic and of course we're still working from home. So I am up in my office, which is on the second floor of our house.
John is in his current office, which is smack dab in the middle of our kitchen. And we are Zooming with each other from two rooms away and yes, we Slack each other from two rooms away all week long.
So we are the big old marketing nerds that do that.
How to connect with John
Kathleen: All right. If somebody wants to connect with you learn more about Knowledge360, ask you a question about competitive intelligence. What is the best way for them to connect with you online?
John: I would say the best way to connect with me is via LinkedIn. John Booth, like the guy that shot Lincoln, but not related. And if you want to learn more about Knowledge360, you can go out to Cipher-sys.com or TryK360.com and learn.
You know what to do next...
Kathleen: Awesome. I will share that in the show notes. Thank you for joining me, John. I know you have a busy day. We are recording on a Sunday and I'm pretty sure there's like some kind of house project that you want to be working on instead of recording a podcast with me.
And if you're listening and you learn something new and you like what you heard, please, head to Apple podcasts, leave the podcast at five star review. That is how other people find us. And I would really appreciate it. But that is it for this week. Thank you, John.
John: Thank you, Kathleen.
Kathleen: And happy father's day. Because we are recording on father's day. You're the best for doing this for me. Thank you. Alright. That's it for this week. Thanks for listening everyone.
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