Here’s a fast, cheap & ethical competitive intelligence tip for you:
Trade shows are awash in valuable CI
Trade show intelligence gathering
Trade shows are an excellent source of competitive intelligence (CI), both human and written. Attending a trade show with a calculated view to obtaining CI can be a very cost-effective exercise. The key to trade show intelligence is first to determine what our intelligence objectives are. Once we have decided what specific pieces of intelligence we desire, we can formulate a plan of attack, identifying likely sources of CI as well as who will be responsible for obtaining each piece of intelligence.
Much of the work of planning a trade show CI mission can now be done in advance using the Internet. Most trade shows have websites which can be mined for useful information such as who will be speaking as well as a map layout of where each competitor’s presence will be located. We can often find photographs of specific human targets we may wish to approach for human intelligence efforts.
The intelligence-gathering team
In approaching a tradeshow for intelligence-gathering purposes, team organization is very important. There are several different roles to fulfill:
- Team leader: responsible for planning, organization, setting intelligence goals, determining specific targets, assigning specific intelligence objectives to field operatives, communicating final results
- Field operatives: responsible for obtaining specific pieces of intelligence, through physical collection, observation and human intelligence
- Analysts: Responsible for obtaining pre-trade show intelligence gathering, collating and analyzing intelligence gathered from field operatives
The reality for many of us is that we are a “CI department of one,” and will have to perform all of these functions alone. The alternative may be to hire students from a school that teaches market research and CI, who are often thankful for paid entrance to a useful trade show. In any event, careful consideration of each of these functions is necessary in order to carry out a successful trade show intelligence-gathering mission.
Planning the mission
The role of the team leader is first to plan the exercise, which involves determining what intelligence is desired and which trade show it makes sense to target for the intelligence. Once a trade show has been selected, online research and/or printed marketing material is helpful in terms of refining and selecting our targets for the intelligence we require. Often such specifics as lists of exhibitors, floor layouts, speaker biographies and the like are available. This is useful because it helps avoid unnecessary wandering around during the trade show itself.
The next task is to assign specific pieces of intelligence to the person responsible for gathering it. Each piece of required intelligence needs to be defined in terms of how it will be obtained. In the case of human intelligence, we need to determine who will be targeted and what approach will be used. The conversational hourglass approach to elicitation covered in the next chapter will be useful here. For other intelligence, other approaches will make sense. Perhaps we want to get a look at the features of our competitor’s soon-to-be-released product, and there may be printed material or demonstrations available.
One of the exploitable vulnerabilities companies face at trade shows is that it is usually the enthusiasts who are selected to staff the booths. These can be people who are too junior to know what should be kept secret, or sales people who are eager to promote the products to anyone who might be interested, or product development experts, who can be lured into detailed discussions of the features that they are proud of.
Executing the mission
At the trade show itself, particularly multi-day events, we should begin by doing a sweep of the facility, gathering everything that is available in terms of printed materials and giveaways, from all the relevant target companies. This “snag and bag” operation can often yield plenty of the intelligence that we wanted. Taking the gathered material away and analyzing it can help us to refine our approach and targets for the next wave of intelligence-gathering. At an out-of-town trade show, a hotel room can serve as a command post where gathered material can be sifted through, and plans can be adjusted based on what can be extracted from the material.
In general, the less face-to-face interaction we rely on to obtain our intelligence, the better. Anything we can gather by indirect means like printed material, observation or overhearing is a bonus, since it makes it far less likely that our intentions and activities will be unmasked. This multi-wave approach to gathering intelligence allows us to use the riskier tactics, like human intelligence sparingly, thus minimizing the chances of being seen to be snooping.
A three-wave approach to a trade show intelligence-gathering mission can be summarized as follows:
- Plan the overall mission
- Determine the required pieces of intelligence, and the targets or sources for the intelligence
- Make a first pass of the trade show, gathering everything that is being given away at the target booths
- Analyze the gathered material and see if some of the required intelligence is there
- Refine your requirements
- Conduct human and observational intelligence
- Analyze this intelligence to isolate any remaining gaps
- Conduct final intelligence to gathering any remaining intelligence required
Through careful objective-setting, planning and execution, trade shows can be an extremely cost-effective way to gain strategic competitive intelligence. More on this topic is available in my book “Competitive Intelligence: Fast, Cheap & Ethical” which can be obtained through the Media and Books tab on this page.