DECISION INTELLIGENCE 101

How to Gather Competitive Intelligence With Survey Research
Corporate workers gathering competitive intelligence Corporate workers gathering competitive intelligence

Morning Consult

December 13, 2022 at 5:00 am ET

In interviews, successful entrepreneurs often recount how a big, bold idea came to them in a flash of inspiration. While inspiring, stories like these belie the reality that many of the ideas that have truly changed industries have some form of competitor research behind them. 

In this piece, we’ll explore competitive intelligence and consider how pairing it with the predictive analytics available in Decision Intelligence can amplify your business.

    1. What is competitive intelligence?
      1. What makes competitor research effective?
      2. What competitive intelligence is not
    2. Benefits of gathering competitive intelligence — and how to start
      1. Aligning on your definition of competitive intelligence
      2. Choosing a strong research partner
      3. Selecting an appropriate, right-sized research method
      4. Identifying the right competitors to measure
    3. Competitive intelligence examples and use cases
      1. Outdoor Voices
      2. New York City Ballet
      3. ButcherBox
      4. Morning Consult
    4. Why pair competitor research with predictive analytics?
    5. Schedule a free needs assessment

What is competitive intelligence? 

Gathering competitive intelligence is another way to describe getting the inside scoop on your competitors, customers and industry. The practice may sound suspect, but this kind of research is completely legal and common practice for many companies, even bootstrapped ones.  

By definition, competitive intelligence is the collecting, analyzing and deploying of information about a company’s competitors. It may be used for planning short-term tactics or designing a long-term marketing strategy. Either way, competitor research helps business leaders and entrepreneurs better understand both the opportunities and challenges of their competitive landscape.

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What makes competitor research effective?

A well-rounded competitive intelligence study pulls from multiple types of sources.¹ The reporting may reference news clippings, customer interviews, analysis from industry experts, conferences and trade shows, government records, and available public filings.

What competitive intelligence is not

Competitive intelligence is not the same as corporate espionage, sometimes called corporate spying or industrial espionage. Corporate espionage involves using unethical practices to gather information on a competitor, such as its next product line or themes of an upcoming campaign.  

Gathering competitor research is ethical as long as the researcher hasn’t signed a nondisclosure agreement and doesn’t commit fraud or break any laws while gathering information.² For instance, ethically collecting survey responses means that respondents are actual people with sincere answers, and that they are taking the survey by choice, not coercion.

Benefits of gathering competitive intelligence — and how to start

Need convincing that competitor research is a worthwhile investment? Potential benefits of gathering competitive intelligence include: 

  • Capitalize on emerging trends before they peak so you can lead your market in innovative ideas.
  • See your brand and competitors’ through customers’ eyes via representative sampling, rather than relying on anecdotal evidence or supposition. 
  • Identify the buyer groups your competitors are currently failing to reach and develop product offerings that move into those gaps.
  • Find out where competitors’ offerings are falling short in meeting customers’ needs and redesign your messaging to speak to those needs. 
  • Compare and visualize how your campaigns compare to your competitors’. 
  • Uncover tactics that are working for your competitors and start building these into your own marketing strategy, rather than reinventing the wheel every time.

For teams designing a competitive intelligence strategy, here are our four essentials for planning an effective study:

Aligning on your definition of competitive intelligence

Different teams within your organization may have different understandings of competitive intelligence. For instance, a marketer might understand it as insight into competitors’ key value propositions and audience groups. On the other hand, an in-house financial analyst might be thinking of core business metrics across a competitive set. While obvious, this guidance can be easily overlooked: Before launching a competitors analysis, make sure all stakeholders are on the same page in terms of the study’s purpose and goals.

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Choosing a strong research partner

Only you can decide which partner is right for your organization. At Morning Consult, we believe a research vendor should be able to:

  • Incorporate and improve upon the research you already have. Good research shouldn’t be wasted, and it’s important for your partner to work with the insights you already have. At the same time, survey technology is advancing all the time, and their approach shouldn’t be stuck in the past. Look for a provider that can balance both of these dynamics.
  • Flex according to your organization’s ways of working. Typically, a company that is ready for market intelligence already has well-established teams and processes. Your research partner should be able to adapt to your system, rather than making you adapt to their process.
  • Make the most of your available budget instead of pushing you to overspend. Without a focused hypothesis and clear targets, competitive intelligence projects can easily get out of hand. At Morning Consult, our goal is to give you the actionable insights you need on the budget you’ve got.

Selecting an appropriate, right-sized research method

As a baseline, we recommend survey research above all else for understanding your competitors. When determining a research method, bear in mind that survey providers today operate in different ways. Many collect data online, but some still use phones. Some vendors pull from only one source of respondents, while others ensure samples are pulled from a variety of sources to reduce bias. 

What’s the problem with nonsurvey research?

Search engines can provide a lot of information about your competitors. But remember that what’s most important in competitive intelligence is not what you think, but what your target customers think, as well as how they spend. Competitor research conducted exclusively on search engines is unavoidably biased by factors including the searcher’s geographic location, their search history and the search engine’s algorithm. Implicit bias may also influence the sources that you as the researcher notice, click and trust. 

As data scientists, we would say that insights drawn from those results aren’t representative — and therefore aren’t enough to gain a true competitive advantage.  

Identifying the right competitors to measure

A competitive intelligence strategy starts with identifying the right competitors. These may or may not be the companies you think of first. What matters is the companies that your customer base perceives as your competition and the ones they choose instead of you. A research provider that offers syndicated brand tracking may be helpful, because it likely collects consistent data on the key players in your industry.

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Competitive intelligence examples and use cases

The purpose of competitive intelligence is to find the gaps in your market — the white space where customers have a need that isn’t getting met. To illustrate, let’s explore examples of organizations that found a competitive edge, whether through survey research or other methods. With each of these organizations, the specific methods used (if any) matter less than the fact that they each found a competitive advantage that propelled them past competitors.

Outdoor Voices found an opening in designing activewear for everyday fitness, not athletic performance

Tyler Haney was jogging along the West Side Highway in 2014 when she had a revelation: Her workout clothes didn’t fit her lifestyle. Sleek and dark, they were designed for competitive athletics — but she wanted clothes for more casual movement. 

Haney suspected others felt the same and, to fill the space, built Outdoor Voices, an activewear brand for nonathletes. Eventually investors caught on, pouring more than $60 million into OV. Though Haney left in 2021, the brand remains popular: 43% of millennials and 34% of Gen Zers who are aware of OV reported a favorable view in the last year, according to Morning Consult Brand Intelligence.

New York City Ballet repackaged classical ballet for American audiences

The New York City Ballet is an unlikely example of a competitors analysis, but an arts organization has to fight for audience attention like any other business. When the 20th century began, classical ballet was established and popular in Europe and Russia but hadn’t fully taken root in the United States — and that’s where art connoisseur Lincoln Kirstein saw an opportunity. 

While Kirstein almost certainly didn’t conduct formal competitor research, his actions demonstrate that he understood his competitive landscape: There was no dominant school of training, no visionary leader and no pipeline of classically trained performers in the United States. To fill these gaps, Kirstein recruited the now-legendary choreographer George Balanchine, and together they founded what became NYCB and its feeder school, the School of American Ballet. They pioneered a style of ballet that remains dominant in American dance, and NYCB is still one of the world’s most famous ballet companies.

ButcherBox realized consumers didn’t have a great way to purchase high-quality meat — and built a subscription to provide it

In 2015, Mike Salguero realized there wasn’t an easy way to find high-quality, humanely raised meat. At the time, consumers had to either visit a local farmers market or sort through options with misleading or confusing labels at the grocery store. 

So, Salguero founded ButcherBox to fill that space by making high-quality meat more accessible. Today the company offers subscription boxes of grass-fed beef, free-range organic chicken and humanely raised pork.

Morning Consult recognized that companies needing insights often have to choose between scale or speed

As a research partner, we position ourselves between the legacy market intelligence companies and boutique firms. The former typically has global scale, but their size often hinders innovation. We’ve also heard from their former customers that their survey research can take weeks — far slower than the speed of business. On the other hand, boutique firms can work more quickly and with greater innovation, but they struggle to scale their efforts. 

At Morning Consult, our niche is providing fast and innovative research in more than 40 countries. With us, you won’t have to compromise. Our focus is on combining scale and speed through Decision Intelligence, all to help leaders make fast, strategic decisions.
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Why pair competitor research with predictive analytics?

Companies that invest in competitive intelligence stand to benefit in manifold ways. They can come up with fresh ideas instead of merely copying competitors. They can win market share by developing messaging that speaks to customers’ unmet needs. Strong competitors analysis is about filling those blank spaces. 

Teams that are ready to level up their competitive business strategy have one further option: pairing traditional competitor research with predictive analytics. It’s an approach that can deepen the proverbial moat separating an organization from the rest of its competitor landscape

Here’s how it works at Morning Consult: Each day, we conduct more than 30,000 interviews with people around the world. We ask what they think about hundreds of brands, their economic behaviors and financial well-being, their government and the geopolitical landscape. When combined with our predictive analytics, these insights can help you anticipate what will happen in the future so you can make smarter decisions today. 

Watch the video below to learn more about our Decision Intelligence technology.

Schedule a free needs assessment

Interested in competitive intelligence for your business but not sure where to start? Schedule a free needs assessment with one of our experts.

¹Andrew Bloomenthal, “Competitive Intelligence: Definition, Types, and Uses,” Investopedia, last modified July 1, 2021.

¹Andrew Beattie, “Corporate Espionage: Fact And Fiction,” Investopedia, last modified July 12, 2022.