While social media is all the rage for customer engagement and advertising it is also a treasure trove of competitive intelligence. A November study by McKinsey Global found that companies are slowly but steadily increasing their use of social media technologies and social business practices. The most common activities were
– Scanning the external social network and blog environment for what others in the industry were up to and
– Looking for new ideas on social networks and blogs.
These activities represented the lion’s share of business activity with social technologies. This makes sense. Social technologies have reduced the “friction” of sharing your perspective with others who are in your industry and understand where you are coming from. Before you might have joined co-workers for happy hour at a local bar to decompress after work. The chances of anyone but your co-workers overhearing your and caring about what you said was rare. Now you might go home and decompress on Facebook or Twitter or unload on your blog. Your co-workers may still be part of your virtual happy-hour but so are any number of other people. Further more, those others may actually relate to you better than your co-workers. They may have your same job, just at your competitor.
These kinds of relationships are what social networking is all about; connecting people through bonds of shared interest, relation or idea. The challenge is to balance collegial sharing of ideas or even complaints with giving up the corporate goose. Research such as this study by DLA Piper and this one by Grant Thornton (PDF) indicate that while intellectual property leaks are rare, they still represent the biggest area of concern for business.
Advances in big data and analytics mean that the ability to correlate different data bits from many different sources can often yield a bonanza in competitive intelligence. Imagine an employee who regularly “checks in” at a particular location through Foursquare, Facebook places or a geo-tagged Tweet. A good competitive intelligence researcher for their competitor might derive that this user works for the Quality Assurance group. If the employee then tweets something like, “Celebrating the end of a big project with friends at work” the competitive research might rightfully conclude that a new competitive product is about to hit the market. Instead of being blindsided, the competitor can take any number of pre-emptive actions. The employee’s company loses at least some of their competitive advantage.
None of the employee’s actions were “leaks” and taken alone they are all innocuous. But taken together they may reveal more than the company wants. For the competitive intelligence professional at the competitor they are a vital stream of information.
In many ways the competitive intelligence opportunities and threats posed by advances in social technology are part of our new corporate tableau. The right response is not to prohibit social interactions but rather to educate ourselves on how to be safe with social media. BloomThink offers a Safe Social Media seminar. If you are in the business of competitive research, it is important to remember that social media is not a proxy for beat research. Rather it is an important and valuable additional source. Just remember to abide by the rules of the game and the social systems you’re using in your efforts to get a leg up on the competition.