Undercover competitor research tips


#1

Hello all,

I am working on a research project where I am finding information on my client’s competitor activities. I have read that many times, companies will give up their secrets about certain aspects of their business. (number of IT support, ROI, upfront needs, advice on scaling) I have reached out to a competitor about getting more information on a relevant topic and they have replied back! Yay.

Now the only problem is, in order to conceal my true purpose, it might be better to use an alias name,company,title etc. Has anyone ever done this method before and would be able to provide some suggestions on how to play up that role???


#2

This feels a little covert – I’m not sure I’d feel entirely comfortable with the dishonesty.

That said, it’s not my area of expertise! I’ve invited some researchers into this topic for their thoughts. :slight_smile:


#3

In my past company, we were a SaaS company that catered to small businesses. To research competitors’ products, we actually created a fake account to look like a small business then paid for their services for a few top competitors to keep tabs on them.

It can be a little dishonest, but it is kind of like the “secret shopper” model, where you are evaluating a service. There are research techniques to examine the experience where you pretend to be a customer to go through the process to research all of the touch points, etc. or check to see if your employees are answering calls the right way, etc.

I think why it was okay for my previous company was at least we were paying them for their service while investigating them… but I’m confident that they did it to us as well with fake emails. :wink:

I know that there have been market studies that do this sort of thing, but they ask to speak with people about specific topics and pay them a good amount of money for their time (I was once offered $150 for 30 minutes for market research on domain knowledge).

What type of information do you really need to know? How does it benefit you and your client? What could happen if things go wrong or you get caught working for this client?

Considering you said “client” you might not need to be that covert, as you are not the direct competitor, correct?


#4

Ah yes, that makes sense. I misinterpreted the OP as suggesting pretending to be someone else and directly contacting the competitor with questions.


#5

Actually, that isn’t what mystery shoppers do. Mystery shoppers are hired by the company who wants the ‘investigation’ done. (I did some of that over the holidays.)

That being said, I’m sure that the owner of one restaurant will happily go to another and have dinner. They’ll have the time and opportunity to observe and all that happy stuff.


#6

Good to know that! Maybe wrong analogy then. :slight_smile: I know that my time in insurance work, they did this often to research the experience of the claims process, rather than an investigation of some sort.

As I followed up at the end of my last reply, I had more questions about the context of the OP’s question. I have had marketing firms reach out to me to research domain knowledge, but I am not sure about trying to get business secrets straight from the competitor.


#7

Are we talking about secrets? Maybe we’re talking about what any customer would find out if they went through the process. That’s not exactly a secret is it? (I’m starting to get dizzy with the possibilities!)


#8

Me too! I think I need to wait for the OP to respond with more context. :slight_smile:


#9

Thanks for the feedback thus far.

To clear up some points, It is like a secret shopper in the sense that I am playing the role of a customer but looking for information that another company could use as an edge in their program.

The program is evaluating a large-scale IoT network solution with multiple product integrations.

I am talking about things a normal customer would want to know. Such as, how am I expected to maintain these connected products? How long have you been working on this solution? Will you monitor my systems, Will I? How much control do I have? What is my ROI Etc.

They are normal asks from a possible customer…but can be clearly a sign of poking around if this company knows the true purpose. Yes, It is deceitful and this is why I reached out. Based on the feedback thus, far and my client’s budget. I have decided to drop this angle from my research.

Thanks for the lively discussion. I got my original idea for this method from the following article. https://www.inc.com/guides/201105/10-tips-on-how-to-research-your-competition.html Point #10.


#10

Got it, @melissa_easker! That makes is much more clear. At my last company, they did this and sat in on sales calls to understand what our competition was pitching (using fake company names) and asked questions that they would get asked on our end for that company’s product.

I think this is an approach to understanding the market. From the original post, I thought you wanted to ask them specific questions about how their business functioned (e.g, interview someone without their knowledge to understand their ROI, how IT support teams functions internally, etc.), not necessarily their offering to customers for those questions. Since it sounds like you want to pose as a lead/potential customer and get on a sales call, I think that’s a valid research method. :thumbsup:


#11

It’s interesting-- you’ve stumbled across what’s actually a somewhat in-depth topic. Your question seems to pertain to the difference between corporate espionage vs. competitive intelligence. Both practices have the same end-goal: to acquiring knowledge about a competitor that can be used to make your own business more successful. The key difference is how this knowledge is gathered.

In competitive intelligence, one gathers information through overt means. This could include things like speaking directly to a competitor without concealing your identity and purpose, web searches, and paying for & using a competitors product through legal means.

In corporate espionage, one gathers information through covert means. This means like speaking to a competitor in the guise of a customer or existing client, hacking into company networks or databases, or violating a TOS agreement or contract to use a competitor’s software.

Something to keep in mind is that governments are increasingly cracking down on people faking personal information online for the purpose of personal or professional gain. Depending on where you live, how it’s used, and where the target of your research/activity is located, assuming a covert identity online (and getting caught) could lead to criminal charges, fines, and possibly imprisonment.

Additionally, there are a whole host of ethical concerns surrounding legal corporate espionage that muddy the waters even further.

For all of these reasons, I stay as far away from anything that might be considered illegal or unethical as possible. When conducting research on competitors, I always follow a few set rules:

1.) Always state your name, position, employer (or academic institution), and intent when speaking directly with a competitor for the purpose of intelligence gathering.

2.) If speaking directly with a competitor, ensure that person is authorized to discuss the subject.

3.) If a company offers free service/software, ensure that your use of such for the purpose of gathering intelligence does not violate their TOS.

4.) If the company offers a paid service/software, always pay, and never register accounts under false names, email addresses, or other fraudulent information.

I hope that helps point you in the right direction!


#12

Not really… but kind of related… I once did some competitor analysis for a betting agency. So I got to spend several days at work placing sports and racing bets on various competitor sites and checking the results. It was surreal (not being a gambler and kind of thinking it is a form of stupidity in those who do it regularly). I was not a natural - they were stunned fast I lost the money I started with. :smile:

@Dougcollins - thanks for your info. That is really useful, and shows where the line is.


#13

Thanks for sharing this insight!