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The ethics of competitive intelligence

The fine line between CI and corporate espionage

September 23, 2019

Home Blog Research & intelligence The ethics of competitive intelligence

We live in an age of data overabundance, where it’s often difficult to identify important information and how it may be used to drive business growth. 

As providers of market and competitive intelligence research services, we’re deeply familiar with ethical and legal concerns and the sometimes fine-line between intelligence gathering and espionage. Those issues don’t come up often, because the research we do involves secondary resources, not gathering intelligence firsthand or undercover. 

Yet even intelligence-gathering online or through fee-based information services comes with ethical considerations. For example, social media monitoring can be a grey area, as can deep dives into news archives and court records. We live in an era of information affluence for many reasons, including the push toward greater transparency and the growing challenge of keeping something under the radar.  Depending on which side you’re on, it’s either good news or bad news that digging up dirt is easier than ever.

Gathering competitive intelligence the right way

Fortunately, there’s a wealth of information available for analysis and consideration. For example, 

Financial information—More challenging for privately-held concerns than public companies of course, but available to those who know where to look and how to find reliable financial data.

Customer information—Start with the case studies, blog articles and testimonials in which most companies now identify and talk about their clients.

Executives and key employees—Social listening and many company websites often divulge a wealth of information on the comings and goings of these individuals. 

Market perceptions—Social listening is a good resource for seeing how you and your competitors are faring in the eyes of the marketplace. Most successful concerns are active on social media, giving you a line of sight into market perceptions.

CI information considerations

The primary issue for all of these methods, and one of the reasons our clients come to LAC Group for research and intelligence, is finding the right information and doing the work. It requires research skills and experience to uncover useful information, make sense of the information and make sure it gets distributed and noticed by the right people. 

Ethical primary sources of competitive intelligence

While the following tactics are not generally services we can or would provide, a variety of primary intelligence-gathering options are available, key among them:

Customer surveys and other client data—Competitive intelligence is more than researching competitors, it’s about identifying your own competitive strengths and weaknesses in comparison. For example, reaching out to your customers a few days or weeks after they’ve made a purchase decision is an opportunity to ask why they chose your product or service over another. 

Trade shows and industry events—Frequented by industry experts and competitors, trade shows offer the perfect opportunity to find out more about them and to identify emerging players if you approach them with a CI view.

Data analytics—If your organization is adept at gathering internal and external data and able to create a unified collection, you can put the power of “big data” to work for CI purposes to reveal trends or other insights that might otherwise remain hidden. 

As you can see, there are plenty of ways to gather competitive intelligence without resorting to ethically questionable or outright illegal tactics. The biggest challenges lie in knowing which information is important and how to turn it into actionable insights like understanding what you’re doing better or worse than your competitors and identifying gaps that are underserved or not served at all so that you can fill the void. 

Drawing the line between competitive intelligence and corporate espionage

Sometimes the term “competitive intelligence” conjures up an image of corporate spying and cyber hacking to uncover trade secrets and intellectual property details. CI ethics and corporate espionage are popular Google searches. While some intelligence-gathering activities aren’t actually illegal, they are nonetheless unethical, like pretending to be a customer or posing as a jobseeker to gain access to inside information. The risk of legal action might be low, but there’s a huge risk of embarrassment and serious reputational damage. 

A sufficiently detailed portrait of the competitive and market landscape helps law firms and other business concerns gain a closer understanding of the challenges they face and identify the strengths and unique value propositions that will solidify and sustain their place in the market. It’s what we call actionable insights, which can be put to use in order to:

  • Launch a new offering or enter a new market
  • Create more effective marketing plans
  • Understand lost deals or reverse the tide of flat growth
  • Hang onto important clients

No matter what your reason is to gather market and competitive intelligence, it’s important to do so in a responsible, ethical and regular way.

John DiGilio

John DiGilio

John DiGilio is Vice President of Research & Intelligence at LAC Group. He has written for numerous regional and national publications as well as taught college and graduate courses in such topics as business ethics, e-commerce, fair employment practices, research methodology and business law.
John DiGilio

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