Social Media

August 8, 2017

Recently, I participated in a survey conducted by Contify – Is social media a source of Market Intelligence on companies? The firm sent me access to the results and has allowed me to share them with you. It is a fascinating study. You can access the document here.

Let me make a few comments on it and share a couple of my own observations on social media.

One of the key take-aways for me was that using social media to do research for CI assignments and\or to conduct regular monitoring can be useful. My observation is that you have to be willing to invest a lot of time, seeking the proverbial needle in the haystack. But, if it is there, it is worth it (in retrospect).

Another key take-away is Contify’s conclusion that social media tends to be more valuable when you are targeting a smaller firm:

“For a given period, small companies have lesser number of business updates to share, as compared to large companies. However, small companies are more likely to announce an important business update on social than release a press releases in traditional media.”

My experience is that when you are targeting a family-owned business, which tends to be smaller, social media can be quite helpful by identifying who is who, and by providing photos of everything from other family members to the inside of factories to new products to key customers. But, again there is the time issue.

Finally, always keep in mind that what you are seeing is only what someone else wants you to see – well, not specifically you, but rather some other audience or audiences. Consider LinkedIn. I am sure you can understand how useful LinkedIn can be to identify key personnel, to spot the occasional brag that can uncover new facts, and to identify potential interviewees.

But consider that each LinkedIn profile is written by that very person. So? I can tell you, from experience, that just because a profile says that person is working as the VP of Whatever Company may not be true, or at least current. People who have been laid off sometimes keep the page content static to enhance their chances of attracting a recruiter or otherwise improve their job-hunting chances.

The same is true for all social media – particularly messages and pictures on Facebook, as well as videos on YouTube. With all social media, while you may think it is a look inside a target, remember, seeing is not always believing.

Really Think About It

August 1, 2017

There is something going on in California (where else?) that could deeply impact competitive and strategic intelligence research. Here is a short summery, taken from a local Internet source:

“A San Francisco tech startup [HiQ Labs] is seeking to enjoin LinkedIn from restricting it from accessing public profile information…. [HiQ says it] collects and analyzes public profile information on LinkedIn to provide clients with insights about their employees. [HiQ] alleges LinkedIn denied it access to the public member profile portions of its website citing [a variety of federal and state laws]. [HiQ] alleges LinkedIn users’ public profile data belongs to the users and not [LinkedIn], but [LinkedIn] asserts it needs to protect member data.”

The case has already had one hearing where Harvard Constitutional Law Professor Laurence Tribe has reportedly argued that LinkedIn is violating HiQ’s constitutional rights by blocking access to LinkedIn’s public sites.

The case is much more complex than this, but it has great potential. Just ask yourself, how would you react if you found that LinkedIn, FaceBook, YouTube, and Twitter all blocked access by people or businesses they suspected were gathering competitive intelligence (or marketing leads or head-hunting data or political sentiments or …).

Your thoughts?

Open Records?

July 11, 2017

This week, a local paper[1]reported that applicants for Pennsylvania medical marijuana licenses were permitted to submit two versions of their applications: one for evaluation by the state’s licensing authority and a second, self-redacted version, for public release.

What was released to the public was a bewildering mass of blacked-out text. In addition to blacking out notes on proximity to health care facilities, maybe, maybe, a competitive or confidential issue, they variously redacted page numbers (?), the business’ name and address (!), and the business’ expected impact on the local community, which seems to be exactly what should be released. One applicant is described as redacting “nearly its entire 186-page grower application, including [the official] instructions” (?!)

The article quoted a Marijuana trade association official who said that these companies were “looking at what their competitors are going to see” and redacted that. Page numbers? And, Pennsylvania officials say that they cannot un-redact what has been blacked out. Then, consider the questions of why a filer can ever exercise absolute control over what is disclosed from public records, and why Pennsylvania ever created this public/private record system.

Ever wonder why Open Record laws don’t work?

[1] Nicole C. Brambila, “Marijuana firms redacted many parts of applications”. Reading Eagle, July 10, 2017, A1, A3.

Getting it right

June 21, 2017


Just because you are big, and still getting bigger, does not mean that you can skip competitive intelligence activities. And that is true even when your competitors are much, much smaller. Fortunately some firms realize that.

Take the case of the ubiquitous Starbucks. A recent profile[1] noted that many of its “newer and cooler” competitors are small – “not big enough to take market share”. But, still Starbucks “keeps a keen eye on the newbies”. One of the newbies told the author that employees of Starbuck involved in R&D activities have ordered “cases” of one of the newbie’s innovative products.

Good going!

[1] Beth Kowitt, “Howard Schultz Has Something Left to Prove, Fortune, June 8, 2017.

Walk and chew gum at the same time?

June 16, 2017

A recent article[1] observes that “Microsoft is learning from…[basing] more of its decision-making on data-driven experiments and what it thinks customers want rather than what competitors might be doing.” Woof. Does this mean that Microsoft has NOT been basing some decisions on what customers want? Or does it mean that doesn’t use competitive intelligence (CI) in its decision-making? I doubt either is true, but this observation reflects a tribal attitude towards actionable information in many corporations.

Exactly what is the problem with basing corporate decisions on holistic intelligence dealing with the totality of the competitive and marketing environments? The default choice, alas, in some firms is evidently market research (MR), without any CI. Maybe the MR people do a little (what they call) CI, but usually they do not. If there is any CI process, it is likely reporting to the planning function, but not supporting sales and marketing as well. These silos hinder effective operation. That is like driving your car with clear side and rear windows, but with a shattered, opaque front windshield.

For example, say that MR including the “voice of the customers” research, discloses a need/desire of customers that they are also willing to pay for (an oft-ignored issue). Would it not help to know if CI disclosed that (a) one major competitor has previously rejected this opportunity (and why), (b) a second major competitor is ready to roll-out a new product/service to meet this need in the next 30 days, (c) a third competitor has done similar research and saw no such opportunity, and/or (d) another smaller competitor has the technology to enter this niche, but currently lacks the funding to do so? I think so.

Maybe Microsoft is right here. Why buy Safeway just because is buying Whole Foods?

[1] Matt Day, “Microsoft borrows from Amazon’s philosophy as its cloud grows”, The Seattle Times, June 7, 2017,

Forced Transparency

March 23, 2017

Time magazine recently published an interesting piece titled “The real costs of ‘forced transparency’”[1]. The focus of that was on the impact of WikiLeaks’ “disclosures” of US intelligence agencies’ ability to access data in private and government hands, the impact on national governments, and their possible reactions and responses.

I would add to that good analysis two more potential impacts:

  1. These same revelations, on the ease of generating “forced transparency”, may feed the slowly growing trend of the US Government to resist providing online access (and offline access as well) to Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) documents and data. The rationale offered, valid or not, would probably be along the lines that such access can only assist hacking efforts by opening ‘back doors’.
  2. These same revelations will, I suspect, also cause businesses providing many of the filings that those of us in competitive intelligence are interested in to (a) resist making certain filings citing a fear that their confidential data and documents can no longer be protected, and (b) press for changes to the FOIA (and other laws and regulations) to reduce such sensitive filings.

Of course, if the federal government moves in that direction, I expect that the states will follow – not necessarily quickly but inevitably.

[1] By Ian Bremmer, (accessed March 23, 2017).

The Shape of Things to Come (Part 2)

February 27, 2017

Last week, I posted my take on the future of FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests on the US government. What I neglected to do was to discuss the possible impact of relatively recent changes made in the US law by the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016 offered as improving transparency and access. From here, it gets a little technical.

Two of the relevant 2016 changes, as summarized by the US Department of Justice, are as follows:

  1. “Agencies ‘shall withhold information’ under the FOIA ‘only if the agency reasonably foresees that disclosure would harm an interest protected by an exemption’ or ‘disclosure is prohibited by law.’
  2. “Agencies shall ‘consider whether partial disclosure of information is possible whenever the agency determines that a full disclosure of a requested record is not possible.’”[1]

Now, to be fair, these changes would appear to undercut my negative view of the future use of the US FOIA in CI. However, they do not.

As for #1, this does not change the current underlying interpretation of the FOIA that its Exemption 4 of the FOIA still covers

“two distinct categories of information in federal agency records, (1) trade secrets, and (2) information that is (a) commercial or financial, and (b) obtained from a person, and (c) privileged or confidential.”[2]

In other words, anything falling into either category of Exemption 4 cannot be released.

The current interpretations of the scope of Exemption 4 are very broad. With a few exceptions, the federal courts have held that “trade secrets” here have a meaning broader than the usual meaning. That is, it covers “virtually any information that provides a competitive advantage” [3]. That means more is kept from release than is covered by what most of us understand a trade secret to be.

As #2’s “privileged or confidential”, the current standard is not merely whether the “information would customarily [not] be disclosed to the public by the person from whom it was obtained” [4], but rather

“commercial or financial matter is ‘confidential’ for purposes of the exemption if disclosure of the information is likely to have either of the following effects: (1) to impair the Government’s ability to obtain necessary information in the future; or (2) to cause substantial harm to the competitive position of the person from whom the information was obtained” [5].

In other words, what the FOIA protects from disclosure in the context of CI is, in practice, even broader than the plain language of Exemption 4. So, adding language which directs an agency to “foresee” this or “consider” that will not change the overly protective standards now in place.

[1], numbers added.