Tag Archives: external research

Competitor Analysis Hijack! – The Lost Art of Competitor Research

Sometimes it can seem like in-depth, comprehensive evaluation of competitor activities has been hijacked.  It’s all about analysing the SEO traffic and online presence of peers. And it is easy to see why – with so many clever platforms and services and the weight of Google behind it, SEO analysis is an easy and powerful win.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that an internet search on competitor analysis throws up SEO first and foremost.  And more and more blogs point to evaluating competitor content, SEO structure and social media integration as the “three easy steps” to stand-out analysis.

But this approach doesn’t give a complete picture of what companies actually do or make, how they are organised or what gives them an edge.  A focus on the digital strategy doesn’t give the full story and can detract from the real facts and complexities underlying a competitor’s advantage.

There is huge value in stepping back and evaluating competitors or new entrants in a market in a holistic, systematic and deeper way.  This means giving proper weight to the fundamentals of business performance, strategic positioning, product mapping and organisational capabilities (as well as digital marketing activities!). 

Providing an evidence base for decision making

The strongest competitor research provides evidence to support a change and is most valuable when there is a genuine business imperative driving it.  In our case, clients might be building a business case, developing a product or justifying an investment.  

The research and analysis required involves looking closely at what others in a market are actually doing, how they are doing it and whether they are successful.  But it also goes further and is driven by relentless, targeted questions about how competitors operate to gain an advantage. 

Often, the central question being addressed is quite specific.  For example:

  • How are our competitors reacting to a shift in the market?  
  • How are they addressing a new challenge?  
  • How are they structuring to deliver their offer? 
  • Should we invest in a new product/service/market?
  • What are other players doing that is different from us? 

Good competitor intelligence answers these questions directly, and almost as usefully, can often raise questions that might not have been considered.  The insight and value that differentiates the resulting analysis derives from a set of clear questions to address.

Fundamentals of competitor analysis

Ongoing (or frequent) monitoring of competitors is part and parcel of good business practice.  And this definitely includes tracking digital activities. But, for deeper understanding, an analysis of a single competitor, or group of relevant direct and indirect competitors can include consistent comparison of any number of elements. 

There is almost a pick-list, depending on the need.  It includes: financial analysis, funding, strategy, leadership and governance, organisational structure, business segments, customers, customer awareness, sales and marketing activities, regulatory context, key partnerships, product mapping and development, pricing, geographic spread, market size, market penetration … And it is likely to include specific analyses, such as SWOT analysis, Forces at Work or peer benchmarking of products or activities.  These elements are the building blocks of a thorough competitor analysis. 

No “three easy steps

Actually, that isn’t quite true, there are some obvious and easy wins.  A trawl of free and public sources will pull together the basics – company websites, financial reports, press coverage and plenty of free and paid-for sources that aggregate data (Hoovers, Bloomberg, Dun & Bradstreet).  And there is internal knowledge to gather, saving hours of research and bringing useful insight. You can quickly achieve a good, high-level view, which at times, will be enough. 

However, a more granular, evidence-rich picture that can genuinely inform real business decisions is harder to achieve.  And incredibly time consuming. It involves reading product brochures (including the smallprint), trawling websites, reading financial reports and endless press releases, checking job adverts, chat rooms, looking at conference presentations and online interviews, reading blogs and social media posts …  Volumes of information to process and pull together. There is constant validation as you work through endless iterations of the same thing, piecing together a picture and drawing out insights. 

It isn’t rocket science, but does require discipline, structure and hard graft.  Even an appetite for boredom. It takes time and capacity, something senior executives and decision makers just don’t have.  All too frequently, tasks are only partially completed or are delegated to more junior colleagues, with a resulting lack of rigour and consistency.  And possibly insight?

The real value-add

We are being a bit disingenuous here, because it isn’t just know-how and time.  There is something more that comes from the experience of analysing companies and organisations for clients in high pressure situations, time and time again. 

It’s a few things:  being comprehensive, but with a forensic eye for detail;  a consistent approach that facilitates comparison; allowing for divergence when you get a scrap of a suggestion;  and the confidence to make assumptions and triangulate these with evidence or relevant context. Our clients also value having an outside view, looking at competitors both objectively and with an open mind.  It is all of this combined that leads to the most powerful competitive intelligence. The real value-add.

At Research Matters, we are quietly proud (and rather enjoy) getting down with the detail, drilling through the data and digging for the insights.  We can sprinkle some SEO analysis in too, if need be. We draw it all together to present a forensic view of the competitive environment, with the key takeaways and actionable results.  The aim, always, is to help our clients get to grips with the real issues and to think differently about the questions driving their business development and strategic direction.  


Measuring performance of schools: progress or attainment?

Should a child’s PROGRESS or ATTAINMENT level be the main measure of a school’s success?  With UK Government policy increasing focus on progress (albeit secondary to attainment for now) and debate growing about a more wholesale shift, you can see why assessment of progress is one of the key new product areas showcased at BETT 2015 this year (along with robots – but more about these in another post!).

BETT2015 Arena Wall

Closing the gap and leading the way

In the US, No Child Left Behind (2001) has placed the emphasis on accountability for under-achievement and has led to the development of the Common Core State Standards. In both, measuring progress is a marker for the schools themselves and for the learners, and both are driving the interest in, and uptake of, progress testing more broadly.  But progress testing for subject areas, most notably, literacy and maths, has also been growing in the UK and New Zealand.

Progress testing increasing in UK schools

With the removal of National Curriculum levels, OFSTED now is also beginning to focus more on different types of assessment, including measuring progress.  But there is a more significant shift ahead.

Under Government plans announced last year, from 2016 primary schools will be held to account by two measures.  Firstly schools should ensure that 85% of 11 year olds attain level 4 in their SATs (currently the threshold is 65%).  If schools don’t meet this standard, they must report against an alternate measure tracking pupils’ progress.

A new report from CentreForum takes this further – Progress matters in Primary too, supported by Pearson UK, argues that the pupil progress should be the main measure reported in primary school league tables. The report argues that a progress measure encourages schools to focus on all children and that it also means the focus is on pupil performance in the context of their individual baseline, rather than benchmarking them against a single standard.

This has significant implications for early assessment, because if a school is to demonstrate that pupils are making progress, they need a baseline to measure against.  This will require an assessment of pupils soon after they arrive in reception classes.   We can expect some contention, as many feel the system is already bogged down with testing and assessment, and that this has the effect of narrowing the view of what successful teaching looks like.

Others however see the wider, positive benefits of progress testing which can feed into personalising learning, the formative teaching process and enhanced learner outcomes.

Progress tests proliferating at BETT 2015

UK primary schools will be encouraged to start using an approved assessment as early as September 2015.  Not surprisingly, the emergence of progress testing focusing on primary schools was very evident last week during our annual visit to BETT2015.  We saw more and more assessment products and courses offering in-built progress testing, and also school management systems that were placing greater emphasis on recording and communicating pupil progress in ways that teachers could easily interpret and act on.

CEMS’s Performance Indicators in Primary School baseline tests are well established formative assessments used to evaluate what a child knows and can do when they start school. This test informed the initial Government policy about introducing the formal baseline assessment.  One product that we liked at BETT was GL’s Reception Baseline Assessment, a tablet based face-to-face assessment carried out between a teachers and child with a real emphasis on fun and interaction.  ‏

Progress testing in subject areas is a little more established and we enjoyed looking at GL’s Progress in English; Hodder Education Assessment Plus, AQA’s Online Progress Tests.  Our favourite though are Renaissance Learning’s STAR Assessment products, especially the Accelerated Reader.  Combining computer-based testing with adaptive learning, measuring progress and linking this with genuinely developing a love of reading – what’s not to like?


We have helped clients think about how to incorporate the assessment of progress in their products, looking especially at innovations around the world and in parallel subjects.  It’s a great opportunity for the expanding assessment market, but is it a great opportunity for our schools?  We agree with CentreForum and are watching with interest to see developments in the UK.  What do others think about how take-up will pan out here?

Dimensions of confident business decisions

Amongst all the blueprints for making good business decisions, our experience has shown us that it frequently boils down to four basic elements: robust internal and organisational data; insightful and targeted external market and competitor intelligence; clearly articulated strategic and commercial objectives; and a proper understanding of how a decision relates to your business values.


Confident decisions graphic

Internal and external data and insights

Relevant internal data and information should be easily defined and available (department silos and organisational blocks aside) and shouldn’t require too much effort to pull together.  This is the obvious starting point for most business decisions.

External intelligence can be a different matter.  Only the biggest firms can afford the luxury of an in-house research team to mobilise around every business decision or strategic shift.  Most rely on whatever time marketing or business development executives can garner to put together just enough on external issues and factors.

However, the amount of available and relevant external business intelligence is growing all the time and using it effectively can be can be an important differentiator to business decisions.  Sometimes, this type of information is a required part of the process, to prove validity or make a business case for a new product or strategy.   But it can feel optional and be overlooked.  A survey by management consulting firm Arthur D. Little showed that companies actually become more innovative and profitable by analysing external sources of information.  Surveying 275 C-level executives, they found that the best innovators scored 25% higher in their ability to use external business intelligence data and earned 13% more in profits from new products and services, compared with average firms (see External Business Intelligence Boosts Innovation and Profits).

With increased volume of external information, the skill of sifting and extracting what’s most important for your decision making becomes highly valued.  Findings need to presented clearly and give confidence that all bases have been covered.  They must also highlight the most relevant insights, give warnings about issues and barriers and offer alternative options, so you can interpret the information.  Professor John Payne describes this rather eloquently as cognitive and emotional fluency in his fascinating 2013 TED talk, Overcoming Information Overload in Decision Making.

Delegating, or outsourcing, what can be an extremely time-consuming task ensures that results are communicated with ease and ‘fluency’ and more importantly, frees you up to focus on more value-added tasks.

Business objectives and values

If internal data gathering can be easily delegated and external market intelligence outsourced, this leaves time for the critical thinking on business objectives and values to the decision makers.  Payne also urges decision makers to invest upfront time weighing up these values and objectives before they start examining the information provided as a way of making “value-based decisions.”  Clarifying objectives and testing decisions against values is necessary work that will underpin your final decision.  Moreover, for Payne, the more information you are faced with increases the need for upfront time thinking about your values and objectives to help you filter that information.


Quality business decisions balance critical business objectives and values with a full assessment of the relevant internal and external data and insight.  So, mobilise your internal resources, outsource the gathering and assessment of critical external market and business intelligence.  That leaves you to get your head down thinking about the values, objectives and criteria that will help you make the best decision with the best outcomes.

What do others think about the important elements of business decisions and how decisions makers should prioritise these?

3 reasons why rigorous research should underpin your thought leadership

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Rigorous research is one of the important factors in creating high quality and effective thought leadership material, according to research by Source for Consulting based on interviews with some of the best authors of thought leadership in the world. Research helps authors position and challenge their ideas to create thought leadership that is distinctive, resilient and outward-looking, and importantly, most likely to deliver a return on investment. Here’s how:

Make it distinctive

You will know your field and have well-thought ideas about what you want to say, but can you root new insights in an objectively researched and structured context? Research can capture and distil existing material by academics, business leaders and competitors. Considering what others are saying, assessing the quality and drawing out what is typical (or bland!), what stands out and where there are gaps helps you frame your own thinking and identifies where there is potential to make your mark.

Make it collaborative

Identifying external experts or organisations to consult or partner with can bring valuable kudos and authority to your thought leadership. Five years ago, Research Matters identified an academic at MIT who was talking about our client’s area of expertise in a completely fresh way. Our client, an international professional services firm, reached out early and they went on to collaboratively develop the thought leadership initially and then a new service line.

More than this, you can quickly reach out to new potential markets and clients through a partner’s own networks and audiences. Links can also be made with opposing viewpoints, exploiting discussion and debate across social media as a key, free marketing tool.

Safeguard your reputation

Due diligence to make sure you are not saying something someone else, or worse still a competitor, isn’t already saying is a critical reason to invest in upfront, external research. You may think you know your area, but views and opinions change fast and some level of systematic checking is crucial.

It is also about making sure your thought leadership is as good as it can be. Fiona Czerniawska, a founder of Source, has said: “Thought leadership is a complex and crowded area. Done well it can really strengthen a consulting firm’s brand, and done badly, it can actually be quite damaging.” Investment in research is part of your risk management and ensures that thought leadership becomes a valuable B2B marketing tool.


Distinctive thought leadership can transform an organisation’s knowledge and experience into a powerful way of differentiating themselves. The best thought leadership combines original thinking and client need with solid internal and external research. “Get ahead of the game and look at the research needs which the market is facing before you produce your thought leadership” is advice reflected in the report from Source for Consulting.

Click here to read Source’s free report, What do authors of the best thought leadership in the world have to say about why and how it’s created?