Competitive and business intelligence matter more today than they ever have, as the entire landscape essentially pushes toward a comprehensive digital future.

Competitive intelligence, specifically, gathers information to remain aware of and appropriately understand competitive activity. This information is then used to inform future business operations, decisions and strategies. The idea is not just to become more competitive but to stay ahead of the rest of the market.

It’s remarkably similar to business intelligence, as both concepts involve the collection of huge swaths of data which is then analyzed more deeply to find actionable intel. Business intelligence or BI deals with more generalized information, while competitive intelligence or CI deals strictly with market competition.

Every business from big to small — startups included — must adopt and follow a critical competitive intelligence operation. The answer is simple — without such an operation in place, there is no way to survive.

CI is instrumental in forming new business strategies, understanding the reactions and consequences surrounding various events and scenarios, assessing customer sentiment on the competition, and much more. Business intelligence as a whole definitely includes at least some form of competitive information, which means most organizations likely use and benefit from this data already.

Why Does Competitive Intelligence Matter?

To truly understand where you’re going, where you’ve come from and what you’ve achieved — compared to what has yet to be done — you must first know and understand your place in the world, or local market.

In the business world, this means measuring how your particular business or brand compares to the rest of the market. Are your products and services considered superior? Is the customer opinion more positive or negative? In terms of leveling, who is higher on the achievement scale? How far do you need to go to enter the limelight or rise to the top?

Naturally, one of the best ways to discern this information is through competitive intelligence. It can also tell you a great deal about the rest of the market and your competitors.

To put it simply, if you want to understand why some companies or brands are successful and others are not, you need a competitive intelligence operation in place. This information is more vital than ever to the startups of today, especially if they hope to stand out in today’s highly competitive market. Targeting the right online audience, predicting consumer demands, assessing the competition, these are all aspects of competitive intelligence that both new and established brands must consider.

Is It Exclusively Intelligence Oriented?

Intelligence is more of a blanket term used to define the processes and strategies applied to the collection, measurement and assessment of data. So, it is important to consider whether or not competitive intelligence is exclusive to data and information gathering as well as its related analysis.

The answer is both yes and no. Unlike business intelligence, competitive intelligence or CI can be applied and presented in many different ways. This doesn’t just mean how it’s used to read data, but also how it’s applied to future events and activities.

For example, business war gaming is an incredibly valid way to understand and practice the dance of running an organization. Generally, it involves creating an exercise or scrimmage — if you will — that can test the performance, mindset and potential of a company’s team and inner workings. When combined with competitive intelligence data, war gaming can be highly beneficial to everyone in a company from the hourly workers to upper management and decision makers. It presents more than just a predictive model or representation of how scenarios play out, it’s an actual studied event. It’s akin to doing a dry-run of a disaster strategy or evacuation plan, only it relates to the regular operations of a business instead of disaster preparedness.

Either way, the CI data lends itself nicely to more active and real-time applications as opposed to simply just the study of its included information.

How to Study the Competition

As a whole, competitive intelligence is used to understand the nature of the market and the brand or organizations place within its current structure. Understanding this information calls for collecting various forms of data, which are the following:

  • Product and service pricing and how it compares to current offerings
  • SEO or web presence marketing and how other companies fare
  • The full breadth of a competitor’s inventory including product selection
  • Website and mobile application design and presence, especially of rival companies
  • Customer sentiment or standing surrounding your brand, products, services and personnel
  • Future decision, actions, events that will have an impact on current standing
  • The wins, failures and mediocre successes of both your brand and rival brands
  • Market demand and its changing nature

Of course, it’s important to understand that many of these data points are generalized. It’s just as important to consider how they can be used and applied to your business or operations, and what that means for future successes.

The Ruthless Nature of Business Operations and Digital Marketing

The reality is that whether you want to or not you must remain aware of what’s happening with your business, across rival organizations and with their related markets if you hope to survive. There’s no way to make an informed decision without this data available, after all, that’s the whole idea behind business intelligence. Competitive intelligence is really a subset of that which deals directly with market competition, including a brand’s own status.

If you hope to improve business strategies, properly plan for various events and decisions, and be more successful overall, then you must have a CI operation in place.

Lexie Lu is a writer and graphic designer. She enjoys covering topics related to UX design, web design, social media and branding. Feel free to subscribe to her design blog, Design Roast, or follow her on Twitter @lexieludesigner.

Growth is the only essential thing you need to be a startup. Startups are created to grow fast. Everything else that happens within a startup is a derivative of growth.

Everything – ideation, product validation, product management, team building, fundraising – follows from growth. Without growth, early stage startup is just a small business losing money.

That is why founders are encouraged to focus on one metric – the one that matters. This is because, as a startup, your limited resources are a deterrent to wasting your time trying different things.

Depending on your type of business, growth will mean different things to different startups. And your one metric that matter changes over time. Getting rid of distractions enables you to focus your already limited resources – people, time, and money – on the one thing that moves the needle.

What is the one thing that signifies that your business is growing at a particular point in time?

In the beginning, growth for a lot of startups has more to do with user acquisition and engagement than revenue. The advantage of defining your growth metric is it tells you the most important thing about your startup and how should drive it.

You need to consider the followings when choosing your growth parameter.

1. Your business model

The way you monetize your product is an indication of the value that will be created by your business. It’s not always about the money, but revenue metrics provides a standard benchmark for growth metrics.

2. How you acquire your customers

The rate at which your products gets into the hands of users is a substantial measure of how scalable and successful your product can be. Inherent in the DNA of startups is the ability to build products that have the potential of being ubiquitous and viral within a short time frame.

That is why most startups are tech-enabled companies because technology enables innovation not just in the way products are made, but how they are distributed. You can measure your growth based on metrics such as unique web visits, page views, app downloads, partner signups, user signups, conversion rate, churn rate, etc.

3. The stage of your business

The stage of your company will determine what to focus on. Early stage business should be obsessed about metrics that validates their product-market fit more than mid or late stage companies.

In the beginning, your growth metric is based on time-based milestones you need to reach such as partnerships, signup at a particular time, user signup rate, number of feature releases, etc. It is important that you wrap this with specific numbers as much as possible to measure progress.

4. How you measure growth

Answering this question will help you make right decisions. Let’s assume you decide to measure your growth by the number of subscribers to your email list. First, you’ll have to optimise your product, website, app, content and every potential user interactions to grow this list.

You then measure the results of all your actions on a regular basis against this metric. You hold yourself and your team accountable with data and see whether you are making progress or not. You deep dive into all your acquisition channels to identify where you are getting the most number of subscribers. You look at the numbers every day and experiment with various tactics and tools to see how you can grow the subscription rate.

As you focus on a particular growth metric and optimise your products accordingly, magic happens. You identify particular big hairy destinations to drive your startup towards and you can measure the how and the rate at which you are getting there. And as you grow, your goal may change, and you redefine your growth metric.

You build, you measure, you learn.  And you continue the cycle until you reach your true north.