Understanding open source intelligence in a business context

Government agencies have long understood the value of “open source intelligence” to national security.

While the public may think of secret agents, skulking in the shadows and breaking in to dangerous foreign places, the reality is that intelligence agencies work extensively with publicly available information to glean insights for their leaders.

That’s a lesson that those of us in the business community would be wise to learn. Some of the best insights are lying right in the light of day, not hiding in some competitor’s file cabinet.

Isn’t this just competitive intelligence?

Yes and no. When most people think of competitive intelligence, they look at them as occasional research exercises — often focused more on competitor capabilities than anything else.

When I advocate the use of open source intelligence to better your business, I’m talking about a wide range of activities — all conducted on an ongoing basis.

OK, can you give me some examples of useful open source intelligence?

Sure. Let’s start with what I know best and go from there.

Media Monitoring.

After having spent the better part of two decades enmeshed in the media monitoring industry, it stands to reason I know a thing or two about it.

Just about every client I have ever had monitors what’s being said about them in the media. And for many it stops there.

But there’s a real opportunity to expand beyond that by tracking what’s being said about competitors and the industry in which you operate. That’s when you start generating some real intelligence.

Among the ways I have seen media monitoring leveraged as open source intelligence include an auto insurance company who tracked car accidents in their region to identify claims before they were made and a small college football program that tracked prospective high school student-athletes in lieu of a costly scouting department.

Financial Filings.

Just about everyone has a direct or indirect competitor who is a public company and required to make periodic public filings of financial data.

Even nonprofits must file their tax returns publicly — at least in the United States — and those Form 990’s are easy to obtain.

The real gold comes not so much from the gross financial figures — though those can certainly prove useful — but in the narrative materials that accompany those numbers.

Often, you can learn not just about the competitor itself but also about the industry as a whole and the market it serves based on management’s reporting.

Bonus: Shareholder Calls!

If you have public competitors, and you’re not reading their filings, you’re missing out.

But the better payoff often comes from listening to the shareholder calls that the CEO and CFO typically do with analysts and the public alongside these public reports.

Even though these executives receive coaching to avoid going much beyond what is in the printed filings and often adopt an almost unnatural monotone just for the conference call, they’re still humans and usually end up revealing more than they had intended — either through their actual words or by their verbal “body language.”

Government Reports.

Taxpayers around the world fund the creation of more reports than you can possibly imagine.

And most of those reports find their way into the public domain, often sooner than later.

Whether you’re trying to size a market, determine trends, or understand how public policy may impact your organization, these reports can be a jackpot of data and insights.

There may be regular reports relevant to your industry — especially if you’re in a highly regulated arena — but even if they’re more sporadic, they are worth seeking out.

Competitor Websites.

We all surf our competitors’ websites from time to time, right?

Of course!

But we should make it a more regular activity.

And pay attention not just to the product listings and language, but also their press releases and webinars. Oh, and sign up for their marketing emails to see what they’re prioritizing. You can learn a lot about their sales strategies through these activities.

Online Discussion Forums.

Remember the war-time slogan, “loose lips sink ships?”

Well, that’s something that most corporate employees don’t take to heart.

Over the years, I have learned all sorts of useful things from what competitors have said in online discussion forums. From big sites like Quora, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook to smaller, more obscure outposts, your competitors’ employees are likely asking or answering questions.

Oh, the things you can learn!

Decades ago when I was a young staffer in Washington, DC, I found a discussion forum where some advocacy groups opposed to some legislation I was working to pass were having an open conversation about their strategy, messaging, and tactics. Rather than sending them a thank you note, I just took notes.

In recent years, a developer for a competing company came up against a technical challenge and decided to post — in great detail — about the obstacle he had come up against. It gave me great information about their product development plans … as well as a few pointers for my own tech team.

And just watch sales people on LinkedIn Groups and other similar places. They transparently telegraph what would normally be less visible sales tactics and messages that rarely make it to the public website.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Spend enough time surfing around, using professional products or freely available ones like standard search engines, and you’ll find even more open source intelligence opportunities for your organization.

Make yourself smarter by mining all of this publicly available data.

You’ll be glad you did.

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