Legal Corporate Espionage

Think you shouldn't be keeping an eye on your rivals? They may be watching you. How to unleash your inner cyber-spy

Written by David Pimentel

LinkedIn brought the competition to Steve Byrne’s doorstep. The founder and CEO of Ottawa-based e-commerce consultancy Thinkwrap Commerce knows firsthand how hard talent is to come by in his space, so he wasn’t very surprised when in the summer of 2012, one of his competitors opened an office nearby. “I’m sure they thought, €˜There are 65 guys there. We can recruit 10 of them,'” Byrne explains.

By monitoring Thinkwrap employees’ activities on such social-media sites as LinkedIn, Byrne’s competitor was able to make an educated guess about how many were contemplating a change. However, patterns on LinkedIn also enabled Byrne to figure out what his competitor was up to. In the end, the poaching expedition failed—the demanding travel schedule at the rival firm didn’t appeal to Thinkwrap staff. But Byrne knows it won’t be the last time he’ll have to fend off HR hunters tipped off by his staff’s online profiles. In this social-media age, this kind of intelligence and counterintelligence is easy to find—if you know where to look.

Sensitive information about your competitors always has been available, provided you were willing to dig deep enough. The difference now is that you no longer have to engage in complex industrial espionage to get it. Today, basic search skills coupled with cheap analytics tools have made it possible for any entrepreneur to find important clues amid the cacophony of constant tweets and posts.

You can now analyze everything everyone is saying about your industry in a fraction of a second.

Whether that’s a good or bad thing is a matter of opinion. But you’re naive if you think you shouldn’t be keeping an eye on your rivals, says Ellen Naylor, an intelligence consultant based in Denver. Everyone does it, she says; and, besides: “If you’re looking at your competition closely, you’ll figure out how better to look at the marketplace and make money.”

Be under no illusions: you can’t get the scoop on a rival’s plans by randomly pulling intel from the social-media ether. Jonathan Calof, a University of Ottawa professor and leading expert on competitive intelligence, says that before you rush to compile facts and figures, you should think carefully about what information is most useful to you. Otherwise, you risk drowning in disconnected data fragments.

It’s helpful, he says, to think in terms of  either breadth or depth when laying out an intelligence strategy. A broad campaign is one that monitors a large swath of your industry. You can set up early-warning systems (what Calof calls “tripwires”) with Google Alerts or by subscribing to social-media monitoring services. So, if a rival tweets something that inadvertently tips her hand (by, say, thanking a buyer at a mutually targeted client for lunch), you’ll know immediately.

Another broad campaign tactic involves what’s known as “sentiment analysis.” With the right software, you can search through mountains of social-media commentary to suss out patterns. “You now can look at everything everybody is saying about your industry online,” says Calof. “And you can do that analysis in a fraction of a second.”

The applications here run from basic freeware to sophisticated (and costly) software-as-a-service. Such free analytics tools as Facebook Insights and TweetDeck will allow you to search manually for keywords. Packages offered by such vendors as MediaMiser or Collective Intellect, meanwhile, will scan across platforms, provide meaningful analysis and deliver findings instantly to mobile devices, but can cost upward of $2,000 per month.

A deep intelligence campaign focuses on a single competitor. In this case, you’re closely monitoring one rival’s customers, suppliers and employees, and you’re scouring for information that will allow you to build a profile of the firm. Calof says that you can even hire an intel professional to build a psychological profile of a competitor’s CEO by analyzing the person’s posts and LinkedIn connections.

It doesn’t have to be that complex, however. A simple search through LinkedIn profiles of competitors and their staff quickly will reveal connections to clients and suppliers—potentially invaluable information. Such a search also will help you identify employees ripe for the poaching. According to Byrne, who now knows a thing or two on the topic, starting to seek recommendations actively or expanding one’s network are dead giveaways.

Monitoring a rival’s LinkedIn presence can give you other clues, says Calof: “You often can figure out, based on the level of people being hired, what stage of development the company is at with a product.” If the firm is hiring scientists, for example, that says something about its R&D activity. If the firm is hiring within a new region, that might mean a new office is in the offing. And if it’s loading up on salespeople, watch out—it probably means the company is ready to take something new to market.

YouTube is another great source for competitive intel, says Naylor. You can search for clips in which rival products and execs are mentioned. And don’t discount those amateur product-review videos; Naylor recalls one YouTube spot in which a device she was investigating was literally pulled apart and explained, piece by piece.

The big names in social media—LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube—aren’t the only places to find good intel. Naylor recommends GlassDoor.ca and Indeed.com, both of which post employee reviews that  reveal what it’s like to work at your rival. Other sources—including Q&A site Quora.com, blog aggregator Bloglines.com and PowerPoint-sharing hub SlideShare.net—are easily searchable troves of information.

Amateur investigators should be careful, however—some tactics enter legally grey areas. Mathieu Piché-Messier, a lawyer at Borden Ladner Gervais in Montreal who has experience in industrial espionage cases, says there are lines that must not be crossed. The courts consider most social-media disclosures to be public information, and that makes most of such sites legal to monitor. “If an employee posts information on LinkedIn,” explains Piché-Messier, “then it becomes public.” But that doesn’t mean you can do whatever you like with these revelations. Your rival’s most valuable secrets almost certainly are already protected by patent, trademark or copyright. So, just because someone shares the technical schematics for a bestselling product on Facebook, that doesn’t give you free rein to use that info to build a copycat.

It may be easier than ever to hunt down information on another company, but that also means mean that, as was the case at Thinkwrap, your rivals probably are also spying on you. These days, attempting to seal off your firm hermetically is futile and unproductive, says Calof: “We can’t stop people from putting out information.” The key is to focus less on what your rivals are learning about you (although it’s smart to enforce communication blackouts on truly mission-critical secrets) and more on what you can discover about them. The sooner you embrace that approach, the sooner you can use competitive intelligence as a competitive advantage.

Originally appeared on PROFITguide.com