The way your competitors acquire, protect, and promote their intellectual assets can inadvertently signal their next moves. Increasingly savvy marketers are following how competitors manage their intellectual assets to get a sense of what they’re preparing to do next.
The intellectual assets we’re discussing here include the rights conferred by intellectual property, human knowledge secured through staffing, and the way companies promote the value of these through public communications.
You can gain competitive intelligence about competitors’ intellectual assets using the following techniques, which I will outline in this posting:
- Review competitor patent filings
- Watch for new competitor trademark applications
- Monitor competitors’ use of social networks
- Follow their staffing efforts on paid career sites
Once this data is in hand, you can make informed decisions to preempt, oppose, or lay the groundwork for cooperation with competitive initiatives. Rather than waiting for news to find you, here are techniques for leading your market in competitive intelligence.
Step One: Patent Filings Show Competitor’s Product Capabilities
Patent disclosures may provide insights into your competitors’ future product activities. Of all the competitive intellectual property analysis, knowledge of competitor patents can provide the longest-term technical and strategic insights into competitor planning and capabilities.
Google® Patents provides a good free starting point. Google Patent Search covers the entire collection of patents made available by the USPTO from patents issued in the 1790s through the present. They may be searched, reviewed and downloaded as PDFs at no charge. Google Patents Search does not include patent applications or international patents.
Not surprisingly, the search interface provided by Google is vastly superior to the search capability on the USPTO site. Further, the display of results on the USPTO site is rigid; for instance, people using laptops may find USPTO’s diagrams won’t display for them. Google does a better job of formatting its data, which means both better searching and more useful results.
Additionally, Google Patents now includes RSS feed links for your searches. You can use this feature to watch for new patents about specific pharmaceutical drugs, medical diseases, technologies, competitors, or references to specific patent numbers, such as one belonging to a client.
As budget is available, more comprehensive patent searches and patent watch services are available from services such as Thomson Innovation. They maintain the world’s most comprehensive collection of patent data from global registries, and can map your results to make complex information actionable.
Step Two: Trademarks for Competitive Intelligence on Product Strategy
Again, the USPTO website provides a good starting point. And yes, you can enter a competitor’s name and get results.
However, not all trademarks are federally registered. The USPTO site lacks state trademarks, as well as non-US registered global marks, or names from common-law databases such as incorporation listings, DBA records, company directories, newspapers, phone books, and product announcements. So you’ll want to supplement this with other free or professional trademark search capabilities.
Further, if you ever move from searching for competitive research to actually clearing a trademark, you’ll want a search utility with advanced features such as synonyms, spelling variations, and word placement changes. While you can manually propose your own variations, such an ad hoc process introduces the risk of missed marks. The USPTO search can spot exact hits, but not close calls.
So if you’re interested in watching marks across your industry, consider a professional trademark search or trademark watch. Thomson Reuters provides the majority of all professional trademark searches conducted globally, and can provide access to do-it-yourself trademark search tools. They also have analysts with decades of experience to conduct your professional trademark search.
More importantly for our purposes, they provide a trademark watching service that can be set so that when a named competitor registers a new mark, you’ll be notified in time to plan opposition or a marketplace response. You can register to receive notices each time a named competitor files a mark, or when marks are filed in a specified industry.
Step Three: Respond to Potential Competitive Plans
Gaining an early indication of competitive plans allows your firm the opportunity to plan preemption, opposition or cooperation. Your firm may regain the first-mover advantage by accelerating launch plans or beginning defensive marketing in advance of a competitive launch.
If there is a potential patent or trademark infringement, you may delay your competitor’s plans through administrative challenges to their filings, or by filing a suit. If the new competitive offering is not a direct challenge to your products, there may be partnership opportunities for co-marketing your products or services.
Step Four: Get Ahead of Your Industry Media
One of the joys of competitive intelligence is having a bead on the stories industry media are tracking. There are a few ways to accomplish this. PRNewswire provides the free ProfNet service, which allows you to select topics on which to see journalist requests for quotes. This lets you identify hot topics as they emerge, to see how writers are framing stories, and often to know which publications are working on which stories before they go to print.
You can also register for a PRNewswire RSS feed of your industry’s press releases, so you can see competitors’ pitching releases. Or pay for their digital clipping service, e-watch, which monitors print and online media, including blogs and public discussions.
Finally, there’s the flexible and free Google Alerts, which will let you know when a named competitor appears in a news article or on a new web page. You can decide to get updates immediately, daily or weekly. So, for instance, you may get immediate updates for coverage of your company, daily updates on your products, and weekly updates on competitors.
Step Five: Social Networks and Hiring Sites Show How Competitors Use Intellectual Assets
Social networking sites such as LinkedIn and Facebook may reveal the current interests of your competitors’ technical and sales staff. These public postings may have quite a bit more to tell you about competitors than their press releases, including key account contacts, new technical interests, or operational issues. You can also use Tweet Scan to follow twitter posts about trademarks and brands.
You can also get a sense of your competitors’ focus by their hiring activities. Bear in mind, though, that competitor websites may contain job listings which are either window dressing or simply outdated.
So take a look to see if your competitors are using paid services such as Monster and Career Builder, which require the actual expenditure of operational funding. Many such services conveniently offer a “watch” feature that will notify you when firms you’re interested in post new listings.
Your efforts to gain competitive insights need not be comprehensive to be beneficial. Don’t let the wish for perfection prevent you from doing what is possible today.
As you gather information, be mindful to conduct your research in ways that are consistent with your firm’s code of conduct. All these techniques use publicly available information, and don’t require any misrepresentation of identity or intent.
You’ll find that patent filings can give a directional sense of competitors’ research and development. New trademarks can reveal the approach of product launches, or changes in geographic focus and intended product uses. And keeping the pulse of competitive staff changes through social media can reveal surprising linkages and alliances which would not otherwise be visible.
In time, your knowledge of competitive intellectual assets will result in better targeted products, promotion, and tactical sales positioning. Superior marketplace knowledge is one way for market-leading firms to stay ahead of their competitors.
Dave Wieneke’s opinions are his own, and are not offered as advice for any specific business or legal situation. He works for a business unit of Thomson Reuters which is mentioned in this posting.