By Arjan Singh
Conferences and trade shows are great places to learn about your competitive environment, as most companies in the industry usually attend these events; this includes competitors, suppliers, customers, and influencers.
Most people attend these events with the objective of exchanging information. This provides a huge opportunity to collect a lot of intelligence in a relatively short period of time. If properly planned, a few days at a conference could get you more information than a year of research using other sources. Yet not many companies leverage this resource in a systematic and focused manner.
There are many venues in which to interact with the external environment at conferences, including presentations, exhibit booths, poster sessions, and evening/ social functions. In some therapeutic areas, these conferences only come about once a year and, in some instances, maybe even less frequently.
Competitive intelligence (CI) is the systematic collection and analysis of information from multiple sources, and a coordinated CI program at a conference can help harness this potential knowledge. Here are some steps on how to organize your plan.
BEFORE THE EVENT
- Create a project plan: A few days or weeks before a conference, you should complete your project plan, which should include all the information and documents CI team members will need for the event.
- Prepare a briefing document: Stay abreast of hot topics and newsworthy items in your industry in the weeks running up to the conference. This information also can be used as conversation starters at the conference.
- Familiarize yourself with the conference floor plan
- Focus your efforts: Develop Key Competitive Questions (KCQs) to provide a focus to the intelligence-gathering process. Ask internal stakeholders what will be critical for them to understand about the competition. Once these have been developed, divide KCQs among your team members, based on the knowledge base or interests of each individual or group, the number of collectors, and the sensitivity of the questions.
The War Room
This is a central room where you coordinate all your intelligence collection activities at a conference. It is the place where all those attending the conference report back with intelligence they have uncovered, and where decisions regarding the focus of the intelligence gathering efforts take place. It should be properly stocked with all the supplies you will need to process and analyze the intelligence collected throughout the conference. Ideally, you will want to set up the war room a day before the conference starts.
Choose the room’s location carefully; there is a trade-off between proximity to the conference and the potential of exposing your war room to others. The closer your war room is to the conference, the easier it is for your colleagues to come back and debrief; however, such a room is also at a higher risk of being discovered by the competition and other interested third parties.
Also, keep the room locked at all times! Some intelligence teams use a hotel suite since it is secure as well as accessible during nonworking hours. If you use a meeting room, make sure you have appropriate security arrangements in place. These rooms tend to attract the competition and other curious third parties looking for activities beyond the conference floor.
Preconference Briefing Session
This session can make or break the success of the intelligence-gathering at the conference. Attendees should be all those who are gathering intelligence at the event. Ideally, you should hold this session in the war room. The topics of discussion should center on the KCQs, targets, sources, and intelligence opportunities. Allow those present to put forward their own ideas; most importantly, make sure everyone understands their team’s overall focus for the conference.
Use this time to discuss your preliminary agenda and make a suggested daily plan for each team member. Ensure everyone knows when to report back to the war room for briefings and debriefings. Finally, be sure to map a clear path for the information to reach the home office, and decide who will digest that information for possible use in a press release or internal communication.
DURING THE EVENT
Conference coverage often requires two shifts in order to effectively cover all activities throughout the day. Team members should stop by the war room periodically to drop off materials and plaster the intelligence collected around the room. This will allow other team members to view the information in between debriefing sessions.
Working The Exhibition Floor
- Make sure you allot sufficient time to “work the floor” around attendance of symposia and other key events.
- Plan to visit each competitor/key source’s booth three to four times during the conference.
- Visit not only your targets’ exhibitions, but also displays from suppliers, customers, and other peripheral organizations, the conference sponsor, and your client.
- No one is at a conference for fun; these people are knowledgeable about the market and may be able to give you information and referrals to other key sources.
- Many times, information collected from organizations not on your target list can be valuable sources for answering other questions or excellent sources for other business units.
- When at a booth, listen to what the target company’s personnel are telling other visitors, what questions those visitors are asking, and what opinions they are expressing.
- Listening does not mean eavesdropping; make eye contact and enter the conversation, if appropriate.
- Follow up with those visitors later. They are often visiting the booth to get some of the same answers you are looking for.
- Visit the poster exhibition at medical conferences one or two times.
- This is valuable because, many times, the author(s) will be on hand to discuss their research, and the reactions that individuals have to certain posters can be very informative.
Use The War Room For Debriefing Sessions
Debriefing sessions can be held in the evening, at the end of the day, or in the morning before the start of the next day. At these sessions, key findings are discussed. Key discussion questions should include:
- Where has the information come from?
- How reliable is it?
- Does the information uncovered contradict or corroborate data previously obtained?
- Is there a need to go back and check, or have the KCQs been well-answered?
Afterwards, prepare a daily update to distribute internally.
These sessions are critical to ensure that the collection effort is going according to plan and to adjust the collection plan for the next day, based on the progress the collectors are making in getting the KCQs answered. These sessions also help identify emerging issues that might need more focus during the course of the event.
Once your team has arrived back at the office, schedule one last debriefing session. The agenda should include analysis of your findings and an overview of all intelligence collected. This input can be used to prepare a postconference report (a PowerPoint summary of the event is preferable). The daily updates can be used to create the event report with minimal incremental effort. Finally, schedule an in-person presentation, if appropriate, particularly if event attendance has resulted in key findings.
When organized systematically, CI at conferences can generate significant insights into the competition. This is a cross-functional team effort that needs the involvement of various stakeholders to be successful.
ARJAN SINGH is president of ASI/Pharma War Games.com and is a lecturer of strategy at the University of California, Irvine.