Since my last entry, I've been collecting information from colleagues to determine whether they ever have used "Opposition Research" or heard of its use in their work. Some of these folks think my topic really is competitive research. I agree, except I would say "opposition research" is a refined kind of competitive research. As Rick Murray, president, Edelman Digital wrote:
Bottom line, if you run your brand, business or initiative like a political campaign, it’s a lot easier to identify and activate your allies, and identify and develop counter-strategies for your detractors [if you use an "Opposition Research" approach].
A number of colleagues also noted the link between opposition research and game theory. One area of business practice that employs a great deal of gamesmanship is mergers and acquisitions. Kirk Brewer, CEO, Core Communications Partners, has worked extensively in this area. According to Kirk:
Opposition research is done all the time in hostile (and even some friendly) merger and acquisition situations, as well as proxy fights and other challenges to board authority. It's been a part of those "control campaigns" for 40 years or more.
The purposes, Kirk noted, include trying to get the share price up (for the acquisition candidate) or down (for the acquirer).
In another case Kirk cited, potential acquirer "A" was competing with potential acquirer "B" for the same target. "A" used opposition research to find information about "B" demonstrating "B" was not as appealing as an acquisition partner. "A" shared with target shareholders information, in the form of full-page newspaper advertisements, about missteps "B" had made. Meanwhile the target took advantage of the rivalry between "A" and "B" to push the target share price up.
Assumptions and Secondary Research
One preconception I brought to the "Opposition Research" discussion was that it was, for the most part, secondary research -- looking at web sites, analyst reports, news reports, executive speeches, online discussions, etc. These definitely are the first places to look for information. As Matt Heinz, principal & chief marketer at Heinz Marketing, said:
Don't assume that something sitting on a competitor's Web site has already been read, consumed and/or analyzed by your client or business. More often than not, your discovery and unique analysis of what you've found (as well as the opportunity for your business) will be fresh and welcome.
My own experience has shown this time and time again. Some of the most obvious and simple research projects can yield tremendous benefits in the eyes of your client.
However, secondary research should not necessarily be the whole story. David Geddes, SVP and Partner at Fleishman Hillard, and a member of IPR's Commission on PR Measurement and Evaluation* noted that he sees primary research as important, too. He says F-H does "target audience awareness, attitude, and perception research. We use surveys in this case."
The Bottom Line: Insight
To me the real bottom line is still the insight that we can pull from the data. This requires not only finding information about competitors, but making sense of it. Taking that information and projecting what the competing company is likely to do as a result. Going further and putting that in the context of your client's business goals and objectives.
Mark Heisten, senior business leader, head of commercial product marketing at Visa Inc. recalled working at a company with a dedicated competitive intelligence function:
[The competitive intelligence] team did a fantastic job not only researching, but acting like internal experts [on] the competitive offerings. As a result, they knew their relative strengths and weaknesses. Sales benefited from it; ... they were able to counter the competitive sales pitches. Product benefited from it; ... they better understood how the competitive products worked. Marketing and communications benefited; ... they understood how to message our solutions appropriately.
Knowledge as the Key to Influence
Mark's example demonstrates well done research going well beyond communications to support and drive better business decisions for the entire organization. One of the nice things about research is that frequently it is commissioned by communications people. But, when designed and used correctly, it can give these communications folks organizational knowledge and influence that reaches to the C-suite.
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I work with organizations going through a change in strategic direction (merger, acquisition, building program, new product launch, change program, etc.) and that are concerned about what will happen with their relationships with key stakeholders (customers, employees, investors) if they send out the wrong, or confusing, messages. After working with me, my clients have a clear understanding of what their messages should be. I also provide them recommendations on other actions they can take to enhance their relationships with stakeholders.
*The Institute for Public Relations, (IPR) is dedicated to the "science beneath the art" of PR. It focuses on PR research and education. If you are interested in the topics I write about, you will almost certainly be interested in IPR. You can find it at http://www.instituteforpr.org/. While you're there, check out the Essential Knowledge Project at http://www.instituteforpr.org/essential_knowledge/.
Forrest W. Anderson
Institute for Public Relations
Commission on PR Measurement and Evaluation