For competitive intelligence research purposes, traditional Web sites (read Web 1.0) have offered a range of valuable information for those seeking to get a leg up on the competition. But that information has had its limits—enter a new breed of Web resources that break out of the traditional information boundaries.
The Web is a great resource for law firm competitive intelligence (CI). For years, law firm CI analysts have been watching the Web sites of prospective clients and competing firms for any information that can create a competitive advantage for their own firm. This includes monitoring competitor firms’ attorney rosters and tracking trends within other firms based on the publications, press releases and other information posted on their sites. Clients’ and prospective clients’ Web sites are tracked to identify new products, potential litigation issues, and changes within the companies that might enable a firm to capture new work.
But for the CI analyst, the disadvantage has been that a lot of the information posted on traditional Web sites is so heavily filtered that it’s ultimately of very little value.
The development of Web 2.0 technologies has changed things, however, creating an opportunity to monitor information that doesn’t go through a filter before publication. Resources like social networking sites, “Ning” communities, wikis and blogs encourage the free flow of information, and individuals who were once hidden behind the company’s firewall are conducting all kinds of online conversations outside those walls. For law firm CI analysis, the advent of Web 2.0 has ushered in a whole new era and expanded the abilities to find valuable information that could give the firm a competitive advantage.
Digging into the Treasures on Social Networking Sites
To begin, let’s use the social networking site LinkedIn as an example. If the firm wants to bring in a company as a new client, one can easily look for that company under LinkedIn’s “Companies” heading. From there, you can compile a number of pieces of information, such as how many employees have LinkedIn profiles. Based on those profiles, a good analyst can then build a list of the employees’ names, titles, locations and the types of activities these employees perform for their company. New hires or recent promotions can be identified as well. LinkedIn also gives you an easy way to identify certain employees that are being mentioned in the news, referenced on blogs or active in LinkedIn’s topic-area groups. Having information like this gives you an insider’s scoop on some of the key players within the target company.
Plus, by going to the “Related Companies” section of LinkedIn, one might unearth other trends within the company that could lead to a competitive advantage. In addition, identifying the top universities the executive staff attended, or what companies employees left to join this one, can help you better know the nature, quality and culture of the company you’re targeting. Also, LinkedIn’s “Jobs” section can reveal if the company is currently hiring and may indicate if it is expanding in particular areas.
Clearly LinkedIn is one of the best Web 2.0 resources for business and professional information. As for Facebook, while the individual profiles on it tend to be much more personal in nature, it can still be a great resource for intelligence gathering, too.
Take Facebook’s Business Pages feature, which more companies are starting to use as a vehicle for two-way communications with their customers. Information found on a company Facebook page can include new products the company is releasing, or advertising campaigns the company is trying out on its customers. And if the page includes comments from the company’s customers, all the better. If, for example, there are negative comments about a product, or the company’s customer service, or something relating to its business model, it can indicate potential risk factors that the company is facing. Information like that can help a law firm land new business by being aware of issues as they are developing.
Of course, Facebook is better known for its millions of individual profiles than for its company pages. Here, too, as with the individual profiles found on LinkedIn, there can be an enormous amount of personal information of value for CI purposes. Even if the users you are looking into have set their Facebook profiles to “private,” there can still be useful information shown on their profiles, such as a list of their Facebook friends.
Facebook groups are another useful resource, enabling you to identify individuals that have specific interests that relate to your firm’s competitive strategy. The members of groups can post messages, write on the group’s “Wall” and upload photos, links and videos. Thus, by browsing through a relevant group’s page, you can see comments made by individuals, find related groups and learn about events held by the group.
And then there is MySpace, where the information is generally much more personal in nature and posted by younger users. This means you’re much more likely to find lower-level staff members or brand-new lawyers on MySpace than company executives or competing law firms’ partners. However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t any good information to be found on MySpace pages. In fact, younger staff members and associates can sometimes divulge important details of what’s going on within their organizations through their MySpace page comments—the kind of details that can be quite revealing for someone compiling information on their employers.
Tapping into Nings and Other Online Communities
While the public social networking sites hold treasures, there are a number of other online communities that one can research to find information on individuals, companies or firms.
Nings are online platforms where people set up their own social networks. The result is a relatively new world of online communities that generally focus on one very specific topic and allow the members to post almost anything they want to their Ning. Nings can be open or closed communities, so some information may not be accessible to the CI analyst. However, if the Ning is open, there can be a large amount of useful information inside it.
Many professional associations and trade groups also have dedicated online communities for their members. One way to put the information in those communities to use is to identify lawyers or staff within the firm who may belong to a certain association or group, so you can then call on them if research is needed within that organization’s online community. However, it is important to ensure that both the individual member and the CI analyst stay within any ethical guidelines that apply to the community.
For the legal profession, there are a number of online communities a lawyer can join. Popular ones to join if you can include Legal OnRamp, JD Supra and Martindale-Hubbell Connected. A few state bar associations (such as Missouri and Texas, for example) have also launched social networking-like sites for the lawyers in their jurisdiction.
The industry and trade-specific online communities can include valuable information about their membership and allow you to find key relationships between members of the community or identify important issues being discussed within the industry. Note, though, that a number of the industry-specific communities are designed to be “gated communities” and are much more restrictive about who they allow inside the “gate.” Again, it’s essential to comply with the ethical guidelines of both your law firm and the given industry community.
Getting Another Inside Look through Blogs
Lastly, one of the oldest Web 2.0 tools is the blog. Blogs provide a longer format for people to discuss issues of importance to them, and they call for special attention when researching companies or individuals such as lateral hire candidates. For example, if a potential lateral hire is a blogger, it opens the door to a better understanding of the individual. Even if the blog isn’t related to the practice of law, it will still provide an inside look at how the lawyer writes, and it can expose how the person interacts with others when his or her opinions are challenged. When researching prospective clients and bloggers are identified within the company, their postings can expose details about the company’s inner workings and give your firm an opportunity to better position itself in the company’s eyes.
On microblogging resources such as Twitter, the information posted generally discusses what the person is doing, reading, watching, listening to or working on at a specific moment in time. Most of the time the information found on Twitter can be downright irrelevant. However, for CI purposes, it may be useful to identify who particular people are following and who is following them back. Also, statistics can be compiled on how often a person tweets during the day, what Web sites they link to and who they pay attention to through their “re-tweeting.” As with other Web 2.0 resources, it is the CI analyst’s job to sift through and identify the information that can be beneficial to the firm.
Those are some of the major Web 2.0 resources that are out there. There are literally dozens if not hundreds more that provide outlets for people to express their opinions and connect with friends, family and colleagues. For the CI analyst, these resources provide rich opportunities to uncover information and trends pertaining to competitors, current clients, potential clients and lateral hires without the filter that is placed on a company or firm Web site. For your law firm, this information can create the competitive advantage you need to accomplish your goals and beat out your competition.