Last year, while monitoring clinical trials for a number of competitors in the oncology field, we spotted a Twitter announcement from a third-party patient advocate who wanted to see this company renew a particular set of trials it had dropped. The advocate was working with this biotech competitor to recruit new patients and announce a special recruiting event. This Twitter feed continued for a couple of weeks then suddenly stopped once the biotech likely filled its patient quota. Social media signals like this one are essentially a small spark of intelligence you have to notice when it occurs. Had we not been monitoring this company’s tweets, we would have missed this early warning signal on the clinical trial restart and in this instance there were no lingering leaflets pinned onto bulletin boards or mass mailings designed to recruit patients.
When I heard newscasters announce a week ago that we all must turn our clocks one-hour ahead, I chuckled, thinking how changing clocks has become largely an anachronism. Just as I don’t need to “change my clocks” anymore (my desktop computer and my phones all change automatically, as does my cable box which serves as our living room clock) your rival can just as easily alter its strategy and execution without most of the market seeing the shift. Today, time and your competition can march on without notifying us of the change. Competitors can do this because they are able to signal the market in a very discrete and targeted manner.
Consider how you and your competitors used to act in the market and how you informed that market. You advertised with new catalogs and product announcements by sending packages to your supply chain. You counted on trade shows to expose much of the customer base to your messaging and changes in market tactics. The process of communicating strategy was all very physical - all these signals started with printed materials, the post office, and eventually sales people knocking on doors.
In a similar fashion, pharmaceutical firms that work hard at crafting messages for their products increasingly rely on altering their websites and sending out daily email blasts. The changes to a company’s website may be subtle and you’re unlikely to see a big press release on the wire services. And yet, the message has simply and quietly changed, and in turn will be reflected in future sales tactics and messages the company offers at scientific congresses, social media, and so on.
With respect to watching for change in competitor strategy, the message for company strategists and the executive suite should be “don’t wait to turn your clocks ahead!” The changes may already have taken place. You need to pay attention to the subtle changes as they occur because they will be quiet and unless you remain alert to all the channels –real and virtual – a competitor’s strategic shift will happen right under your nose and you will wake up too late to do anything about it.