Primary Research & Ethics

In the field of Competitive Intelligence (CI) there are few areas more fraught with doubt and risk than primary data collection. The basis of Primary Data Collection relies on a direct and unfiltered connection between the information collector and their source. While this can be risky it’s one of the only CI methods that produces information uniquely different from what competitors can obtain. Before you start Primary Data Collection efforts, or hire a company to help you, it’s important to understand how you can minimize your risk.

Running a successful, and ethical Primary CI operation requires following some rules of disclosure to remain ethical and legal. Primary CI is pretty different from secondary data collection. Secondary data by its very nature, is filtered and often vetted by an official source. For example; if the source is company literature, it is often vetted by the company guardians to prevent any embarrassing, or competitively useful information from being disclosed. If the source is a news report, it’s filtered by the reporter who may not be looking for the same insight as the CI professional. And if it comes from an industry data collection service such as IMS, NPD, and GfK (among many others), the data is limited to companies that participate in the panels.

In contrast, Primary CI comes unfiltered. The interview process addresses the key points of information collection goals, which are often quite specific. Interviews are not questionnaires, and they’re meant to be dynamic. This means that during the interview process, follow-up questions can be asked, and relevant related information explored. All information is collected for a specific purpose and is exclusive to the collector and their client.

So, what are some ways you can keep your collection ethical, while also building trust between you and your client, and your information source? Or (How can you be an ethical collector?)

  1. Say who you represent: The collector must properly represent the purpose of the interview and the collector’s employer (which is usually not the end client). The collector must disclose that the work is for a client, even if the client identify can’t be disclosed.
  2. Provide your information source with “ground rules”: At the start of your interview remind your source that company confidential information should not be shared. You want your information source to feel comfortable giving you information, and to feel comfortable with declining to answer (this is a great time to provide your source with language like ……) (do we want to provide examples/do we normally this in interviews?).
  3. Information collected is siloed: Meaning the information you collect for one client CAN’T be used for another client. This also means your agency and ANY subcontractors used, should not be working for direct competitors in the same product line.

Selecting a primary CI agency comes down to trust that your agency or team will follow ethical guidelines and stay within the bounds of primary CI limits. Many CI vendors rely on a stable of contractors, not full-time employees. Regardless of the status of the researcher, CI quality is improved when the CI user can directly interact with the CI collector. A key function to building trust is to interact with the data collection team. This can be difficult if your primary CI partner relies on third party sub-contractors, but it is an important tool to assess their commitment to practicing ethical and legal CI. When the primary CI collection follows clear and simple ethical guidelines, it is a very efficient tool to gather unique competitor insights.

Author: Erik Glitman, CEO Fletcher/CSI