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Many organizations that offer products and services in their individual markets are involved in the practice of gathering data and information about their rivals or competitors. This practice is common in trade shows and other similar exhibition events. Trade shows offer a rich source of actionable information and most organizations know this and thus; their participation therein is crucial in order to adapt to their environment and keep up with their market (Calof, 2004). The aim of this paper is to discuss trade shows by focusing on how the most actionable information can be gathered from trade shows to enable better decision making and adaptation to changing environments. Firstly, a brief description of trade shows and trade show intelligence is provided, followed by the benefits and problems of trade and lastly; recommendations on forming an appropriate information collection and analysis team are provided.
Bonoma describes trade shows as a marketing tool whereby organizations and vendors are invited to participate to showcase their products and services in an exhibition setting (Bonoma, 1983). They are events organized solely for the purpose of marketing and information sharing, where competitors and partners are in direct contact with each other. As mentioned in the last paragraph, organizations are actively collecting information on each other's strategies and operations. This allows them to identify trends and predict changes in their environments in order to become flexible and remain in operation (Calof, 2004; Cherry & Gardner, 2002). Trade shows are important for this reason, they provide organizations with "â€¦the best opportunity for collecting information in the shortest amount of time." (Calof, 2004:11). Not only time is saved but costs also, as Bonoma points out that "The cost of a face-to-face trade show contactâ€¦was estimated at almost $60, compared with nearly $140 for a sales call." (Bonoma, 1983:76). Once analyzed, the information gathered from trade shows is used as intelligence which will allow the formulation of strategic objectives and decisions in order to stay competent in the market. This gathered information therefore becomes actionable by having weight and the ability to be used to make decisions (Calof, 2004). In this context of trade show intelligence, the intelligence component therein implies the concept of competitive intelligence (CI) which is defined as a method of gathering, analyzing and distributing intelligence about the organization itself, its competitors and environment (SCIP, 2003 in Boncella, 2003).The practice of gathering trade show intelligence can therefore be considered as a competitive intelligence approach which allows an organization to maintain or grow their current position in their market through the acquisition and analysis of competitive intelligence; at minimum costs and risks (where costs also include time and resources).
By incorporating trade show intelligence into their competitive intelligence strategy, an organization can benefit and better improve its operations. For example, a hypothetical pharmaceutical company named Hamla wants to improve the chemical compound in its sleep inducing medication to have a faster effect. Hamla gains knowledge about the participation of a leading rival company in a trade show and sends out their best competitive intelligence (CI) team and agents to attend the trade show. One CI agent from Hamla then gets acquainted with one of the rival company's chemical engineers; meets the engineer at one of the local restaurants and the engineer comments about the chemicals used in their own products as a joke based on the food in the restaurant. At that moment, information about the chemicals was provided to the Hamla CI agent obliviously and serendipitously; the agent acquired information that is required by Hamla. Hamla then uses that information as intelligence to make fast reacting sleeping pills that are favored by the market. In this hypothetical situation, intelligence was gathered by using human contacts, many experts and employees from different departments within organizations are participating in the trade show; they are all "â€¦ready to share their information." (Calof, 2004:11). Therefore information can be obtained unintentionally, through persuasion and by basic data collection methods such as interviews and discussions. The direct contact with human sources allows flexibility in communication, unlike the restricted office and appointment processes one would have to go through to get a short interview with a manager. Other benefits of trade show intelligence are discussed in the following paragraphs.
Benefits and problems of trade show intelligence
As demonstrated by the hypothetical company Hamla in the previous paragraphs, the most evident benefit is direct contact with human sources of intelligence. This can ensure the confirmation of known doubtful facts through direct discussions thereof and human contacts can have updated information that is not contained in any technical sources such as reports or electronic sources such as company websites. Another factor is that the human sources allow a dialogue that can be manipulated through psychological methods such as probe questions and deception. With reference to the hypothetical company described above, the Hamla CI agent can bring up rumors known in public about the rival company by saying that their products do not comply with environmental sustainability conditions. The rival employee would respond by outlining the process of manufacturing just to prove the Hamla CI agent wrong. Right there, by using deception, the Hamla agent managed to get an answer that would have been difficult to obtain through an interview. The direct human contact allowed this interaction. Contact with human sources of intelligence is fostered at a lower cost than other marketing tools which do not even permit direct contact with the human sources.
As a result of direct human contact, trade shows allow access to key decision makers (Bonoma, 1983). Strategic intelligence can be acquired from key decision makers which are hard to get to once they are in their corporate zones. A CI agent would be able to obtain raw information that is hard to find. Potential and existing customers also participate in trade shows and secrets can be revealed for their amusement and impression (Bonoma, 1983); the competitors would not be aware of their competition or they would ignore it and reveal sensitive information.
Trade show intelligence is collected in a shorter time period and with less resources and expenses (Calof, 2004; Bonoma, 1983). It is therefore suitable when there is no time to do research on competitors and the efficiency in resource use ensures that it can be supported by management and even included in organizational strategies or policies. However, management may want to determine the impact trade show intelligence will have on business operations and profit returns. This is one area that can limit the support of trade show because of the uncertainty in returns to the organization and impact on financial position (Bonoma, 1983).
Bonoma lists the following problems with trade shows: Unknown effectiveness, difficulty in measuring efficiency and high costs of participation (Bonoma, 1983:76). One cannot make pre-conclusions on the benefits that trade show intelligence will have for the company, and these benefits are hard to translate to figures or returns. The benefits cannot be evaluated until the information is gathered and analyzed, one can never be sure of the successful collection of the required information and even if gathered, the extent to which it will satisfy the information need is hard to determine until the information is analyzed and can be used as intelligence. Therefore, this issue, coupled with the high costs required for participation, is a problem that may limit corporate support for trade show participation; the support is crucial for the success thereof and Cherry and Gardner supports this notion by stating that early preparation will ensure early corporate support (Cherry and Gardner, 2002). Another problem arises when intelligence about one's own organization is exposed as a result of impressing customers as explained above or as a result of unethical behavior and espionage. A computer network CI agent attending a trade show was caught spying on a rival organization's product by approaching their booth at the trade show and tampering with expensive network equipment to take a photo of the patented functional components. A court case was opened against the agent's organization and the agent was reprimanded (Burrows, Einhorn, & Sager, 2004). This proves that some people will go to unethical and even illegal efforts to acquire intelligence about their competitors; so one's organization is still at risk of information theft in trade shows.
Recommendations and the CI team
In the military, there are a group of troops that are assigned the task of gathering intelligence about the enemy. This group is called the recon team. Using various data and information gathering techniques they are able to collect the information that high ranking officials require in order to plan strategies. A similar concept is used in CI to gather trade show intelligence; Cherry and Gardner refer to this kind of recon team as the CI 'go team' (Cherry & Gardner, 2002). This section of this paper aims to make recommendations on how to form a competitive CI team and how this team will gather intelligence from trade shows.
Firstly, both Cherry & Gardner and Calof agree that a dedicated team of professionals need to be selected and assigned the role of CI agents or 'quarterback' as Calof describes it (Cherry & Gardner, 2002; Calof, 2004). This team will have a main function of attending the trade show and inquiring, requesting, probing for and eliciting information from the different competitor contacts that are available at the trade show. This team needs to be formed by competent CI professionals who have much experience in the field of CI. To ensure successful collection of intelligence, these CI agents need to be a dedicated team whose sole responsibility is to engage in CI projects by going out to the field for data collection whether there are trade shows or not. Therefore this team needs to be formed as part of organizational strategy for CI.
After selecting the CI team and assigning CI agents their responsibilities, concerning the trade show, the team needs to be informed about the information needs that need to be satisfied and the context in which these needs are present. Calof refers to Key intelligence topics (KIT) that are a reflection of the grey areas or intelligence gaps that need to be filled (Calof, 2004). The KIT's forms a starting point of enquiry; they yield questions on the information need which need to be answered in order to satisfy the information need. This is when a plan or approach of data collection is developed and the earlier the development thereof, the more the chances of success (Cherry & Gardner, 2002). An organization can also choose to use a third party organization that is familiar and has close ties with them and has light about all their operations; this organization would be able to collect the information and return it as useful intelligence (Cherry & Gardner, 2002). This approach is effective if the organization has no effective internal team responsible that is competent enough to engage in data collection and the analysis thereof. Should there be an internal team of CI agents, the next step is to provide as much information as possible about the information needs and the entities that need this information (Calof, 2004); they should be provided with factual and contextual information needs by making clear the format of the information needed, the timeliness or currency thereof, the use of the information and some contextual information about the people or parties that need to use the information (are they executives, managers, supervisors or technical employees). This in-depth knowledge on the information users will allow the CI agents to ask the relevant questions and use the correct psychological techniques to acquire accurate information.
Upon informing the CI agents, the field work begins. Categories need to be made in order to group the information needs and prioritize them according to importance and sensitivity. These categories will allow the CI agents to have targets to use to gather intelligence (Adelman, 2006). This will allow the CI agents to target specific segments and organizations before proceeding to the next booth. Adelman mentions that agents need to introduce themselves to the booth operators before demonstrations of products and services are made (Adelman, 2006). This will allow the agent to have enough time to question the booth operator and there will be no wasted effort. A perfect strategy for CI agents is to forge personal relationships with the booth operators through the social sectors throughout the duration of the event. An agent could meet a rival employee for sharing food at a restaurant such as in the hypothetical company mentioned in the sections above. Romantic relationships can also be forged between the agents and rival employees whether by intention or as a technique used to acquire data or agents can intentionally befriend rival employees in order to sniff data from them. Although this strategy can bring up unethical issues such as spying, in personal relationships, the sharing of information will be voluntary as a matter of affection, impression or just making conversation. Clear ethical guidelines should be given to CI agents in order to allow them to make informed and legally acceptable decisions when collecting information from trade shows (Calof, 2004).
Once the trade show is over and information has been collected, it will be time to return to the office and analyze the results. A follow up can be made on formed relationships; agents can use these relationships to collect more data in the future. Since these agents will actively be involved in CI even after the trade show; these formed relationships can be of advantage to them.
To conclude, trade show intelligence is a sub-concept of competitive intelligence that allows organizations to use actionable information to change their position in the market, maintain it or make strategic decisions. A dedicated CI team made up of CI agents that understand the full context of the information needs derived from Key intelligence topics is required to collect the data and bring it back to the organization for analysis.