Notes and take-away quotes: "Social media for competitive intelligence" by Marydee Ojala

Martin Belam  by Martin Belam, 21 December 2009

I didn't get to go to as much of this year's Online Information show as I'd usually like to, but I did manage to see one outstanding session in the free seminar programme - "Social media for competitive intelligence" by Marydee Ojala. Here are my notes.

Just because it is social, doesn't mean it is useful

As far as Marydee was concerned, not all Web 2.0 'social' experiences were created equal. Some of them are much more useful for the researcher than others. Partially this is due to demographics - the profile of Bebo and MySpace users compared to LinkedIn and Twitter makes the latter two more likely to carry corporate information of value. As she put it, where is the info, and where is the "I had toast for breakfast".

She also made another telling point about presenting information. She posed the question, what happens if a client hones in on one piece of information in your comprehensive research report and says "This is it. This is the vital piece of competitive intelligence we were looking for, where did you get it?" and your answer is "Erm....Twitter...". She said it was important to frame the reliability of socially-gained information responsibility, and sell it in honestly.

Transitory data leads to transitory intelligence

With the drive towards the real-time and social web, increasingly information is becoming fleeting and transitory. If you log on to Twitter or a Twitter client, you aren't necessarily going to read every tweet posted between the time you last viewed your twitterstream. With limited search capabilities back into the archive, and link-shortening services that may not last forever, we run the risk of not being able to recall all of data that might be relevant to a research project. Personally, I'm still on the look-out for a Firefox plug-in that will screen-grab, time-stamp and securely cloud-store every web page I visit as I visit it without me having to think about it.

Be sceptical, be cautious

A healthy scepticism has always been the hallmark of a good researcher or journalist, and social media doesn't change that. Marydee said you should ask "Why is this person blogging this? Why are they tweeting that?". When looking at the personal blogs of employees, how much store can you put in what they write about their company? Are corporate blogs being written by those working on the nuts'and'bolts of the operation, or is it a glossy PR exercise?

She also urged caution - suggesting that someone was bound to be reverse engineering competitive intelligence from your own social media activities. This touched on similar themes that Vernon Prior and Karen Lawrence Öqvist have explored in recent FUMSI articles: "DIY Detection: Softly, Softly, Catchee Monkee" and "Get to Know Your Plumbing: Protecting Your Organisation From Leaking 'Soft Information'".

Traditional signals of 'quality' are changing

Social media has shifted the traditional signals of quality that researchers relied on. It used to be that being professionally published was the cornerstone of authority, but now hobby sites on niche topics or an informed commentator below the line on a newspaper article can provide information that is more valuable than the professional. As Marydee said, her fingers don't come with a spell-checker, so even badly mangled syntax and spelling on a blog comment doesn't necessarily mean the person isn't an expert in their field.

All free, all of the time

Marydee made a final point that warmed the hearts of the information professionals in the audience. She said it was now absolutely possible to decide to abandon traditional sources of information like subscriptions, journals, closed databases and the like, and focus entirely on getting all of your information for free from the Internet, all of the time from the Internet. She asked the question - "Would that lead to making better business decisions?"

She left the question dangling tantalisingly in the air...


I loved this! 12 years ago, I was doing competitive intelligence for a private subscription newsletter to defense contractors (RFP intel, new developments in procurement reform, other competitor scuttlebutt). I worked primarily via CompuServe, BB-sites, & used (a little) Mozilla as a browser.

Wow. How far we’ve come in such a short time. Scary.

If I left that last question up in the air, it was because I was speaking to a room of information professionals, whom I sincerely hope will not abandon subscriptions to premium content databases, journals (particularly ONLINE!!), and news sources in favour of social media. I believe, most definitively, that this would not lead to better decision making. Quite the contrary! But info pros need to be able to "sell" the holders of their employers' purse strings that this is the case. We must have sufficient budgets to perform quality research!

But thanks so much for the kind words about the preso, Martin.


Definitely Marydee - I think the brilliant thing about leaving that question hanging in the air is that pretty much whoever the audience is, their answer can only be that 'all free, all of the time' will not improve the quality of information available to a business when making decisions

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