Simply put, there is a lot of information circulating the internet. There is so much information and data available to internet users that it can not be quantified. We hear about the dangers of having our information available so readily all the time. Cybercrime abounds. I warn friends and colleagues about protecting their information whenever we discuss the possible dangers that arise with social media. Just because I’m a huge supporter of social media, doesn’t mean I will ignore its imperfections. So where is the good in having our information so publicly displayed? One, it means that people can build social communities in which they can discuss interests and passions more freely. Two, it allows businesses to better market their services and develop better products.

It’s in this second benefit that open source intelligence comes to play. Working in the government, I’ve had my fair share of discussions about open source intelligence. Open source intelligence is a form of intelligence collection management that involves finding, selecting, and acquiring information from publicly available sources and analyzing it to produce actionable intelligence (Source). During my time at the Marine Corps I had to sit in on many teleconferences about social networking. One of the most interesting sessions I sat in on dealt with open source intelligence. A Colonel who served in the humanitarian aid mission to Haiti spoke about how his troops used social media outlets to learn about the conditions on the ground, as well determine villages that needed assistance. One of the sources they used was a blog from a Haitian resident whose town was blocked in due to impassable roads. They were able to use pictures and info from the social media outlets to define coordinates for troops, and to help towns that had no supplies. The military’s use of open source intelligence enabled them to perform their mission and serve people more effectively.

Using open source intelligence can give a similar advantage to businesses. Far too often I hear that the advantage of social media exists solely in marketing, advertising, or public relations. What about getting a leg up on the competition? For small businesses, it can be as simple as looking at other business’s websites and social media sites to educate yourself about how to properly engage online. For niche and big businesses, open source intelligence is much more involved but can equate to a bigger profit revenue. To use open source intelligence in business you have to track other companies’ data, analyze the findings, and then turn them into an actionable business plan. Take for instance the pizza industry. Domino’s, Papa John’s, and Pizza Hut all compete with one another. If they have a dedicated person for open source intelligence, they can instruct that person to do something as simple as evaluate customer reviews on Facebook, Twitter, Yelp, Urbanspoon, etc. These reviews will tell them what coupons, deals, flavors, and different foods the competition’s consumers favor. From there a business plan could be drawn that would offer similar deals or new additions to the menu.

Developing open source intelligence for businesses should involve a three-pronged approach for collection of data.
1) Keep up with changes to your competitors brand, services, or product. An easy way to do this through open source channels is to keep track of changes to their website. Free tools exist that will allow you to monitor any updates to a competitor’s website. One such tool is Change Detection. Change detection alerts you to changes in your competitor’s website content based off a log file (More Info). Another way to keep up is to set a Google Alert for your competitor. This allows you to keep track of buzz about new products without having to constantly scan the news.

2) Discover where, and how often, consumers interact with your competition. Monitoring where, and how often, consumers connect with your competition will allow you to evaluate where your company should start devoting its resources to. If you find that your competition develops a huge community on Facebook, and you have yet to start a Facebook Page, you might consider devoting resources to Facebook in order to get word out about your product or service. You can find out how strong your competition’s online presence is by using tools like HowSociable. HowSociable allows you to enter a competitor’s name and see how their brand performs across 32 different metrics on social networking channels. These metrics also come with a “total visibility score” that will allow you to see your competitor’s complete online presence. You can then track statistics like how often your competitor’s links are clicked in order to track how often people are consuming their information. A nifty trick for this is to copy a competitor’s link and then post it into the address bar of your browser. Before you click enter add a plus sign at the end of the link. When you press enter you will able to see the metrics for the clicks on the link. Below is an example of this tip. This trick works on Bit.Ly links, Stumbleupon, and goo.gl links. (If you know of any others please share).

Link Metrics

I took a link from my former employer's Twitter account, The U.S. Marine Corps. I copied the link "http://cot.ag/hhZgPZ" and then posted it into my web browser address bar with a plus sign at the end of it. The link looked like this "http://cot.ag/hhZgPZ+". When I pressed enter I was able to see the metrics for the clicks on the link.

3) Find out what consumers are saying about your competition. You can see what consumers are saying many different ways. It is as simple as looking at message boards, analyzing comments on the brand’s comment section on their website, or scanning social media sites. There are several free tools that will allow you to do this, one of which is SocialMetion. SocialMention allows you to see what others are saying by breaking down comments by date and sentiment.

Following this approach will allow your business to develop actionable business models to keep up with and beat your competition. Websites and social media channels can work for you in many ways besides just marketing. The key is to devote time and resources into using open source intelligence. Your marketing department can’t handle marketing AND open source intelligence on its own. Choosing one person, or a team, to analyze your competitor’s online presence and collect information is an asset to any business development plan. I would argue that it is a needed function, and a vital piece of the puzzle for running a buiness. Open source intelligence – it is not just for the military!

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