Spying On Competition Using Social Media

Aug 8 2010 by Mario Zelaya | 16 Comments

Spying On Competition Using Social Media

When we use social media tools, whether it be updating our status or checking-in to a location, the last thing we ever think about is the repercussions of our actions on social networks.

Little do you know that you’re divulging information that could impact your business life a lot more than you think.

Disclaimer: What I discuss in this article was merely an experiment and I hope that no one employs these tactics with malicious intentions. This is a story about the dangers of exposing too much information on social networks.

The Story

It all began a few months back. My business partner and our developers had just finished creating a large social media campaign for a big international brand and we were shocked at some of the information people were making in a public forum.

We all sat down and had a giggle at some of the things people had exposed (thankfully, no body parts).

It had then occurred to me that some of these people could most likely be geolocated, so that not only would we know who they were, but also figure out where they hung out and what they were up to.

geolocated

I thought to myself, "I wonder if we can figure out what our competition is up to?" making the leap towards applying the idea of using social media tools to carrying out corporate espionage.

What We Were Able to Obtain

The goal of our experiment was to see what our competition was doing, what clients they were talking to, and what potential deals were occurring — and if we can get all of this through publicly available information — namely, via social media.

geolocated

To protect the identity of the organization we conducted the experiment on, we shall call them "Company XYZ."

We were able to easily determine:

  • Their potential clients
  • Their current roster clients
  • Who their key staff/personnel were

In our perspective (I’m sure others will agree), all of the above are key factors — that if shared with the competition — could adversely affect a business.

Corporate Espionage: Our Spy Kit

The following are the steps we took during the experiment.

1. Google and LinkedIn

We conducted a Google search for "Company XYZ" and looked for them on LinkedIn, a social networking site for professionals.

Google and LinkedIn

This step was to get preliminary basic information about the company.

2. Blogs, Facebook and Twitter

We then looked for key personnel information: the names of key staff members, their blogs, and Facebook profile or Twitter information.

Blogs, Facebook and Twitter

Once that information was found, we added those key personnel to social media outlets (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) using a private account that we had created.

To quickly recap, here’s what we now have:

  • Their names
  • Email addresses
  • Twitter activity
  • In some occasions, we were able to add them to Facebook as a friend!

3. Geolocation Through FourSquare and Gowalla

Here’s where it gets interesting. Now that we have their email and contact information, we added them to FourSquare and Gowalla, which are location-based social web services, and in some occasions, our effort was minimized because some used Twitter with geolocation enabled.

Geolocation Through FourSquare and Gowalla

For Company XYZ, we monitored their check-in activity and matched it up with their Twitter and Facebook updates.

Our findings were shocking!

We were able to figure out which clients they were talking to, who their current clients were, where their key personnel hung out, and so forth.

Mind you, we don’t know the details of the conversations in these client meetings. However, it would be quite easy to figure out just by calling up the client company and confirming our hunch — and in turn, possibly disrupting current negotiations if a contract was not already signed.

We could have easily contacted their prospective client’s marketing department, and then put in a last-minute proposal to undercut Company XYZ and potentially land the contract ourselves.

Obviously, we didn’t take this approach; it’s not ethical, professional, nor how our company operates.

But don’t be mistaken: there are many who would take advantage of opportunities such as this.

A Tighter Leash on Social Media

This example shows that there’s a great need for social media policies within organizations.

People have gotten into the habit of not only freely exposing personal activities, but also work-related information; all of which are easy to reverse engineer to figure out what they’re up to.

For start-ups and established companies in the digital and mobile realm, privacy is of the utmost importance — especially when new deals are being created and worked on.

Internally, at Majestic Media (where I work), we don’t permit our staff to check-in to client (or potential client) locations. Nor are we allowed to discuss potential prospects on Facebook or Twitter.

This is what we say: "After the client signs on the dotted line, feel free to pat yourself on the back and tweet away! But don’t ever talk about potential contracts nor check-in to client locations as this information can negatively impact our business."

We encourage other organizations to employ social media policies. Create a formal document to be distributed to your employees that discusses not only the danger of distributing too much information via social media platforms, but also how it can adversely affect the company’s day-to-day operations.

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About the Author

Mario Zelaya is the Managing & Exec. Creative Director at Majestic Media, a leading digital agency located in Toronto, Canada. Specializing in Social Media Strategy and Mobile Development for Fortune 500 companies, he leads a team of over 35 highly talented designers and developers. You can contact him via LinkedIn, Facebook, or through email.

16 Comments

Rob Metras

August 8th, 2010

Wise idea Mario. Its no different from blabbing out load stuff on an airplane, or on the phone in a public place..the walls have ears.. As they use to say in the military loose lips sink ships.

Ted Thompson

August 8th, 2010

Good article Mario, very helpful. Thanks for sharing!

Johnny

August 8th, 2010

Interesting, everyones so connected nowadays privacy is almost a thing of the past. With Geolocation on the rise its just a matter of time until we can just track everyone, whenever we please.

Rob Jenkins

August 8th, 2010

Honourable and intriguing. Some would say what you’re suggesting is common sense, but with today’s pressure for the individual to keep on Tweeting (to look proactive / busy / successful) could obviously leave your company compromised. Thank you Mario for the honest appraisal. I’m sure others have already exploited this, but are less than keen to share their findings.

Max Luzuriaga

August 8th, 2010

This was a great eye-opener!

Personally I don’t use sites like Gowalla, but then again I also don’t run a business! However, I can see how this could quickly become an issue for a business.

One thought I had was that if a (particularly sneaky) company wanted to, they could use these techniques to selectively share information that might actually help them by letting their competitors know it…

Mario Zelaya

August 8th, 2010

Thank you Rob.
I completely agree with your analogy, which is why we recommend that every company have social media policies especially when it involves material and sensitive information. Not rocket science here, but case in point, we exposed that information quite easily.

Cheers,

-M

Michelle C

August 9th, 2010

Great article, Mario. It really is a double-edged sword. The amount of information we can get out of social media these days is truly incredible…and scary. I work for a monitoring company so I’m always telling people to be careful of what they make public on the web, but it’s surprising the number of people that still don’t pay attention to what they write (and also great for companies that have that information available)

Best,
Michelle @Synthesio

steve firth

August 9th, 2010

very true, so I’ve abandoned any notion of privacy and gone with the blatant “yeah that’s me and what” approach :)

Muhammad Ali

August 9th, 2010

Social networks really sucks a lot. You are not secure while using them, oh yes! LinkedIn is great like you feel more serious attitude over there. But Facebook sucks as the audience there is just crazy. And on going hacker attacks,, !!! aah!! I hate Facebook. Twitter is awesome!!!

toputop

August 9th, 2010

Very interesting article on social media.Great post…

Andy Smalley

August 9th, 2010

In this cut-throat economy, this is a prime example of where Knowledge is King. If you know how to get the information, why not use it as a competitive advantage. Your right about the ethics, but if you can use it as a motivator, why not? The law enforcement is using it that way…employers are using social media to monitor employees…shoot, they probably use LinkedIn as a hiring criteria/validation.

Doron Orenstein

August 11th, 2010

Wow, that’s some crafty thinking. I think it’s cool that you didn’t try to use the info against your competitors, but instead used it to get a sense of what the possibilities are for your own business. I’ve had a lot of success learning about my target marketing by cold/research calling (more like networking, not asking for work), getting some names, connecting them on LinkedIn, and seeing what groups they’re on in LinkedIn. I also follow their tweets to see what blogs they read. So yeah, you really can use social media “spying” in constructive ways if you’re creative about it.

David Robinson

August 11th, 2010

Privacy is dead. This supports the point my biz advisors have been pushing for – namely that specialization is a sound business strategy. The more specialized a company is in what they do, the less they will have competition, and the more free they will be from the deluge of information.

crash

August 12th, 2010

I’m always surprised at how many people have readily available information about their employers online and what they’re working on – all for the taking.

Social Media policies will only go so far. People need to realize the internet is a shark tank. If you’re going to put yourself or your company out there with a big piece of chum around your neck, don’t be surprised when you get eaten alive.

katchja

August 14th, 2010

Hi everyone,

Yes, competition monitoring is vital. At the same time, though, since the goal of competition monitoring is to figure out what are the best positioning techniques you can use for your own business, it’s essential that competition monitoring does not take up too much time and effort. Perhaps already available apps and tools will make this easier. Nonetheless, with or without focusing on that, high quality content and authenticity could easily rule out competitors who are only good at pulling strings through social media.

Kate

Stephen

April 7th, 2011

Timely information…and too many folks are clearly sharing info that they think is benign in a temporal way while their shared info is telling a much bigger story when viewed in an aggregated way.

Shared Data…you love or you get pushed by it.

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