It is entertaining to watch the clip from the classic movie, The Wizard of Oz, when the Wizard is exposed and says “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain”. Unfortunately, if others saw what was truly “behind the curtain” of many companies, the companies would likely repeat the Wizard’s statement. Although he was deceiving his audience, the Wizard’s intentions were quite noble; the same is true for most companies. Today, companies have a far more effective curtain than the Wizard had in the movie. Today’s curtain is a company’s web site. With it, the company shows only what it intends others to see. Clearly, company web sites only provide a two-dimensional view of the company that hides the inner-workings, warts, and issues that the company, like every other company, faces. It can equally hide the many positive attributes that a company possesses that may not be directly relevant to the company’s offerings or capabilities emphasized on the web site.
In any event, a web site must be considered as a biased view that is created by the company with carefully composed content for external consumption. Although this sounds to be terribly negative and implies deception, it is a reality of any selling process; something all of us do every day. Whether it is a product, service, or just an idea, we are constantly trying to influence others in both our professional and personal lives. At some level, we all understand this but, somehow, we tend to believe at face value what we see on web sites and on the Internet in general. To bring a dose of reality to many of the emails I receive that have forwarded “true” content, I respond with the following message: “If it is on the Internet it must be true or else is would not be there” a quote from Abraham Lincoln in 1870! (1870 is five years after his death!)
Unfortunately, many companies use the Internet as their primary research tool in developing their competitive analyses. The common sense test that needs to be applied is for anyone to review their own web site to determine if it accurately presents all of the information about the company and its offerings including the good, the bad, and the ugly. Any objective analysis will quickly show that the web site shows only one of three categories; guess which one! To be fair, a significant amount of valuable information can be available on a competitor’s web site. Most of that information will be in the form of factual data describing physical characteristics often referred to as “speeds and feeds”. Adjectives and phrases such as “best in class”, “unparalleled”, “award winning” and similar claims need to be totally discounted. As an example, I am a “best in class, unparalleled, award winning” author. Based upon all male authors living in my household as determined by my loving wife!
In researching competitive offerings, it makes no sense to attempt to look behind the curtain of a company’s web site. Instead, look for windows provided by others. Even in these cases, reviewing “independent” sites and reading the, so called, objective reviews may not provide reliable information. Some companies load these site with fake reviews or hire others to do the same thing. If there was ever a need for independent collaboration, it is with “facts” found on the Internet.
Collaboration can be found through a number of sources. For public companies, annual reports and posted financial reports to the Securities and Exchange Commission are reliable with some notable exceptions that occur occasionally. For public and private companies, testimonials from named companies and individuals are generally reliable. Professional publications and trade journal articles, not advertisements, can also be relied upon. Press releases, past the first paragraph, are also generally valid. Of course, watch out for the opening sentence similar to “Ajax Corporation, the World Leader, is proud to announce its first commercial product…”.
Without making some unethical representations, a wealth of information can be obtained by calling into companies and asking leading questions of employees in some departments. Customer Service, Business Development, Human Resources, and IT personnel, proud of their company, can provide verification of many facts and claims made by marketing. Even job postings listed on a company’s web site can provide insight into their operations and position.
The bottom line is that competitive comparisons should only be based on verifiable material that you uncover both in front and behind the curtain.