Consider the Competition

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Published: 05th January 2012
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German automaker Porsche recently banned its employees from using sites such as eBay, Facebook, and Google Mail during office hours. Porsche's concern was not around the use of employee time, or the posting of inappropriate content, but rather caused by fear of industrial espionage.

According to the business magazine Wirtschaftswoche, foreign intelligence agencies systematically used Facebook to contact company insiders and win their trust in order to obtain information.

Many companies, large and small, are faced with the ongoing decision of how much material to make publicly available within their website and social media presence. In each case, you're weighing the benefit of providing content that boosts your credibility, emotional appeal, and the visitor's propensity to buy, against the threat of making it easier for your competition to steal your work or to poach your customers or employees.

The debate usually centers around one or more of the following types of information:

Detailed product specifications, training materials, and user manuals
Articles, white papers, research findings, and other intellectual property
Customer, client, or member listings
Names and roles of key personnel

I've raised this issue many times in my presentations to CEO groups around the country, and asked participants about the conclusions that they've reached. The responses that I receive range widely in their perspective.

Often, business owners take the type of stance adopted by Dave Hatter, President of Internet consulting firm Libertas Technologies in Cincinnati, Ohio, who says, "If my competition can steal my customers that easily, then we aren't doing a very good job. And we feel that it's important for our clients and potential clients to see the quality of our work."

On the other side of the equation, I've heard horror stories about intense campaigns to lure away valuable employees. Companies worry that displaying a client list gives the competition a guide to the marketplace for the types of services that they provide. In one instance, the customer of one of my participants gave the password for a secure support site to a competitor, allowing him access to a number of confidential in-house manuals and product specifications.

Of course, it's also important for you to monitor what your competition is up to online. You probably already have a list of the key players in your industry or locale, and their websites and social media pages. You should check to see how they're using the web in comparison to you on a regular basis.

Is their focus the same as yours, or are there some differences that might be significant? Have they made any major new developments recently? Have they added new designs, content, or functionality to their online image?

Jason Partee, owner of industrial oven distributor Vander Industries in Torrance, California, says, "I need to know what kind of pricing my competition offers, as well as what they're stocking, so that I can be competitive. I started my new company with the express idea of selling certain products for lower than anyone else."

From my own perspective, other speakers and consultants have stolen my articles and passed them off as their original content, so I have first-hand experience of this debate. My personal opinion remains that if the competition really wants to find out what you're doing, they probably will, and that it's more damaging to business growth not to show content that demonstrates your expertise and track record.

But I also recognize that this can be a very sensitive and personal issue, and it's one area where I advise my clients that they really need to reach their own decisions.

2011 by Philippa Gamse, CMC.

This excerpt, courtesy of author Philippa Gamse, CMC, is Rule 12 from "42 Rules for a Web Presence That Win". Philippa is a web strategist and professional speaker with over 15 years of experience helping businesses, associations and nonprofits to drive online success and increased revenue. You can learn more about Philippa and purchase the book at http://42rules.com/book/42-rules-for-a-web-presence-that-wins/

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