Competitive Analysis in the Dark: Strategies for Unknown Competition

First time here? Before your dig into this post on competitive analysis, check out our previous entries in this series on how to use game theory to respond to proposals.

Responding to a Request for Proposals (RFP) or applying for a grant often comes with unique challenges. One of the most common and difficult scenarios is when you need to know who else is responding or competing for the same opportunity. This can make competitive analysis, an essential part of the proposal development process, seem almost impossible. But don’t despair – even in such situations, there are strategic approaches you can take. 

Using Game Theory in the Absence of Specific Competitor Information

While knowledge of specific competitors can greatly aid strategy formation, game theory provides a framework that can be applied even when specific information is lacking. 

Here, the focus shifts from direct competitor analysis to strategic positioning in the proposal or grant application, understanding the likely requirements and expectations of the RFP issuer or grant provider and ensuring your proposal stands out irrespective of the competition.

Mixed Strategy Approach

When translated to proposal development, actions based on probability distribution mean weighing the odds and crafting a strategy that aligns with the most probable outcomes. Before diving into the proposal, one needs to assess the landscape of potential competitors. This doesn’t just mean identifying competitors by size but also by the strengths they bring to the table, their past performances, and their unique selling points.

When you begin your proposal, consider segmenting your competitors into categories: the giants with vast resources, the mid-tier companies like yours, and the smaller, more agile startups. Each comes with its strengths and vulnerabilities.

Different-sized competitors require different strategies.

For example, if you’re a mid-size company, larger competitors typically bank on their vast resources, established reputation, and expansive service offerings. Against them, you could highlight your firm’s more personalized service, ability to pivot (flexibility) quickly, and penchant for bringing innovative solutions to complex challenges. On the other hand, smaller competitors often rely on their agility, niche expertise, and cost-effective solutions. Competing against them is worth emphasizing your company’s comprehensive resources, proven track record, stability, and perhaps even the breadth of your services, ensuring a more holistic solution to the client’s needs.

Given this backdrop, a “mixed strategy” proposal doesn’t focus narrowly on one set of strengths. Instead, it amalgamates a strategic blend of advantages, positioning your company as an ideal choice. This approach anticipates different competitive scenarios and preempts them by offering a multifaceted value proposition that resonates with the RFP issuer or grant provider.

Learning from Past Competitions

Even when the competition is unknown, historical data and past experiences can be extremely useful. If you’ve competed for similar grants or responded to similar RFPs in the past, analyze those situations. Who were the competitors then? What was their strategy? How was their proposal different from yours? Use these insights to inform your current strategy.

Leveraging Public Information for Competitive Analysis

In scenarios where the specifics about who else is bidding are unknown, it’s crucial to appreciate the power of publicly available information. It may not give you the exact names of the competing organizations, but it can provide valuable insights into who your likely competitors might be. Here’s how to strategically leverage public information:

  1. Industry Analysis: Understanding your industry landscape is essential. Look for patterns in who has previously won similar grants or RFPs. If the opportunity is in a specialized field, organizations with a track record in this area will likely be interested. Even without direct knowledge, you can make educated guesses about the competition.
  2. Grant or RFP Issuer’s History: Study the past behavior of the grant issuer or the organization issuing the RFP. Who have they awarded grants or contracts to before? What kind of projects or proposals have they favored? This can provide valuable insight into their preferences and the types of organizations they view as capable.
  3. Public Statements and Reports: Check for public statements, press releases, annual reports, or similar documents from potential competitors that might indicate their interest in the grant or RFP. Organizations often publicly announce their intentions or areas of interest, which can provide clues about their bidding activities.
  4. Networking and Industry Events: Attend industry events, conferences, and forums to gather information and sense industry trends. These platforms offer a chance to hear about organizations’ plans and can give you a sense of who might respond to similar opportunities.
  5. Social Media and News Alerts: Set up news alerts and follow relevant social media channels for the RFP, grant issuer, and potential competitors. You might glean useful insights about their activities, plans, or focus areas.
  6. Government Databases and Websites: For public sector grants and RFPs, many governments maintain databases or websites that list past award winners and provide some information about the awarded projects. These can be a valuable resource for understanding the competitive landscape.
  7. Webinars! I also try to understand the number of people on the informational webinars, even if I have to ask directly in the Q&A session. This can provide information on approximately how many competitors there might be. 

You can create a more informed picture of the likely competition by meticulously researching and piecing together public information. While it may not be as precise as knowing who is bidding, this can significantly help shape your proposal strategy and increase your chances of success. Remember, knowledge is power, even when it’s not as specific as we’d like it to be.

Focus on Strengths and Differentiators 

When the competition remains a mystery, the spotlight should shine brighter on your organization’s strengths and unique selling points (USPs). This involves consciously crafting your proposal to underscore what makes your organization exceptional and how you can uniquely fulfill the requirements of the RFP or grant. 

  1. Value Proposition: This forms the core of your proposal and is the cornerstone upon which you build your entire response. A strong value proposition communicates what you offer and explains why it’s valuable, and distinguishes you from potential competitors. Clearly articulate your understanding of the issuer’s problem or requirement to build a robust value proposition. Explain how your solution addresses this problem effectively and efficiently. Emphasize how your solution offers superior value – this could be in terms of cost, quality, uniqueness, or other relevant parameters.
  2. Innovation: The ability to bring fresh, unique approaches can help your proposal stand out, irrespective of who you’re up against. Innovation can manifest in various ways. It could be a novel approach to solving a problem. It could be a unique process or technology you employ. It might even be an innovative business model or partnership approach. Be sure to explicitly highlight this innovation in your proposal and explain its benefits and relevance to the RFP or grant requirements.
  3. Evidence of Success: Real-world evidence of your capabilities can significantly bolster your proposal. To demonstrate past successes, provide concrete metrics that show the results you’ve achieved. This could include outcomes, costs saved, efficiencies gained, or other relevant measures. Share case studies that tell how you’ve successfully addressed similar problems or requirements. Include testimonials or endorsements from satisfied clients or partners, if possible.
  4. Team and Resources: The people behind your organization and the resources at their disposal can be a major differentiator. To showcase your team and resources, highlight your team members’ relevant qualifications, experience, and skills. Demonstrate how your team’s expertise aligns with the requirements of the RFP or grant. Showcase your unique resources, such as proprietary technologies, partnerships, facilities, or equipment, and explain how these will contribute to the project’s success.

While a thorough competitive analysis is beneficial, it’s not the end-all.

You can develop a competitive proposal ready to face a wide array of potential competitors through strategic positioning, leveraging past experiences, and honing the focus on your strengths and differentiators. Remember, a well-prepared player can succeed even without a known adversary.

Improve your Competitive Analysis

Check out the literature on OSINT, or Open Source Intelligence to better understand techniques and sources to gather information.