How to Predict Your Competitors’ Next Move

By David Kidd, BPR

This title is from an article by the international consultancy firm, McKinsey.  The article centres around an interview with John Horn, author of the new book Inside the Competitor’s Mindset (The MIT Press, April 2023) and explains how to predict competitor actions. Horn is a professor at Washington University’s Olin Business School in St. Louis who helps companies maximize the value of competitive insights.

The core message of his book is this:

The big idea is that many companies do competitive intelligence, but where they fall down is in turning that intelligence and data into insights about what the competitor will do. Many of my clients say that their competitors are irrational, but this is because they are not taking the time to look at the world from their competitors’ point of view. Once they do, those competitive actions start to make sense.

Now I’ve written articles about Game Theory before. The mistake we in radio make in trying to predict what the leadership team at Station XYZ will do is that we base our predictions on what we would do if we were running the station..

As John Horn says:

One reason is that we assume our approach and the way we look at the world is right. When someone does something differently, it creates a dissonance with what we think is the correct answer. The other reason is that with more seniority, power, or status comes greater difficulty in being empathetic. We made choices that got us promoted, so we assume they had to be right choices. Any others don’t make sense to us.

In my article “Game Theory Revisited” I said:

Knowing what you would do in a certain situation is one thing. But the other key aspect of Game Theory is correctly defining what your competitors would do. This is not easy. You need the ability to reverse-engineer the moves of competitors and predict what they are likely to do, what they will avoid doing and what they are actually capable of doing.

Getting inside your competitors’ heads is difficult because radio stations (and their decision makers) are usually very different. They often have different cultures, different theories on programming strategy, different budgetary pressures and always…..different talent in their line-up.

John Horn has a four step plan designed to understand your competitors:

The first step is to pay attention to what competitors say and do by downloading earnings calls or annual reports and scanning media releases. The second step is to find out what assets, resources, and capabilities they have. That’s where you start to differentiate the competitor. The third step is to consider the person making the decisions. What do you know about them? When someone with a marketing background becomes the CEO, they won’t suddenly start optimizing the footprint of factories. That person will likely focus on marketing to help the company grow, partly because they will think, “My background is why the board hired me.”

The fourth element, which is really important, is making a prediction and then tracking it to see how it lines up with what happens. If you paid attention to what the competitor said and did, considered all its assets, and understood the leaders’ backgrounds, you can say, “I think they will do this in the next three to six months.” If what they do is in line with what you expected, you know you are on the right track. If you’re off, then go back and ask, “What did I miss? Maybe they engaged a new consultant or hired a new person to make decisions.” That updates what you pay attention to going forward to help you make better predictions. The objective is never to be 100 percent accurate, but it’s a lot better to be 30 percent accurate than to be 0 percent accurate in predicting what your competitor will do.


Finally, he makes a very good point about where competitor insights come from:

One of the challenges with competitive insight is that you can’t talk to your competitor, so you have to intuit outside in, from second- and third-party resources. A colleague of mine said, “It’s similar to a homicide detective who can’t ask the victim, ‘Who killed you?’”

Most of us in the radio industry have worked for at least more than one network. We see the differences in strategic decision making processes and the varying internal pressures on revenue and resources from network to network that impact these decisions.

As Sun Tzu said: “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”



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