Hear the term “competitor intelligence,” and you may visualize sinister activities like industrial espionage, electronic eavesdropping and other shadowy phenomena that smack of poor ethics or outright illegality. Typical competitor intelligence-gathering techniques, however, are generally based on common-sense research principles, and usually involve public information available to any savvy business person willing to seek it out.
Competitor intelligence is far from a luxury and, at times, may even be a critical ingredient of business success today. Only through knowledge of your competitors’ products, market penetration and strategic strengths can you effectively position your own products and services in the marketplace.
Visualize a four-stage research process: examination of public information; access to commercial databases; personal observation; and consultation. If you’re managing a small- to mid-sized business, you’ll probably be able to obtain the information you need at the first stage or two.
An amazing variety of information about your competitors is available at your fingertips right now. As a simple starting point, know your trade. This means reading industry and local business publications (which may cover your competitor) and listening to competitor scuttlebutt in your community.
Inspect your competitors’ advertising in both consumer and trade media, and pick up literature your competitors make available at public outlets to learn about their products and capabilities. Scrutinize your competitors’ help-wanted ads in the newspaper to learn about employment trends.
Don’t overlook public directories, such as your city directory or trade directories. Some offer clues to the size and scope of your competitors’ businesses. Consult with your local Chamber of Commerce or trade association to discover the scope of activity in your field, such as the number of prospective customers in your market area, aggregate annual dollars spent, and industry growth. Between your own knowledge and the judicious use of business statistics, you can often estimate competitors’ market share. Visit your local public library to discover if any public histories or vertical file material is available.
And last, but not least, consult public documents. Information on corporate officers, mortgages, transfer of properties, civil suits, real estate holdings, and licenses and permits are usually public information. A call to your local county or municipal clerk’s office can give you an idea of the type of information held by these public agencies. If your competitor does business with public entities in the United States, such as governmental units or school districts, you can probably obtain copies of bids, proposals and contract information on past business relationships by filing “freedom of information” requests in most states.
If you can’t get sufficient information from readily available public sources, use today’s sophisticated computer technology to trace the data you need. For example, most of the major online services can provide you with electronic clipping services, which will download articles about your industry to your electronic mailbox. (Or, if you want to limit your search to local sources, you can subscribe to a local or regional clipping service which will systematically track local stories about your competitors and industry).
A few examples of electronic services providing business profiles or general information: Dun & Bradstreet, Hoover’s, Dow Jones, Infotrieve, PR Newswire, and LEXIS-NEXIS. ABI/Inform, which holds a database of thousands upon thousands of articles about specific products and companies (as well as non-business information), is available through online services and in many public libraries.
Finally, consider a general Internet search. Using one or more of the popular search engines, you might scan the World Wide Web for key words relating to your industry—usually the names of competitors or products. Check industry-specific electronic bulletin boards for comments about your competitors; hear anecdotes, advice and information about competitor strengths and weaknesses might be available from your own peers, competitor customers, or even employees of competitors.
But take care: while Internet information drawn from “paper” databases (such as credit records or electronic reprints of published articles) is usually quite accurate, and often very thorough, the quality of information contained on the Web, in chat rooms, and on bulletin boards varies considerably.
At times, because of the intensity of the competition you face or the amount of money you have riding on a particular market decision, you’ll want first-hand information. You can often obtain this simply by watching your competitors
For starters, become a customer of your competition if you can. Buy your competitors’ products. Analyze them. Consider their strengths and weaknesses. If your competitor is a publicly held company, buy a few shares of stock and you’ll receive a plethora of printed information—and you’ll have the right to attend the annual shareholders meetings.
The next step: a formal competition survey. Call or write your competitors, requesting product and pricing information. Observe the speed and nature of the responses you receive, and the content of any ensuing contracts your competitors make. Further still: Consider a service analysis, using a “mystery shopper” or “mystery consumer.” This shopper, a trained employee or consultant, can visit or call competitors with pointed questions about product quality, delivery, past performance, or specific issues you’re concerned about. If your competitors offer products at retail, visit their stores. Observe the amount of retail traffic at key times during the week, the number and sources of delivery trucks going in and out of their parking areas, and the responsiveness of service people at retail locations.
At trade shows, stop by the booths of your competitors. And if you notice that your competitor is making a presentation at a trade meeting, don’t miss the opportunity to attend.
At times, you may need to gather in-depth qualitative information on your competitors—the type of information you can obtain only by talking with other people. Make a list of questions: about new product lines, weaknesses in the market, or service response, for instance. Pose those questions to your peers, or to the peers of your friends and colleagues in other industries. Talk to your suppliers. Ask friends in the banking, real estate and insurance industries, who may often have insight into the workings of many kinds of businesses. And don’t hesitate to take the opportunity to chat with prospective employees about their experiences with your competitors.
If you’d like to assess public or customer attitudes toward your competitors, consider setting up a focus group of consumers to explore their attitudes and reactions to the competing organization. (A market research firm can help you.) And finally, if you need a substantial amount of information, consider retaining a competitor analysis consultant who can conduct statistical research as well as in-depth interviews.
Remember that you need not—and should not—pursue all of these tactics. The secret is to identify a select few intelligence-gathering strategies that you can call your own, and work those strategies into your day-to-day routine; for example, by making it a point to ask a competitor-related question or two of a visiting sales rep, or spending time gathering competitor information from the Internet once a month. You’ll learn how to stay a step or two ahead of your competition—and you’ll learn more about your own hidden business potential as well.
Richard G. Ensman Jr. is a N.Y.-based business writer.