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Competitive intelligence is a very effective way to gain an edge on your competition in the marketplace, but it’s best if you keep it ethical and legal. Don’t do anything you wouldn’t want your competition doing to you. In other words, don’t break the law.

Still, legal concerns aside, you can spy on your competition in a number of ways (all of which are legal). Here are 7 of them.

  1. Subscribe To Their Newsletter – Just about every company has a newsletter. Are you a subscriber? Companies often share their latest developments with their newsletter subscribers first. If you’re on the list, you’ll be in the know. Subscribe to the print version as well as the e-mail/digital edition.
  2. Follow Their Blog – This is something you can do anonymously. No subscriptions necessary. Just log on once or twice a day and see what they’re up to.
  3. Follow Them On Twitter – Almost everyone has a Twitter account these days. Are you following your competition? You should be.
  4. Newspaper Clippings – People and companies still make the news the old-fashioned way. Are you clipping any print news about your competition? You should be. But also include clippings of online news – websites, blogs, etc. Anything that is newsworthy should go in your drop file.
  5. Check Out Their Facebook Page – These days, companies are as likely to update their Facebook page before doing anything else.
  6. Stay Connected On LinkedIn – Is your competition active on LinkedIn? Have you even looked. Many companies have their employees answer questions on LinkedIn. You should be there right alongside them.
  7. Download Their Mobile Apps – If your competition has a mobile app, you should be using it.

There’s no telling what you’ll learn about the competition if you do these 7 things. Competitive intelligence today isn’t like it was 20 years ago.

One of the most powerful competitive intelligence tools in your arsenal is Facebook. There are plenty of ways to use Facebook, but you should know that because it is the most trafficked website online nearly every business in the world is trying to get there to get their slice of the marketing pie. So there are plenty of opportunities to spy on them.

Here are three ways to make the most of your competition’s marketing efforts on Facebook:

  1. Join their Facebook page – Many businesses spend all of their Facebook time managing their page and marketing through their page. If your competition has a Facebook page, join it. Check it often for updates and subscribe to their Networked blog if they have one.
  2. Sign for their app – Many businesses are developing their own Facebook apps. You should use those apps because they can be a clue as to what your competition might be considering next. Many apps tools later become marketplace offerings.
  3. Executive profiles – If you can get the names of your competition’s top executives, look to see if they have profiles. If so, send them a friend request. If necessary, send a friend request from a fake account or have your sister’s cousin do it instead. Be sneaky, but legal.

Competitive intelligence is alive and well, even on Facebook. Embrace it.

You want to find out what the competition is up to, right? Is a press release a good tool for that? Absolutely!

Of course, there’s not a lot of information you can get from a press release. You already know the name of the company and you probably know their address and contact information. But the one really important piece of information you can gain from a press release is what the company has been up to lately. That’s important news.

Chances are, you won’t know about new developments until they go public. That’s when press releases are written. But the press release can give you some insight into a company’s thinking about a new development.

What you want to do with the press release is drop it into your clipping file. You should have one of these for every competitor you do research on. Anything related to that competitor goes into the clipping file. News stories, press releases, D&B information, stock market reports, brochures and annual reports, and anything else that gives you insight into the company’s operations. As new developments roll out, have someone be responsible for doing the research and collecting the information.

Competitive intelligence is a cost of business you can’t ignore. If you do, you’ll fall behind.

Most online marketers see where search and social media cross. Heck, even Google is starting to employsocial media tools to make its search engine better. But what about competitive intelligence? Does it intersect with social media at all?

You bet it does.

In fact, if you aren’t using social media for competitive research, then you aren’t using social media to its fullest potential. The first thing that comes to mind is following your competition on the top social networks. At a minimum, you should be keeping tabs on what your competition is doing at

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • LinkedIn

And if you are a local business with local competition, then you should consider looking at what your competition is doing at

  • Foursquare
  • Meetup
  • Google Places

Just to start.

Social media is a tool with many uses. Competitive intelligence is just one of them, but it’s an important one. You can spy on your competition through any social network just by following them and learning what they are up to. If you want to be sneaky, you can set up anonymous accounts or proxies and spy on your competition that way.

Any way you do it, social media is a great competitive intelligence tool. Don’t ignore it.

Where do you gather information about your competition? There are plenty of sources online where you can keep tabs of your competition and gather competitive intelligence. Here are 21 sources of information for keeping tabs on what your competition is up to.

  1. Twitter – Are you following your competition on Twitter?
  2. Their website and blog – Are you following the competition’s blog? Do you regularly check their website? You can use SEO tools to look at their effectiveness in search engine marketing and use that against them.
  3. Facebook – Are you checking in on your competition’s Facebook page or the walls of their executives? You should be.
  4. News sites – Do you read industry news portals? That’s a great place to find out what announcements the competition is making public.
  5. E-mail newsletters – Do you subscribe to your competition’s newsletters?
  6. Forums – Industry forums are a great place to gauge what people are saying about you and your competition, plus you might be able to lurk on what representatives of your competition are saying in the forums.
  7. Q&A websites – Is your competition using sites like Quora, Yahoo! Answers, and Are questions being asked about your competition? You should be keeping tabs.
  8. LinkedIn – If your competition is using LinkedIn, find out if they are using the Questions format or joining groups. Go where the competition is going and watch what they are doing.
  9. Google and Yahoo! Groups – Is your competitor a member of any groups on Yahoo! or Google? Unless you join the niche groups yourself, you can’t know.
  10. Niche social sites – Are there are social sites within your niche that your competition might be a member of? Join them.

Competitive intelligence is important. Don’t be blind to its benefits. Use these tools effectively to keep tabs of your competition.

Competitive research is one of the most important parts of doing business online. If you are going to beat the competition on the playing field, then you’ve got to know as much about what they are up to as you can. That means, you’ve got to get your feelers out and do a little competitive intelligence work. Q&A sites are a great opportunity for doing that.

One way to use Q&A sites for competitive intelligence is to query your competition’s name or name brand on the site. You’ll almost always find people asking about and discussing the features and ways of using your competition’s products.

If you read the answers on those questions related to your competition, you can often learn new things about your competition. If not, you can sometimes use those questions as a platform for suggesting your own products as an alternative. In other words, if someone asks a question about alternative uses for your competition’s product, then that’s an open door for you to discuss your product.

Competitive intelligence is non-negotiable. The only way to win in any market is to know what you’re up against. Q&A sites present the perfect library of information on resources on almost any industry, and it’s a great place to learn more about the competition.

There is one big problem with the Internet – it’s always changing. I don’t mean on a daily basis, either. The Internet is a living, breathing animal that is changing by the minute. Take organic search for example. Search spiders are crawling the web as we speak, sucking in new content, following links, and generally trying to find the best content available.

A search conducted now could reveal entirely different results to an identical search performed an hour ago. The rate of change is such that competitive intelligence has a very short life span. Knowing a competitor has x number of links today could be worthless tomorrow, especially if they have been on a link-building campaign. Check the links tomorrow and they may have increased noticeably – they may have dropped as well.

Because the Internet is continually evolving, competitive intelligence is not a one off activity – it has to be ongoing with data available on a regular basis. This doesn’t mean you need to be buried in data, or to become fixated on what your competitors are doing. Rather, competitive intelligence has two major uses. One, from an Internet marketing perspective, it shows what areas you need to work harder in.

From a business perspective, competitive intelligence can help with your more traditional data like prices, models, reputation, free offers, or special marketing programs. With this knowledge, you can make business decisions aimed at either competing head on or adjusting your aim to target areas your competitors are not targeting. Without up-to-date competitive intelligence, your business has nothing with which to base its own progress on the Internet.

It can be frustrating managing a business with an online presence. You have a good website, easy navigation, top quality content, and your products and services more than competitive – yet you struggle to gain that front page listing in search results. Before throwing the towel in and looking at alternatives, a little competitive intelligence may alter the picture completely.

The factors that are going in to determining search rankings are always in flux. Some factors only need time, for example, inbound links. It is also important to understand that search rankings are so flexible that two different people entering the same search may see different results. Google is one search engine that also takes into account the surfing/searching history of the user.

Competitive intelligence can give you a snapshot of where your competitors are today. You can use this data to plot their progress over time compared to yours. Often, you will find that your competitors are only progressing slowly, if at all, while you are moving ahead at a faster rate.

This leaves you with two options, to either work a little harder at improving those ranking factors, or to let time deliver the fruit of your previous efforts. Competitive intelligence is never a one off factor. By continuously monitoring your competitors, you will gain a real insight into how far they really are ahead of you. A word to the wise, however: Don’t forget to look behind at those who may be trying to sneak their way past you. Remember, your competitors are not just those who appear in front of you; there are just as many following on behind you.

One of the downsides of the Internet is the lack of privacy. It can be amusing to see individuals jump up and down because Facebook has breached their privacy when the exact same information is freely available on their website. I guess it’s the principle at stake. However, it does lead to my point that, online, there is very little privacy. When it comes to competitive intelligence, the information is out there and often easy to find.

The biggest source of information are the search engines. Search engines spend their whole being scouring the web looking for information that hasn’t been indexed, and updating information it already has. Don’t let anyone fool you into believing the search engines only index web pages – they certainly don’t. Images, videos, tweets, and forum posts along with a million and one other social media conversations are all being indexed and, once indexed, they could appear in search results.

When seeking information related to your competitors, the hardest part is not finding the information; it is sifting through to get to the real data. A review, for example, could be written by an affiliate, a disgruntled customer, a pay-for-post blogger, or perhaps even an employee.  Of course, don’t be surprised if you come across data that appears to be wrong. Smart business owners are trying to foil competitors by placing misinformation in certain areas – misleading keywords in meta tags is an obvious one.

Is it wrong to collect competitive intelligence? Businesses have been doing it for thousands of years – the Internet has just made it easier. Besides, if you’re a strong competitor, you can bet they are looking over your shoulder right now! Privacy – you’re online – what privacy?

One of the hardest tasks for many businesses is monitoring their brand, company or product in social media circles. In highly competitive niches, being able to keep your finger on the pulse could mean the difference between cashing in on the latest trend, and missing the boat completely. Here’s a simple question. How many times was your brand, business or product mentioned in social media circles today, or this week? Don’t know? Perhaps you need to consider using one of these tools.

These tools all help you to monitor social media for any term. I suggest you have a look at each and if you find one that you’re comfortable with, use that. As a side note, they are all free.

Spy – searches for mentions across a variety of social media sites including Twitter, Friendfeed and Blog Comments. It’s fairly comprehensive but rather slow. Instead of a full screen of results, it scrolls them one at time so it can be a little disconcerting.

BoardReader – more like a traditional search engine. BoardReader delivers results from a variety of social media. It also has a neat little graph that shows the frequency of mentions over the last month.

SocialMention – one of the most comprehensive social tracking tools. SocialMention doesn’t just include mentions from a wide range of sources, it also includes lists of associated keywords, hashtags, top users associated with the search terms, and the major sites where the search term was found.

Collecta – real time search engine that looks for your search term in a variety of sites including Twitter, Facebook and Google Buzz. You can filter out certain search types such as videos and images.

48ers – another real-time search engine. Type in a  search term and it  will deliver up-to-the-minute results from sites such as  Twitter, Facebook, Google Buzz, Digg and Delicious.

These tracking tools are ideal for keeping up to date on what your competitors are saying, and who is saying what about them. They can also be ideal for keeping up with what is happening in the industry. As competitive intelligence tools, they  pass the grade although there are far better options available if you’re prepared to shell out a few dollars.

Competitive intelligence is the art of digging up information related to your competitors. This information can then be used to try and gain an advantage over those competitors. The problem with an open statement like that is that the sky is the limit when it comes to collecting information.

Strategic competitive intelligence is the gathering of information related to one aspect of your business. For example, if you are about to embark on a Facebook marketing campaign the only information you require is that related to your competitors on Facebook, their marketing strategies, their products/services, and reputation, just to name a few.

In that example, the information you don’t need is that related to search marketing. Their PR, position in search results, and pay-per-click strategies are irrelevant and will most likely not affect your Facebook marketing strategy. To be effective, strategic competitive intelligence relies on several factors such as:

Determining who your real competitors are. Your competitors are not necessarily those selling products similar to yours. In some markets, as an example, milk could be a competitor of wine. Think laterally and not too narrowly.

Determining what information is important. You don’t always need every tiny piece of data. Look at information that is directly related to a specific activity.

Determining environmental factors. The general environment may well influence who your real competitors are on a day-to-day basis, especially when it comes to social media marketing.  Examples of this include beer, which is drunk more frequently in hot weather than wine, or hybrid cars that draw more interest when fuel prices are high.

If you take too broad a view of competitive intelligence you run the risk of flooding yourself with too much information. Instead, plan your activities, determine who your competitors are in relation to those activities, then determine what information you need. Rather than being overwhelmed with data, you should be in a position to use the information collected to good advantage.

When it comes to the Internet, any talk of competition invariably revolves around search results.  For many businesses, their eyes are firmly set on outranking those above them in search results. Search is a significant player when it comes to delivery or traffic, but they are not the only players. What is important is to identify who your real competitors are.

Enter a search term and you will often find that amongst the top ten pages listed are sites like Wikipedia, articles in article directories, and perhaps blogs produced purely for Adsense or affiliate revenue. While these sites are competitors when it comes to search traffic, they are not true competitors when it comes to doing business. As I mentioned, search is not the only source of traffic either.

Social media like Facebook, Twitter and Youtube are also now capable of delivering significant streams of traffic to your website. Do you know who your competitors are on any of these sites? It is equally important to assess how they are engaging with their followers and whether or not they are receiving any significant traffic from these site.

Another area that you should include in your research is paid search. There are many businesses that survive quite happily on the traffic derived from paid search. They don’t involve themselves pro-actively in either organic search or social media marketing, they let the paid search results find their traffic for them.

There are many other sources of traffic such as forums and general advertising. To be effective in your competitive intelligence program, you need to look well beyond organic search. You should have a fair idea of what their main source of traffic is, how well it is converting, and whether or not there is an opportunity there that you could exploit.  Your real competitors are not always through organic search so identify your true competitors,then work out how you can compete against them.

Research shows that companies with well-established CI programs enjoy greater earnings per share than companies in the same industry without CI programs.

To the degree that you uncover your competitors’ secrets and learn what they are doing in the marketplace, to that same degree you can enjoy the success coveted by every player in every niche. And you can even go on to dominate your niche. Competitive research is that important.

In 2001, BusinessWeek published an article that illustrated just how much competitive intelligence research can pay off in a recession. That was 2001, long before the real recession hit.

Of course, competitive intelligence is important any time, but companies tend to cut back on marketing when the economy slows down. Companies, however, that go against the tide do a lot better. And there are two ways to go against the tide: Spend money on competitive intelligence, and take what you learn from competitive intelligence and invest it in a solid marketing initiative. You do that when your competition is scaling back and you’ll win.

So where do you start? I’d say start with what you know. Who is your competition and what was the last thing they did? After that, it’s a matter of staying one step ahead.

Spying on your competition isn’t as hard as you can imagine. There are open places on the web where your competition hangs out and where they publicly disclose what they are doing with their products and marketing initiatives. Here are 5 easy places to spy on your competition.

  • LinkedIn – There are so many companies actively using LinkedIn these days that it’s worth a look just to see if your competition is there. If so, follow them. Read their questions and their answers and see who their friends are. You’ll be able to tell a lot just by that alone.
  • Facebook – It’s hard to find a company without a Facebook presence these days. Find your competition, follow their fan page and see what they are putting out on their updates page.
  • Twitter – Twitter is one of the easiest places to spy on the competition. Find them and follow them. Everything they say will be visible to you. Also, subscribe to alerts that let you know when your competition is mentioned on Twitter.
  • Quora – Quora is a fairly new website that is growing in popularity. All kinds of people go there to ask and to answer questions of one sort or another. If your competition is on Quora then you can follow them and see what they are asking, and what they are saying in their answers. What’s more, you can do much of it anonymously.
  • Company Blog – Finally, subscribe to the RSS feed of your competition’s company blog. You’ll know as much as you need to know.

Spying on the competition isn’t hard. You can do it online in just a few minutes a day and at relatively low cost.

Competitive intelligence used to deal primarily with market research and product positioning. If you could ascertain your competition’s product launch plans, product and service offering strengths, and their marketing strategies then you could learn enough about the competitive landscape to work out your own product and marketing plans. These days, it’s a bit more complicated than that.

Search engine optimization has become its own competitive arena. You can place that within the marketing realm, but you could just as easily place it within its own domain too

Regardless how you see it, though, you need intelligence on your competition’s SEO initiatives. Here’s what that intelligence entails, in a nutshell:

  • Number of web pages
  • Number and strength of inbound links
  • Keywords targeting
  • Search engine rankings per keyword
  • Web hosting relationships
  • Page load speeds
  • Code-to-text ratios
  • Unique SEO strategies implemented
  • Movements within search rankings

That’s just to name a few. You can drill down deep in the SEO landscape to find out more about your competition or keep it simple. It’s entirely up to you. But I recommend that you learn as much as you can about your competition’s SEO strategies, both those planned and implemented, as you plan your own campaigns.

If you want to compete online, competitive SEO intelligence is an absolute necessity.

Whether you are conducting a pay-per-click campaign, search engine optimization or social media marketing, you need to do some keyword research and pick the right keywords for your marketing efforts. But how should you go about doing that?

Of course, even if you’re just building your website then keyword research is in order.

First, study your competition. What are they doing? Write down any keywords you find on your competition’s websites. Analyze those keywords with regard to your differences and similarities to your competition. Does anything stick out?

That should help you narrow down your keywords to a niche that you fill within your industry. Now look for some synonyms. Using a tool like Google’s keyword research tool, enter your keywords and look for related keywords that might help you.

Now search for those keywords in Google and Bing and see what the competition is like. Are there a lot of websites targeting those keywords? That can be both good and bad. It’s bad because the more websites targeting those keywords the tougher your competition; it’s good because if there are a lot of websites targeting a keyword then it’s because that keyword is valuable.

After you’ve done all your keyword research, pick the ones that are best for your business. Those are the keywords that you’d expect a searcher to type into Google’s search box when they are trying to find the products and services you offer.

Don’t cut corners on keyword research. It’s an important part of your online marketing plan.

Competitive intelligence is one of the most important aspects of doing business online. If you don’t know your competition then chances are you can’t beat them. You might win a few terminal successes along the way, but you won’t win the competitive rat race in the long run. You can’t be No. 1 in the marketplace unless you know the competition.

But how do you get there?

Competitive intelligence is a process. You’ve got to outline the process and work it strategically if you expect to excel. Here are five steps you can follow to better competitive intelligence in any industry.

  • Decide which areas of market intelligence are most important to your strategic positioning.
  • Make a list of companies in your industry that excel in those functions or that have an upper hand to your business – these should be companies that you want to know more about and/or that you want to study for the purpose of beating in the marketplace.
  • Collect information on each company regarding those areas of market intelligence you identified in step 1; compile information from the SEC, press releases, trade journals, articles in the media, credit reports, clients, the companies themselves, trade associations, government offices and anywhere else you can get information on the companies that is legal and ethical.
  • Start a file on each company and keep all compiled information on each company in their respective files.
  • Rank the companies in order of most proficient for each market intelligence category you are tracking then rank your own company for each of those same tracking metrics to know where you stand against the competition.

The whole idea behind competitive intelligence is to know where you stand against the competition. If you are not No. 1 then you should target your efforts to overcome obstacles and challenges that prevent you from besting the competition. But it starts with knowing who you’re up against.

Social networking is not going away. In fact, the most trafficked websites online these days are social networks, including the #1 site – Facebook. These networks are great places to scope out the competition.

In fact, if you aren’t following your competition on the most popular social networks then you probably are not engaged enough online. I’d recommend, at a minimum, following your competition on these three four social networks:

  • Facebook
  • LinkedIn
  • Twitter
  • YouTube

But what if you can’t find your competition on these sites?

If your competition isn’t engaged in online social networking then take advantage of this shortsightedness. You’re there so enjoy the competitive advantage. Chance are, however, that you can find at least one of your competitors on these social networks. When you do, follow them. Keep an eye on what they’re up to.

Are these the only social networks to monitor? By all means, no. In fact, if you have industry social networks, forums, blogs or other areas online where members of your profession meet then you should go there and monitor/follow your competition.

Competitive intelligence relies on information, more precisely, data in the form of raw numbers or words. Just looking at a competitors pages can provide you with a lot of information, however, knowing what keywords they may be targeting, who is linking in to them, and what sort of traffic they may be receiving can all be important to your forward planning.  To obtain this information, you need a good set of tools – a set of tools that you are comfortable in using.

When it comes to SEO for example, Firefox is generally the browser used by most professionals. There is huge assortment of add-ons available for Firefox, all free and many of them fairly easy to use. The hardest part is actually building your tool box of tools – sorting the good from the bad, then learning how to gain the most from each tool.

Forums can be a good starting point. Talking to others, finding out which tools they prefer and why. You can also find some good tips on how to get the best our of a particular tool.  Visiting is another good place to start. You can search the database of add-ons, many of which have user reviews along with information on what each add-on can do.

Learn about each tool before putting it to use otherwise you will either not be getting the best out of the tool, or you will be receiving misinformation rather than valuable information. Used effectively, you can learn a lot about your competitors web sites, who links to them, and how well placed they are in the search results.

There are two types of competitive intelligence:

  1. Battlefield Intelligence
  2. Noncompetitive Intelligence

Let’s start with Battlefield Intelligence. I call it this because its purpose is to help you gather information that will lead to stealing market share from your competition. This is the most common type of competitive intelligence though it may not always be the most productive. In order to succeed, your intelligence must be actionable and contain enough information to help you develop better products, better deliverables, better marketing and better customer service. It might even require you to develop new products to match your competition one on one.

Noncompetitive intelligence consists of strategies and techniques that do not necessarily impact your competitive stance. However, they are important strategies and lead to the gathering of important information to help you improve your internal processes.

The second type of intelligence, noncompetitive intelligence can consist of:

  • Forecasting and predicting
  • Describing your current business environment
  • Challenge existing assumptions
  • Identify your company’s weaknesses and propose solutions
  • Point to strategies that are outdated or that may need adjusting
  • Provide information to help you formulate intelligent questions for review and analysis

There are many different sources of information and techniques for gathering it. There are electronic sources of information and manual sources. You have in-house assets as well out external assets that you may be able to query for actionable intelligence. Furthermore, your intelligence gathering initiatives may be ongoing or short term.

One method of gathering intelligence about the marketplace is market research. A market research team can ask consumers what they think about certain aspects of your business environment, including strengths and weaknesses of your product and strengths and weaknesses of your competition’s products.

You can also collect the sales and marketing literature of your competition, which will give you some insight into how they are reaching their market and how they are communicating their own perceived strengths.

Academic libraries usually contain articles and abstracts written by industry professionals. Read what your competition has to say about important issues related to your market.

These are just a few of the techniques available in helping you collect actionable competitive intelligence. The first step is to decide just what you need the information for and what you will do with it once you gather it.