How to Conduct Competitive Intelligence – Ethically and Inexpensively

As you begin building your startup or small business, it’s important that you stay up to date with what’s happening in your industry and what your competitors are doing. You can’t really compete very well if you don’t pay any attention to what anyone else is doing.

Think about it this way, if you’re a football coach or player, you definitely watch video of the next team you’re going to play and analyze their style and strategy, note their strengths and weaknesses, and come up with strategies for beating them before you walk onto the field on game day. Yes, most of your time is spent developing your own skills, but you can’t ignore what’s going on on your competitors’ teams. It’s no different in business. You should be paying attention to what your competitors are doing and you should have a competitive intelligence strategy laid out for how you’ll go about gathering this information.

Now, of course, you don’t want to get sucked into a stalking spiral. Competitive intelligence can be just as addictive as looking at wedding and baby photos on Facebook, so be sure you know what information you want to gather and how you’ll gather it before you start so that once you have what you need, you stop. Also make sure that you’re keeping all of your “spying” techniques and practices above board and that you never cross any ethical lines while conducting competitive intelligence. Creeping on some companies online is one thing, corporate espionage is quite another.

To begin investigating, simply start with your competitors’ websites. It’s always a good idea to see how your competitors present themselves to customers and get an idea of their branding, messaging, and sales funnel. Additionally, you can use tools like SEMrush.com to help you identify how much traffic your competitors’ websites generate and where that traffic comes from. You shouldn’t blindly copy anything and everything that competitors do, but if they’re getting lots of traffic from PPC ads and you’ve never even given PPC a try, you should take note.┬áThe same goes for checking out competitors’ social media profiles: note which platforms they’re on, how many followers they have, whether those followers are active, etc. Also pay attention to the type of content they’re putting out and what gets the most interaction from followers. Again, don’t copy everything you see but if Facebook posts with videos are netting 10x the shares of Facebook posts with just text, you may want to experiment with posting some videos on your own Facebook page.

You can gather some great information from a company’s website and social media presence, however, be sure to take everything with a grain of salt. This is the public persona of the business and that public persona may or may not match up with what’s actually happening behind the scenes. You’re not likely to see a competitor posting that if they don’t increase sales immediately they’ll be bankrupt in 6 months, nor are you likely to see companies spilling the beans about their most exciting upcoming projects until they’re ready to launch those projects.

In addition to checking out the public personas of your competitors, try looking under the hood a bit. If you’re in the high growth startup space, pay attention to who’s raising money, who’s been funded, and how big the checks are. Also take note of who the investors are and who’s on the Board of Directors. This type of information can tell you a lot about where a competitor is in its life cycle, how much runway it has, and what may be in the works. Combine that with some research into the team: who are the founders and what are their backgrounds?, how many employees are there?, who are the employees and what are their backgrounds?, is the company actively hiring?, is there a lot of turnover?, etc.

Finally, check out the press. See if your competitors are getting any attention from the media and note what it’s for and whether the coverage is positive or negative. How are they attempting to position themselves and what are the talking points they’re trying to get out there? Are they media darlings or they having trouble getting traction?

All of this information will help you understand the competitive landscape in which your company is being built and help you build a more successful strategy for your own success. You’re not building your company in a bubble, so a sound plan of attack must take into account what your competitors are doing.

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