Thursday, January 12, 2012

Eight Ethical Ways to Spy on Your Competitors

It's always useful to know what your competitors are up to. Of course you shouldn't let a competitor's marketing activities govern which initiatives you pursue, and you certainly wouldn't do anything unethical. But if you were Microsoft, you'd keep track of what Apple was doing.

To this end, I ran across a collection of practical tips about competitive intelligence from Carol Tice on the Entrepreneur web site. From a dozen tips, I included the best below. I especially like #4:

1. Read the local papers. Subscribe to the daily newspaper and business weekly in the cities where your primary competitors are based. You'll be surprised what competitors might say when they think they're just talking to a small, local audience.

2. Tap your vendors. Product suppliers and service providers talk regularly with all their clients. If you're on good terms with your vendors, chat them up and see what you can get them to spill about your competitors. Don't be pushy, though. Keep the conversation casual.

3. Go to trade shows. You can stand near competitors' booths at a busy time when it's easy to blend in with the crowd and eavesdrop on what they tell prospects. New initiatives often are announced at shows, and chatty salespeople may reveal details. If you think you'll be recognized, send an employee or friend to listen.

4. Google your competitor's website. You can reveal hidden pages by doing Google searches such as: "filetype: doc site: companyname" says August Jackson, a senior competitive intelligence analyst for Ernst & Young in McLean, VA. Change the file type to .pdf, .xls, or .ppt to turn up data or presentations. "It's surprising how many companies put this information up and think, ‘If I don't link to it, no one will find it,'" Jackson says. You also can view the site's source code to see the meta-tags or key words being used to optimize its position in searches.

5. Explore LinkedIn. On LinkedIn, you can sign up to follow a law firm and get notices when updates are posted on its LinkedIn page. You also can search a firm's name on LinkedIn to find former employees and new hires, Jackson says. People may identify and brag about their clients on their personal LinkedIn page updates. If you're worried the company might recognize and block you, ask a colleague to follow the page.

6. Troll Twitter and Facebook chatter. If members of your industry hang out on Facebook, monitor their conversations. Music-rights agent Jennifer Yeko, president of True Talent Management in Beverly Hills, Calif., says she gets the scoop on the clients her competitors sign and the royalty rates they offer from posts made by her Facebook friends.

Many events have a Twitter hashtag that people use to chat and post speakers' comments live. If a competitor is speaking, tune in. Jackson has had success asking follow-up questions by responding and using the same hashtag.

7. Find competitors' job ads. Job portal Indeed is a great place for sussing out postings because it aggregates listings from many online job boards. Watch the skills a company may be hiring for; they're a leading indicator for new initiatives, says Sean Campbell of Cascade Insights in Oregon City, Ore.

8. Check Slideshare. Law firms frequently use this popular portal to share slideshow presentations but forget to take them down. Presentations may contain financial data, forecasts and information about new projects.

Visit 12 Ways to (Legally) Spy on Your Competitors for all the tips.

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