If you are in business, then you are in a constant battle for an online audience and paying customers. Every day is a competition. The more you know about your competitors-the more you understand their business, strategy, and key personnel-the better chance you have of winning on a daily basis.

Perhaps the most important tool for gathering intelligence about your competition is the Internet. The web provides a treasure trove of tools for learning about your competitors, their executive, their key employees, and their business strategies.

To keep tabs on the opposition, make it a habit to thoroughly review the following websites:

Your Competitors Website

You can learn a great deal about your competition simply by regularly visiting their websites. Company websites typically provide detailed information on:

  • Executive biographies
  • New product launches
  • Clients
  • In the News
  • Recent hires
  • Services

Beyond this, look at your competitions website to see how they are marketing their products and services. If they are doing something well, then use that knowledge to improve your own website and marketing. You can also use this research to find points of differentiation. If your competitors all compete on cost, for example, you can set yourself apart by competing on quality.

If you use Google Reader, you can subscribe to any page to see changes. While this doesnt capture changes in images or pages that are built in Flash, it will let you see if the text of a website has changed. This is a great way to spot quiet changes in personnel, or to track when your competitors step up hiring.

Google and Other Search Engines

The major search engines give you a variety of ways of searching for the information you need. You can perform a general web search, a news search, an image search and, on some search engines, you have the ability to search for content from blogs.

A simple web search of your competitors business name will usually come up with the competitors website on top followed by other prominent references. The web search is a good place to find out just how extensive your competitors online footprint is. You may learn that your competitor has a strong social media presence, has a great deal of press coverage or has been discussed in a variety of online content sources.

One simple trick to get you started: dont just search for your competitors name; search for [competitor’s name] is. You can also learn about a competitor by typing their name into Google; Googles suggested search results will show what other people are looking for.

To focus your search, perform targeted searches:

News: This will provide you both with all news stories that have mentioned your competitor. It will also alert you to all press releases either sent out by your competitor or in which your competitor is mentioned.

What can you learn from this?

If a media outlet is covering your competitor, contact them directly with news from your company

If your competitor has a great new product or service, find out about it quickly and respond quickly

What press releases are they sending out?

Stay on top of new hires, products, services

Are there negative stories you can take advantage of?

If your competitor is struggling in one area, use the opportunity to get the word out about your strengths in that particular area.

Blog Search: A search of blogs (found under Google’s more tab) lets you know what people are saying about your competitor in the blogosphere

Are customer’s happy with your competitor’s products or services?

Is your competitor recognized as an expert in the field?

The blog search also shows you who the influencers are in your field. If a powerful blogger is writing about your competitor, contact the blogger and see if s/he will write about you.

Images: You can get a feel for your competitor’s corporate culture, participation in networking events and other photo opportunities involving your competitor, its employees and executives.

Google also allows you to set up alerts concerning your competitors (and your competitors’ primary executives). These alerts bring you links to every time your competitor is mentioned online.

LinkedIn

Of all the social media platforms, LinkedIn may be the best business intelligence tool. A company search on LinkedIn will provide you with a treasure trove of information including:

  • Profiles of key executives and employees
  • Hiring trends
  • Recent hires
  • Recent departures (Gives a strong indication of the health of the business.)
  • Job postings. (Gives insight into areas where the company is ramping up.)

Facebook

Facebook used to be just for college students. With the addition of company pages, it is now an important business tool. Company pages can reveal the online “popularity” of a company. It is also helpful to see what your competitors are doing to promote themselves online.

  • Are they using Facebook to deliver important company information?
  • Are they making exclusive online offers and discounts?
  • Are they engaging customers and offering customer service online?
  • What people like your competitor? This is a terrific group for you to mine!

Twitter

Once thought to be the home of bored teenagers and narcissists, Twitter has become an effective tool for companies researching consumer sentiment. See how your competitors are using Twitter to generate business and serve the needs of their clients and customers.

Like Facebook, Twitter can be used to offer special deals, speak directly with customers and keep fellow Tweeters up to date on company activities.

Perform search on Twitter (see #thegap below), and you can find out what people are saying about a particular company or person. You can also use applications like Tweetdeck to monitor every mention of your competitor as well as every time your competitor Tweets.

In Conclusion

As a business owner or executive, it is incumbent upon you to learn as much as you can about your competitors. Using the web to gather intelligence about your competition is one of the easiest, and certainly the most economical, way of gathering public data. With a relatively small investment in time and money, you can be armed with the information that will keep you ahead of the pack.

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