Imagine this: You've just spent thousands of dollars researching and developing a new product, and you're about to launch it. Suddenly, you learn from a colleague that your main competitor is about to introduce a similar product a few days before your launch. You know what you have to do: Find out everything you can about the company, whether the product is in its rollout stage and how much it's selling for--then prepare your troops for a counterattack.
One of the best ways to gather the information you need is through online competitive intelligence, the aggressive but legal practice of surfing the Internet for information about your competitors. While seeking information about the competition is a timeworn practice, the Internet is making the process much easier.
"The Internet lets you learn your enemies' plans ahead of time," says Richard Combs, president of Richard Combs Associates (http://www.combsinc.com), a competitive intelligence consulting firm in Chicago. He's also co-author of The Competitive Intelligence Handbook (University Press of America). "And when you know this information, you're way down the pike."
Melissa Campanelli is a technology writer in Brooklyn, New York, who has covered technology for Mobile Computing & Communications and Sales & Marketing Management magazines. You can reach her at email@example.com
Getting The Skinny
Many low-cost or free online sources such as the following can help you get up to speed on your competition:
- The EDGAR database (http://www.sec.gov): The U.S. Security and Exchange Commission's Electronic Data Gathering, Analysis and Retrieval system provides information such as annual and quarterly reports, proxies, and insider trading filings for all public U.S. companies that have filed with the SEC since January 1994.
- Hoovers Online (http://www.hoovers.com): This handy source from Hoovers, a provider of business information and corporate profiles, offers free basic information (such as names, addresses and elementary financial data) about companies, and links to further information on 13,500 large U.S. and international companies. For $14.95 per month, subscribers can also access information, including company histories, strategies, market positions and major events, on more than 3,500 of the largest and fastest-growing companies. In addition, subscribers can get even more in-depth financial information on approximately 8,000 public companies, including detailed market and industry comparison data; annual, quarterly and historical financials; and links to real-time SEC filings, provided by the EDGAR database.
- CompaniesOnline (http://www.companiesonline.com): Managed by Dun & Bradsteet, this site provides information on more than 100,000 U.S. companies, including their postal addresses, URLs, phone numbers, contact names and titles, sales volumes and numbers of employees. CompaniesOnline charges various fees for more enhanced research. A $20 D&B Business Background Report, for example, will provide you with useful information on a company's history and operations background, as well as recent news items about the company.
- Biz@dvantage (http://www.biz.n2K.com): WinStar Telebase Inc. operates this site, which provides financial and credit data from Dun & Bradstreet and easy access to business news wires, the Thomas Register of American Manufacturers Online and other resources. Registration is free, but each report or news article costs from 50 cents to $360, depending on the report's detail.
- Lexis-Nexis (http://www.lexis-nexis.com): The world's largest source of legal, business and government information now offers affordable services over the Internet. For less than $200 per month, users get information from thousands of newspapers, magazines and industry publications, as well as financial data, public and legislative records, and data on companies and executives.
- Company Sleuth (http://www.companysleuth.com): This free tracking service from Infonautics Inc. will follow insider stock sales; posts on Yahoo!, Motley Fool and Usenet message boards; SEC filings; earnings estimates; financial reports; news items and more on up to 10 companies for you. You'll receive daily e-mail reports as well as "scoop alerts" when big news breaks about your selected companies. Currently, Company Sleuth tracks only public companies, but it plans to add private businesses shortly, as well as a fee-based service that offers more detailed information.
- The Background Check (http://www.knowx.com): Provided by KnowX, an information resource company, this service allows users to search for bankruptcies, lawsuits, liens, judgments and other events in companies' histories. For $1 to $5 per database, you can receive a list of matches. Details on particular matches will cost you from $6.95 to $15.
Do It Your Way
An alternative to using the competitive intelligence resources listed above is to visit your competitors' Web sites or use a standard search engine to find information.
HotBot (http://www.hotbot.com) is a useful search engine for competitive intelligence. While it doesn't have the largest database, it does have Boolean search capabilities--meaning you can type in the words "and," "or" or "not" to refine a search and receive more relevant information about your competitors.
You can also scan online newsgroups and other virtual communities that discuss the types of products and services your company and your competitors sell. Usenet newsgroups are generally easy to find because they're archived and can be traced by visiting Deja News (http://www.dejanews.com).
Whatever method you use, do competitive intelligence research on a regular basis, says Combs. "Set aside some time every week to see what your competitors are doing," he says. "Unfortunately, most people use competitive intelligence to solve immediate problems. They wait until they get a flat tire before checking to see if they have a spare. Competitive intelligence should be a bigger part of your business process."
For more information on the Web sites in this article and other must-see sites, check out next month's feature on 100 top Web sites for small businesses.
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Private Eyes . . . Watching You
No business is safe from being snooped on. Sure, you may be able to find all the information you ever thought you needed about your competition, but you should also make certain you aren't giving away the store. Here are some preventive measures to take that will help you avoid the most common competitive intelligence raids:
- Control the spin. Delete old press releases after a predetermined amount of time has gone by. The information contained in them could give your competitors a time line of your product development cycle--and that gives them a competitive advantage.
- Keep your talent under wraps. Withhold profiles of key staffers you might normally put on your Web site. They're a handy resource for headhunters and competitors.
- Stay hack-free. Invest in a good fire wall to separate your Web site from online fulfillment systems and e-mail. If computer hackers get in through these systems, they can learn a lot about you. You might even consider setting up a separate computer system for internal data.
In addition to the major online sources listed, the following companies and Web sites will help you learn more about competitive intelligence:
- Fuld & Co. (http://www.fuld.com) is a competitive intelligence firm founded by Leonard M. Fuld, a recognized intelligence expert. The firm analyzes markets and competitors, teaches intelligence-gathering methods, and helps companies establish internal competitor-monitoring systems. The Web site offers information about performing competitive intelligence and contains links to nearly 600 other intelligence-related sites.
- The Security Assurance Company (http://www.icsa.net) will survey your Web site for information protection and data integrity.
- The Society of Competitive Intelligence Professionals (http://www.scip.org) maintains a Web site that offers an online newsletter, conference listings, an experts database and a code of ethics to follow.
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