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12 Ways to (Legally) Spy on Your Competitors You may not have the resources to hire a competitive intelligence specialist, but small businesses can still unearth plenty of information about rivals.

By Carol Tice

entrepreneur daily

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Ever wonder what your competitors are up to?

You should. They might be creating new products, planning to enter new markets -- or maybe they're floundering. If you knew, it could give you an edge.

Uncovering competitive information doesn't require donning a trench coat or hiring a computer hacker. There are plenty of perfectly legal ways to get below-the-radar competitive information.

Here are some time-tested methods that predate the Internet, as well as newer techniques to mine the wealth of information readily accessible online.

Related: Five Ways Your Business Can Grab Market Share Today

Old School

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.

"I cannot tell you the information we've gotten this way, in regular articles, about inventory, staffing, new plants and expansion plans," says Seena Sharp, Los Angeles-based principal at Sharp Market Intelligence. For instance, one of Sharp's clients in the garden-products industry learned exactly how a plant fire had affected a competitor, the capacity of the rebuilt plant and the marketing plan for the next year, all from a local newspaper. With this knowledge, the client crafted a strategy that countered the competitor's efforts and increased the client's market share.

2. Tap your vendors. Product suppliers and service providers talk regularly with all their clients. If you're on good terms with your vendors, Sharp says, 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, Sharp notes and chatty salespeople may reveal details. If you think you'll be recognized, send an employee or friend to listen.

4. Take a plant tour. For manufacturing competitors, see if the plant gives tours. Sharp says tour guides often brag about new products, new hires and expansion plans.

5. Play secret shopper. If competitors have stores, stroll the aisles and observe whether employees are responsive and facilities are clean--or shelves are empty and store phones go unanswered. Call the order line, too, so you can evaluate customer service, advises Sean Campbell, principal at competitive-research firm Cascade Insights in Oregon City, Ore.

6. Browse public documents. Publicly held companies must file reports with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Sharp also likes to read filings with the Environmental Protection Agency, the Patent and Trademark Office and local planning commissions to learn of building expansions and new products. Check with other state and federal agencies for signs of trouble such as tax liens, and comb legal filings for unexpected disclosures.

Related: Three Ways to Find an Edge in a Crowded Market

New School

7. 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.

8. Explore LinkedIn. On LinkedIn, you can sign up to follow a company and get notices when updates are posted on its LinkedIn page. You also can search a company's name on LinkedIn to find former employees and new hires, Jackson says. Salespeople 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.

9. 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.

10. 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 Campbell of Cascade Insights.

"We had a client curious about which American wireless carriers would offer Android phones," he says. "Just looking at job listings you could see who was trying to hire people with Android experience."

11. See Who's on Quora. Popular with techies and venture capitalists, Quora holds a vast database of interesting competitive questions on such topics as a company's future plans. Often, company employees provide the answers, Campbell notes, and they generally reply using their true identities, unlike people on most Q&A sites.

12. Check Slideshare. Companies frequently use this popular portal to share slideshow presentations but forget to take them down, Jackson says. Presentations to potential investors, for example, may contain financial data, forecasts and information about new projects.

One note of warning: When researching online, be sure to consider the source. There are plenty of half-truths, gossip and misinformation online.

Related: What's a Competitive Advantage for a Young Entrepreneur?

Carol Tice

Owner of Make a Living Writing

Longtime Seattle business writer Carol Tice has written for Entrepreneur, Forbes, Delta Sky and many more. She writes the award-winning Make a Living Writing blog. Her new ebook for Oberlo is Crowdfunding for Entrepreneurs.

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