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10 tips for 'spying' on your competition

Image courtesy of Dave Pape

(MoneyWatch) Every salesperson needs to have a little James Bond or Mata Hari in them. The fancy phrase for spying on your industry is "competitive intelligence," which essentially means understanding and learning what's happening in the world outside your business so you can be as competitive as possible.

In short, competitive intelligence assessments (CIA for short?) empowers you to anticipate and face challenges seen and unseen. Here are 10 perfectly legal ways to conduct online "espionage."

1. Educate yourself about Google scholar. Instead of just searching on Google (GOOG) and getting all the crud the Internet has to offer, refine your search. Start with Google Scholar, which provides a simple way to broadly search for scholarly literature. You can search across many disciplines and sources to retrieve articles, theses, books, abstracts, and court opinions from academic publishers, professional societies, online repositories, universities, and other websites.

2. Go where the writers go. Check out the reference links at the Writer's Guild of America website. This is a great portal to a number of online databases, encyclopedias, and directories.

3. Get to know university librarians. Because universities have business schools, the library has invested in many online databases. By doing your research at the university's library, you can have free access to many research databases that would normally be available only for a fee. I recommend starting your search for trade magazine articles with RDS/Business & Industry, Lexis-Nexis Academic Universe and Dow-Jones Interactive. You can either pay to print out the information or email it to yourself.

4. Run a background check. KnowX.com reports on bankruptcies, liens, judgments, and other legal matters regarding both individuals and businesses.

5. All the news that's fit to sell. The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the San Jose Mercury News all have great story archives. The search and headlines are free, but downloading the article will cost you. For business magazines, I prefer Inc. and Forbes, both of which let you search the archives and print articles for free.

6. See your analyst. Don't have thousands of dollars to spend on an industry analyst study? There is a cheaper alternative. Check the news releases on the industry analyst sites for appropriate statistics. Here are some of the best places to go: GartnerGroup, Yankee Group, Meta Group, IDG, Forrester Research, Jupiter Communications, Dataquest, and EStats.com

7. Shop the competition. Do you know what a mystery shopper is? That's someone who is hired to pretend to shop at a store to monitor the customer's experience. If possible, try to do the same. If practical, actually buy something.

8. You have my permission. Does the competitive company have a permission-marketing opt-in email invitation on its website? By all means, give them your email to see what you will receive.

9. At your wire service. There is lots of free information to sift through on the various wire services. Try both Business Wire and PR Newswire. These provide electronic delivery of corporate news releases and information. For financial news, also try Dow Jones Newswires, Reuters, and Bloomberg.

10. Take stock of the competition. One of best websites for gathering competitive intelligence on public companies is Hoover's Online, which for a fee  provides in-depth profiles of almost 20,000 companies. However, free content also is available. You can stalk competitors, monitor stock market performance, and get the low-down on IPOs. Don't forget the free stuff at Yahoo! Finance, which has everything from the latest market summaries to stock research to financial news.

This isn't really cloak-and dagger-stuff. There is nothing illegal or unethical about using the Internet to learn as much as possible about your industry, your competitors, and even your prospects.

Image courtesy of Dave Pape

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