Competitive Intelligence: the action of defining, gathering, analyzing, and distributing Intelligence about products, customers, competitors and any aspect of the environment needed to support executives and managers in making strategic decisions for an organization.
I have spent two decades gathering Competitive Intelligence from public sources and I have to tell you, with so many companies jumping on the Social Media bandwagon, this is the best possible time to know your competitors like you know yourself.
A skilled and experienced Competitive Intelligence (CI) professional will use sources other than those in the public domain of course, but, without hiring a CI professional, there's still a great deal of information out there for you to discover. I don't want to tell you that CI is easy, because it's not. It takes some work and you need to look at yourself and your business critically. But here's a few thoughts to getting a better snapshot of the bigger picture.
Know Your Competitors
Whatever industry you're in, you have competitors. Even if you make a truly unique widget, you are competing against makers of other, less unique widgets. Some of these widgets will be made by companies that are ubiquitous and have instantly recognizable names. Some widget companies are the flavor of the month, and you'll need to get through all the noise of the buzz of those widgets before anyone might hear about yours.
Take a delusion free look at your business. If you run a local diner, in theory you are competing against the Starbucks across the street. But when you really look at your clientèle - are they the same people who visit Starbucks for a half-caf mocha frappachino? Or are they totally different people, who come in for a cup of coffee, a fried egg, toast and to read the newspaper before work? Yes, you should keep an eye on Starbucks, but also know your *real* competition - which may be the McDonalds down the road. If you run a small business software company, you *are* competing against Microsoft - just not directly.
List your top three competitors...these are companies that sell the same thing you do the same way you do. Players in the field that have resources beyond your wildest dreams are not really your competition - they are your benchmarks.
Follow Your Competitors
Once you've made this list of competition, direct and indirect, start hitting the boards. Visit their websites, check out their news, subscribe to their RSS feeds, their Twitter feeds, their mailing lists - then READ them. They will tell you about deals with other companies, upcoming projects and investments they receive and publishers they use. A list of potential resources, ideas and contacts will be handed to you on a plate - because if a company is doing anything, they will talk about it. Some companies, especially large ones in regulated industries, will report only what they have to, but the more regulated an industry is - the more they have to.
In largely unregulated industries and/or private companies, you may need to read a lot of press releases before seeing a pattern. That pattern may or may not be valuable to you now, but chances are it will be eventually.
When you find yourself in a similar situation, it is smart to reflect on the kinds of press and the sources your benchmark companies use to sing the praises of their newest product. Use their standards to push your own forward.
None of this is online dumspter diving, although that is possible. For more detailed Competitive Intelligence on your industry and competitors, hire a CI professional to do the dirty work. These two above steps are the minimum amount of Competitive Intelligence you can do and still, if you do this regularly, you'll find that you have a much stronger grasp of your own business and your industry.