“Successful businesspeople understand not only their product but also the respective market as well,” says Entrepreneur. “If you don’t understand your market and your competition, your venture is sunk before it’s even afloat.”

Spying on your competition helps you know what you’re up against so you know what to plan for. Otherwise, it’s easy to waste time trying to find your ideal market and reach. Learning from what your competition is or isn’t doing can also help you avoid pitfalls that probably cost them a lot of time and money.

The great thing is, spying on your competition isn’t as daunting or resource intensive as you may think. Inc and The Balance provide 6 secrets on gathering the competitive intelligence you need to keep or expand your market share:

1. Keep a watchful eye and their advertising – You probably already read the local newspapers, watch the news, listen to the radio, and spend time browsing the Internet for useful information about your industry. But are you paying attention to your competitor’s ads, too?

You can learn a lot from the competition’s ads, including the audience they’re trying to reach, the products or services they’re trying to promote and how much they charge, as well as the tone of their marketing message. Armed with this valuable information, you’ll know how to plan your own marketing campaigns and promotions.

2. Visit their brick-and-mortar stores – Dropping by your competitor’s physical business location is a great way to keep your eye on what products or services they’re promoting. You can also check out the look and feel of their establishment and get display ideas.

Visit your competitor’s website, too. You’ll learn a lot about their upcoming plans, their marketing strategy, employees, and their business practices. And you can do it all from the privacy of your office or home.

3. Pick up interesting facts about them by tapping the social network –  You can use social networking sites like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter as a source for finding interesting facts about your competition. Monitoring tweets, Facebook posts, blogs, and other new media mentions of your competition is an easy, cost-effective way to tap into the public’s sentiment about your competitors.

Additionally, you can scour through reviews on sites like Yelp and Citysearch to find mentions of your competitors’ deals and then monitor mentions of those reviewers’ other favorite businesses as well so you’re always one step ahead of the competition.

Having a presence in social networking will help you be more aware of what your competition’s up to so you can plan accordingly.

4. Ask your customers about them- According to Inc“Speaking to customers is one of the best (and cheapest) ways of gathering real information on competitors.” When you acquire new customers, find out who they used before and why they switched to you. Don’t forget to do the same thing when you lose a customer, too. After you’ve gathered enough of these stories, you’ll  have a much better idea of what competitors are offering that customers prefer. You can then adjust your own products or services to beat those of your competitor.

5. Become one of their customers – If you’re selling coffee and someone else is selling coffee at the other end of the street, it just makes sense for you to go over and have a cup of coffee. Being able to compare things such as price, products and customer service on the spot will help you gather some valuable intel on how the competitor does things that could improve your own operations. This is also a great way to find out just how your competitor’s customers are treated.

6. Join their mailing list – If your competition isn’t actively involved with social media, you can still spy on them by signing up to receive their newsletters, emails or other printed materials. This will help you keep up with their latest news, updates on products or services, and any upcoming events they might be attending.

Additionally, you can sign up for your competitor’s membership or customer loyalty programs, which usually include notifications of sales or events by mail or email. This is a great opportunity to keep up with what your competitor is offering their customers.

The more you know about what your competition’s doing now and what they’re planning to do in the future, the better you’ll be able to make informed decisions about your own business.

7. Call them up –  This old school tactic is one of the best ways to research your competition. Surprisingly, companies will tell you just about anything you’d like to learn over the phone.

If you want to get an idea of the size of their organization, for example, you can say: “I’m looking for individualized attention and I’m afraid that your company is too large and I’ll get lost in the shuffle. How many coaches do you have on staff? Wow, that’s quite a few. How much support staff do you need for a team that size?”

You can then use this information to see how you size up to the competition and determine if you need to make any changes in your staffing, or other areas, depending on the information you acquire.

Conclusion

“If you want to be successful,” says CodeFuel. “You need to focus not only on what you are doing for your customers but also what your competitors are doing for them.”

If your competitors are meeting a need that you aren’t, or if they’re using advertising methods that are helping them reach more customers than you, you need to know these things so that you can adjust your marketing strategy quickly to remain competitive yourself.

About Author

Sherene Funk

Sherene Funk is a voracious reader who owns more books than she can ever read in this lifetime (but that doesn't stop her from collecting more). A graduate of Brigham Young University, she has published several humorous non-fiction articles and worked in advertising for many years before moving to her current position as a writer on modern retailing at Rain Retail Software.

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