Is it OK to spy on the competition? CI (Competitive Intelligence) in a nutshell

There seems to be two camps when it comes to investigating our competitors: 1) I need to know every single thing they are doing, and it’s my right to find out, or 2) That’s spying and it’s wrong and/or unethical and, besides, what if I got caught?

Being an entrepreneur is hard work. Running a business is hard work. Gathering all the information you can to help you make intelligent decisions is not only necessary, it’s good business. Business Intelligence (BI) is simply that – gathering and analyzing the strategies and tactics needed to successfully operate your business. Competitive Intelligence (CI) is just what you think it is (minus the dark sunglasses and trench coat) – gathering and analyzing information about your competitors to inform you about the market, your customers, and your industry.

CI is practiced all the time, everywhere. If you think it’s wrong to look at competitors’ websites, sign up for their newsletters, and find out their pricing, you’re missing out on some VERY helpful information. CI is not illegal unless you break laws, like hacking into the security of your competitor’s database or paying their staff to divulge company secrets. You know, dirty stuff like that, stuff you would never think of doing. I think we all know where to draw the line. CI is also not unethical if you do not operate in unethical ways.

Ignoring the competition, however, can be a foolish mistake. Being aware of the competitive landscape is a necessity for your business, and this involves a little CI work. Doing the following basics gives you valuable information, and can give you a competitive edge, and there is nothing wrong with that.

  • Know who your competitors are (pay attention to word of mouth, ask your vendors or customers, do online searches, use social media)
  • Check out your competitors’ websites, online presence, and marketing collateral
  • If your competitors have brick and mortar locations, visit or send someone else to visit
  • Check your competitors’ reputations – look up reviews of your competitors’ services or products
  • Sign up for any email newsletters your competitors have (you don’t have to use your business email – use another one if sensitive about being identified)
  • Join your competitors’ sales funnel through email or other means (again, your own contact information or use a friend’s email)
  • Call for pricing if not advertised
  • Research to see if your competitors are getting any media coverage – good or bad

You may even want to try the unthinkable (gasp): introduce yourself to your competitor and grow a working (or personal) relationship. The competition does not have to be the enemy.

What do you do with CI? Having this information can help you in the following ways:

  • Seeing pricing trends in real time so you can react quicker
  • Raising awareness of new players in your market
  • Keeping current with what your customer base wants, even if they are the competitor’s customer
  • Bringing things to your attention you need to address
  • Knowing where you rank in online searches compared to those who matter most to you
  • Identifying gaps in your competitors’ offerings that you can fill
  • Identifying opportunities for growth based on what happens to your competitors
  • Gaining ideas for your own marketing based on what they are doing well, or not-so-well
  • Knowing who their key staff are in case they come on the market

In short, if a competitor’s information is public, you have every right to it. If no one ever paid attention to what the competition was doing, we would not have the innovation, competitive pricing, and customer service expectations we have today.

So, get busy and do a little sleuthing (sunglasses or not). Don’t be embarrassed or shy (or creepy) about it, the health of your business will benefit from your knowledge. And the best part of all is: most of your competitors aren’t taking the time to do this, so you have the advantage!




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Beth Boen August 2nd, 2019 At 12:26
Lori - great article. I do competitive mystery shops for clients. I have found out things like how is their follow-up and follow through to if a direct mailer is working. I had a client who received their competition's direct mailer. I called about the incredible offer on the direct mailer and said to the person on the phone, "Wow, this is a great offer! Your phone must be ringing off the hook." The person said something like, "Well, you would think, but we haven't had any calls on it." Reply
Lori Dubois August 5th, 2019 At 11:08
Thanks, Beth! Yes, that doesn't surprise me. It's important to know what others are doing, and also in your own shop. Reply