Should you use free online tools to monitor your competition?

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>>Learn how the web, search, and social media can provide you with critical information about your competition, clients, and firm.

Have you ever worked long hours on a significant proposal effort, sweated over lost billable time, and then watched as a competitor stole the project with a unique approach, team, or unexpected partnership?

It happens to everyone.

Avoid surprises and protect your marketing investments by developing real “competitive intelligence.” Competitive intelligence helps you:

  • Understand a competitor’s marketing message
  • Stay abreast of your competition’s staff hires (or fires)
  • Understand local market trends
  • Recognize shifts in customer preferences (i.e. to, or away from, your competition)

Of course, spending too much time watching the other guy is like driving a car while focusing on the rearview mirror. Instead, use free web technologies to collect competitor information and have it delivered conveniently to your Inbox.

You may rightfully leave this activity to your marketing professionals (if so, pass this article onto them). However, these tools are easy to setup, and once in place can be forgotten until you receive those important periodic updates. And, for small firm owners and branch managers, these automated research “assistants” can really help you compete with the marketing departments of larger firms.

A couple example services include:

Google Alerts (www.google.com/alerts).

Google alerts should form the foundation of your online competitive intelligence effort. Google can monitor keywords and send scheduled (or immediate) e-mail “alerts” when new search results are found. Use alerts to track terms related to your competition, clients, or your own firm. To better organize the results, subscribe to them as an RSS feed for input into one of many free RSS readers (i.e. Google Reader).

For information about your local market, use an alert to watch your local paper’s web site and report on industry happenings.

The Way Back Machine (www.archive.org). The Way Back Machine has quietly recorded the history of billions of web sites for more than 14 years. Although this site might not inform you about where your competitor is going, it can give you a history of a firm’s growth, key staff hires, and changes to marketing strategy. Plus, this site is a lot of fun. Some of our early web sites were really bad.

WatchThatPage (www.watchthatpage.com). Look to your competitor’s web site first for pertinent information. WatchThatPage is a free service that monitors a web site and sends notices as site content changes. Such alerts might inform you of a shift in a competitor’s marketing focus, a new hire, or a new client.

Social media search (i.e. search.twitter.com). Although the impact of social media on our industry is still uncertain, the arguments for its use are compelling. Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and other tools and networks will increase the visibility of AEC firms on the web.

Most social media services have search and “alert” services. A social media tracking program will become increasingly important as the use of this media expands in our industry. Learn how to monitor and then actively manage your firm’s social media presence.

Are you currently wrestling with the pros and cons of using social media? Consider listening to different services before starting a social media campaign. Listen by using search (i.e. search.twitter.com) to learn about the technology and understand how your competition is, or is not, interacting in that media. You might also stop to listen to discussions about your firm.

Whichever online resources you choose to use, don’t forget more traditional sources of competitor information: your clients (see my article on client feedback in The Zweig Letter, issue 823), community leaders, new staff hires, and existing employees. These people are obviously some of the first you should tap when sizing up the competition.

So, stop listening to me and start listening to search. Or Twitter. Or those industry professionals and peers who can tell you what you need to know to gain an edge over your competition.

Note: As I researched this article I collected a number of other web links and resources related to this subject. Request those additional resources by sending me an e-mail.

Derrick Smith is a partner with consulting firm MacKay & Sposito, Inc. (M&S), an infrastructure planning and design firm based in the Pacific Northwest. M&S services Water Resources, Energy, Community Development, and Geospatial clients and markets throughout the Pacific Northwest.

Derrick publishes regularly in several regional and national journals that focus on business development, project management, and human resources topics related to his industry. Derrick Smith’s thoughts and past articles can be found at www.derricksmith.net. He can also be followed @derrick_smith.

This article first appeared in The Zweig Letter (ISSN 1068-1310) Issue # 861
Originally published 5/3/2010

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