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How to Use Free or Nearly Free Data Sources and Analysis for Competitive Intelligence

If you decide to fly solo and manage competitive intelligence internally, your costs are measured primarily by the time and effort you invest in it. You can gather most of the information you need for free, or at a very low cost.

Here are a few sources of information that are generally free or cost very little:

  • Relationships: Although everyone wants to hear about high-tech data mining and analytics, the truth is that low-tech intel sometimes is more valuable. Foster relationships with customers, suppliers, analysts, industry journalists, and even competitors to find out what people are thinking and saying and raving and complaining about.

  • Corporate annual reports: Annual reports from your competitors are free, but you definitely get what you pay for here. More often than not, annual reports are marketing tools, so read them with a degree of skepticism.

  • Corporate SEC filings: 8-K and 10-K filings can be exceptionally helpful in analyzing publicly traded competitors. The easiest way to access a company’s SEC filings is to go to Yahoo! Finance and search for the company by name or ticker symbol. The resulting profile page for the company contains links to various SEC filings.

    The 8-K is required when a company is compelled by SEC mandate to disclose events or information that are material to the financial standing of the firm. Although such filings do provide disclosure, most companies are adept at purposely omitting the behind-the-scenes information about those filings.

    You may need to strike up a conversation with an analyst in the industry to get the back story. Sometimes solid CI analysis can give you that answer.

  • Press releases: Most companies publish press releases to announce new products and leadership changes and major events. You can usually find press releases on company websites.

  • Libraries: University and public libraries can provide access to numerous financial databases. In some cases, the university subscribes to a service like Hoover's, which isn’t free, but as a library patron, it’s free for you.

  • Web searches: For a fairly complete listing of companies, go to info.com and search for “corporate information.” Info.com consolidates search results from Google, Yahoo!, and Bing and delivers a listing of numerous resources that provide corporate information. Google is also a great place to start, simply because of the advanced search analytics the company now utilizes.

    Set up Google Alerts or Yahoo! News Alerts to keep you posted via e-mail regarding news events related to any business entity, individual, product, competitor, or topic that you want to monitor.

    Make sure that you don’t overlook the invisible web — the enormous amount of information on the web that Google and other search engines don’t index. Use Google to try to find relevant websites and then use the search tools on those sites to look for specific information.

  • Social media: Social-media venues, including Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Wikipedia, YouTube, and SlideShare often contain valuable information and insight that may be posted by your competitors, suppliers, or distributors; your own or your competitors’ customers; analysts; technology companies and individual innovators; and more.

    Because social-media outlets are rarely policed, they’re more likely to contain information over which organizations have little control in keeping secret. However, you need to be especially careful about validating any information you find in the social media.

  • Industry associations and publications: Trade publications can often be a bit suspect because a lot of companies feed stories to the publications that may be self-serving. Even so, always follow such publications and be sure that you occasionally make contact with the editor of each publication to ask about white papers or other association-sponsored research that may be available.

  • CIA’s The World Factbook: If you’re doing business abroad, The World Factbook can be a valuable resource for tracking down information about the geography, people, government, and economy of the country in which you’re doing or planning to do business. You can access The World Factbook online.

  • United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO): The USPTO website enables you to search for patents by the name of the person or company that filed for the patent. Keep in mind, however, that some companies file patents under the name of lesser-known subsidiaries. When doing a patent search, include the names of all related companies and divisions.

Carefully examine each source for accuracy and reliability.

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