Finding information on competitors

As with marketing information, so with competitive information too, these days it’s not a matter of finding a needle in a haystack; it’s figuring out which needles to choose from a mountain of needles. You can find an amazing wealth of information about competitors on the web, and in mobile apps. The hard part, of course, is sorting through it and knowing what to emphasize.

I do suggest here that you stay flexible and pragmatic. Look for available information that will stand for what you want to show. For example, I might use stars and such in reviews, from amazon.com or Yelp, as a surrogate for quality. That would be way more practical than conducting primary research. And it’s credible to the audience.

There was once a problem finding information on smaller privately owned competitors, compared to the wealth of financial information available for companies traded on one of the major stock markets. Nowadays, however, websites, social media, and reviews are widely available on lots of local businesses. Not having some way to rank and evaluate competitors is usually for lack of trying, not for lack of information. Here too, beware of having too much. Spare your readers proof of how good you are at gathering information, and give them only the information they need and will use.

Don’t assume you can get financial information on companies that are privately held. Use a surrogate if you have to, like numbers of employees, rooms, tables, vehicles, or (here too) stars in reviews. If possible, you may want to take on the task of playing the role of potential customer and gain information from that perspective.

Industry associations, industry publications, media coverage, information from the financial community, and their own marketing materials and websites may be good resources to identify these factors and “rate” the performance and position of each competitor.

Industry financial profiles are available on the web. You can find statistics like average annual growth, average number of employees, sales per employee, sales per square foot, average profits from sales, and similar benchmarks for sale from competing providers, for $100 or less for a single profile. Google that on the web. My company’s web app for business planning, LivePlan, bundles these profiles broken by industry type and size of business, as part of the web app license.

When I started working professionally in market research, I usually couldn’t get the information I wanted. Or needed. There was no Internet back then, or at least not anything available to anybody normal. Government statistics were available but cumbersome.

So I built conceptual crossword puzzles. Connected dots. I’d have one source of government information give me an overall growth rate for a related industry, then find a large company whose annual report gave me information on their particular segment, then an analysis somewhere telling me that the industry leader had 60% of the market, and I’d be able, sometimes, to generate an estimate of something I needed to know.

You can do that today. Find available statistics here and there, look for snippets quoting experts in published materials, find the annual report of a publicly traded company, and look for data to mine.

What can your new coffeehouse sell? Think of a first person to ask, and if that person doesn’t know, ask him or her, as you finish the phone call, who else they know who might be able to answer. Encourage people to make an educated guess. Shouldn’t you also be able to find out how much an average Starbucks location sells? How is yours going to be different from Starbucks? Estimate from what you know, and jump from there to what you don’t know.

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