Marketers want to know what their competition is up to. Setting up Google Alerts and following your competitor's Twitter feed can get you only so far, and the old "hide your badge trick" at tradeshows is just annoying. Does it ever work... or does it just arouse suspicion?

So what's the best way to gather competitive intelligence?

Some of the information you want is not public. Other information is just hard to find and takes some work. Luckily, with the troves of information now online, plus some new tools, it's never been easier.

January is auspicious in the history of covert intelligence-gathering. At a lunch on January 24, 1946, President Harry Truman appointed the first Director of Central Intelligence.

In honor of that just-passed anniversary, we're going to look at some CIA-style techniques for spying on your competition. I won't tell you all of my secrets, nor pick favorite tools, but here are five bits of tradecraft.

1. Ad Spying

Ever wanted to know where your competitors are advertising and what they are saying? Maybe you come across their banner ads here and there, but how big of an investment are they making? Are there places where they are advertising and where you should advertise, too?

Some tools let you actually see where companies are advertising. Two of the more prominent are AdBeat and WhatRunsWhere. These tools crawl sites every day to find out what ads are running, and you can find out just what ad creative your competition is running and where.

2. SEO Keyword Spying

Knowing what keywords your competition is bidding on can be very valuable. Sure, you can try out keywords and see what ads pop up, but a much better way is to use a tool to automate the task.

Two tools that do so are SpyFu and iSpionage. Enter a keyword or domain, and you can find out which keywords your competitors are bidding on, what ad copy they're using, and which landing pages they're using.

3. Web Traffic Spying

SimilarWeb is a cool tool that lets you look at the traffic to and from any website. My favorite way to use it is to see what sites are sending people to my competitors.

By looking at the top referring sites (which you can see for your own site with Google Analytics), you will gain some insight into content that's sending clients to your competition. Maybe there's a blog that mentions them. Maybe they have some type of referral or affiliate agreement.

You also get a nice summary of their overall traffic, what geographies it's coming from, how much is coming from social media, and some other nice nuggets of info.

4. SEC Filings

The lives of most CIA researchers are not as eventful as Robert Redford's in Three Days of the Condor. Not everything in the spy world is cloak and dagger. The Agency employs hundreds of analysts who read newspapers, financial filings, and other public documents to see what they can find.

SEC filings can reveal a lot about a public company. Aside from the usual financial information, over the years I've found the following: office lease expenses, severance agreements, technology licensing deals, and details of acquisitions.

Make sure to read the footnotes; that's where a lot of miscellaneous and interesting stuff is hidden in plain sight.

James Underwood, author of Competitive Intelligence for Dummies, has a quick tutorial on how to find and navigate the various SEC filing documents. He includes a tip on a smoking gun that can really be valuable: "Always check to see if the auditors have filed a 'Going Concern Letter' on the company. That usually means that they have serious concerns about the future viability of the company."

5. Job Sites

Don't ignore job sites. You can find out a lot about a company's focus and strategy. Your competitor is looking for a bunch of mobile engineers? Ten new sales reps in Germany?

Glassdoor is a site that solicits employee and interviewee feedback, so you can learn a lot about a company's culture there. You can also sense the health of a company.

I looked up a company that had just raised a nice Series C round of financing (sounds good!), but I saw a comment about a big layoff (not so good!).

Glassdoor also lets you set up alerts, so you get this stuff in your inbox. Even the CIA is on Glassdoor: "A mixed bag" at 3.9 stars out of five.

* * *

Remember, spying takes patience and diligence. In the words of espionage novelist Graham Greene, "Most things disappoint till you look deeper."

Have other ideas? I would love to hear about them, spy to spy.

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image of Tim Matthews

For more than 20 years, Tim Matthews has been a high-tech marketing executive and team leader, including his current role as CMO of HackerOne. He is the author of The Professional Marketer and a syndicated blogger and frequently speaks for organizations like UC Berkeley's tech incubator, the Nasdaq Entrepreneur Center, and Stanford Graduate School of Business.