Last year, my company carried out a survey of large North American businesses (a mean revenue of $6 billion) to see what they perceived to be the biggest marketing challenges for 2015 and what marketing strategies they are using.

This finding jumped out at us: Only 27% of US B2B firms carry out competitor research, even though almost half of them cite "countering the competition" as one of their top five business challenges.

It's true that many businesses can recall the names of their major competitors and perhaps even tell an anecdote or two about them. Others keep files of rivals' brochures and press cuttings, and a minority produce dossiers on the competition that are regularly updated, containing marketing implications and recommendations for action.

However, that information barely touches the surface, and it doesn't provide the necessary insight on competitors that can appropriately inform business strategy.

If US B2B firms want to successfully counter the competition, a more in-depth analysis of the marketplace is required.

Competitor research is essential

Fundamentally, business is about beating the competition; you cannot make judgments around strategies for doing so without understanding the strengths and weaknesses of competitors. Rivals' activity affects everything from product planning to pricing strategies and even acquisition policy.

For example, determining a firm's product range necessitates that the marketer have a detailed knowledge of all competitor products—and prices—in order to make comparisons and determine options for diversification.

For most companies, it isn't a case of not understanding the importance of competitor research; it's a matter of being overwhelmed with gathering the amount of information needed but having what they perceive to be too few resources.

However, intelligence does not require anyone to co-opt a competitor's employee or search through its garbage cans. You don't have to be devious to obtain information on the competition. Sources that are legitimate and inexpensive are easy to find if you know where to look and what to look for. Here are our top five tips.

1. Speak to your customers

First of all, there is no more effective, reliable, or valuable source of competitor information than customers.

In the digital age, buyers have never been so willing to say exactly what they want and how they want it, or to complain and take their business elsewhere if their requirements are not fulfilled. Customers often display a remarkable level of candor when talking about their suppliers, even those with whom they have a close and collaborative relationship.

Issues as diverse as price, service, contractual details, and technical information can be discussed, as well as industry "gossip," such as who is launching what product and when.

2. Interview suppliers, distributors, and other industry players

In every industry, to assess who might be able to provide valuable market intelligence, mapping out the supply chain is worth doing.

Those at the center of the supply-chain—including distributors, agents, and importers—are often those who know most about the market because they are in frequent contact with manufacturers and sellers alike.

Most markets also have a number of independent "experts" of some kind who are willing to share the information they possess; industry associations and journalists at industry publications are examples.

3. Don't forget to use company websites

Websites may seem an obvious source of competitor information, but they're an increasingly effective one. Information that only a decade ago would have been top-secret, or obtainable only by making a visit to the company's headquarters, is now freely available.

Company vision and strategy, product innovation, staff credentials, and a host of further information is available to anyone willing to spend the time sifting through website content and social media profiles.

4. Engage with competitors themselves

Competitor interviews or conversations are a difficult but valuable means of gaining insights. The respondent does not necessarily have to be a high-level executive; mid-level employees, such as sales managers, can be extremely useful sources of information on products, innovations, overall strategies, and a host of other topics.

Expositions and conferences are great opportunities for checking out what the competition is up to. A bored salesman at an exhibition stand can be a great source of information.

5. Speak to the competition about the competition

Asking a rival to provide details on his company might be difficult, but asking him to talk about other market players is less so. Considering that staff at all levels move from company to company, and opponents talk to each other, asking Competitor A to "dish" on Competitor B, before asking Competitor B to return the favor, can be an extremely effective way of gaining competitor insight as well as an overview of the market in general.

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image of Julia Doheny (Cupman)

Julia Doheny (Cupman) is president of research, North America, at global business-to-business market research agency B2B International (a Merkle B2B company), which serves a wide range of sectors. Reach her via +1-914-761-1909 or email:

LinkedIn: Julia Doheny (Cupman)