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Remember the good old days, when being a successful business owner simply meant providing your customers with the best products and services possible Ahh, what a wonderful world… Well, those days are long gone. In today’s fast-moving, ultra-competitive business climate, even the neighborhood lemonade stand has to take constant proactive steps to stay ahead of the stand down the street. Quite simply, to be successful in business, or even to stay in business, you have to do absolutely everything possible to keep up with and to stay ahead of trends in your market. Welcome to the world of competitive intelligence.

In a nutshell, competitive intelligence is the process of staying informed about what your competitors are doing, where the market is headed, what new ideas are emerging, etc., and then analyzing that data to see how your operation stacks up. Fortune 500 companies employs teams of experts with professional intelligence experience to accomplish the competitive intelligence task. Of course, the average small business owner can’t employ the former director of Central Intelligence to run her company’s intelligence program. Fortunately, the Internet has opened up many of the aspects of intelligence gathering to the average Joe. One of the best open-source platforms for intelligence gathering is the professional networking site LinkedIn. This article will give you some tips on how to use LinkedIn to keep abreast of the competition.

First, if you are not on LinkedIn, stop reading, head to the site and create your profile. We live in the age of social marketing. LinkedIn is the king of social marketing for professionals.

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Once your profile is complete and accurate, it’s time to learn how to use LinkedIn.LinkedIn will immediately begin to return results. LinkedIn does a great job of recommending people and businesses that match your profile. Take a few minutes to sift through them and get a feel for what’s out there. If you know any specific competitors, find them and?see what they’re up to. Just doing that will gain you valuable insights into the playing field.

Now that you have identified your competitors and others in the same field as you, it’s time to develop a functional competitive intelligence plan. Here’s how to use LinkedIn to gain the best value for your time.

  • Make connections – Find?LinkedIn professional groups that relate to your business. This allows you to make new business connections. If you run a salon or a spa in Maine, connect with other salon owners in Arizona to share advice. They’re not your competitors so there is nothing to lose by sharing secrets.
  • Identify hiring trends – What are your competitors and contemporaries doing as far as personnel? Are they in the middle of a big hiring spree, or are they stagnant? This can offer clues as to how their business is doing, good or bad. A sudden trend in new hiresmight mean they are expanding. What could this mean? A new outlet, a new product line, a new service, or perhaps just a large increase in demand. Compare this to your own situation to see how you stack up to the competition.
  • Identify firing trends – On the flip side of personnel analysis, assess competitors’ downsizing trends. If a sudden reduction in employees occurs, this might be a good time for you to leverage your dominance. If your competitor is struggling, it’s time to increase competitive intelligence. All’s fair in love and business.
  • Identify hiring anomalies?- Is your competitor takingon employees with new skills or with skills that seem out of place? This could indicate an expansion, a new service or something else that’s about to happen. With proper competitive intelligence research, perhaps you can figure out what’s going on and determine if it’s something you need to consider for your own business.
  • Scan competitors’ new connections – Is a competitor beginning to connect with people in a new business genre? If so, this could be an indication of a new project or a new trend. Study the connections to see what they have to offer and try to see where it could fit into your business. Perhaps you too will want to connect to them.
  • Locate competitors’ previous employees – A few minutes chatting with a competitor’s former employee can gain you tons of valuable information. Are they disgruntled? Perhaps they’ll be willing to let you in on some operational details. In the best situation, perhaps you can pick them up for your team.

Now that you’re armed with the basics of how to use LinkedIn to analyze your competitors’ operations, it’s time to get to work. Remember, competitive intelligence is a continuous process. As a business owner, you know that nothing remains the same for long. Take advantage of the open-source intelligence LinkedIn offers to stay ahead of the other guy.