Researchers at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College reveal that competitive intelligence (CI) has become a booming industry, with over $1 billion a year being spent on corporate sleuth services. However these practices can lead to interesting ethical dilemmas for participating companies, since they can run counter to a company’s values, group ethics, and even state or federal laws.


It’s safe to say that all companies participate in competitive intelligence in some way. It can be extremely unwise to ignore what your direct competitors are doing. However, you must be wary of unethical tactics that can actually backfire, drawing negative attention or legal action your way.


Using Public Information


Much of the information that your company needs is already out there, in public records and online. One of the best starting points for collecting information is at a competitor’s website or storefront. Try to put yourself in a customer’s shoes. What kinds of services and products does this other company offer? Here are a few other avenues to explore:


  • Set up alerts to track a competitor’s press releases, follow news stories, review SEC filings, and get on earnings calls if they are a publically traded company.
  • Read  online customer reviews that could highlight strengths and weaknesses of products and services.
  • Check your competition’s public web metrics. Free utilities on and let you view a website’s national and global traffic ranks, bounce rates, audience demographics, visitor geography, and the average time per visit.
  • Employee feedback services such as help you get a snapshot of your competition’s work culture, from their current and former employees’ perspectives.
  • Follow the social media presence, blogs, and event participation of your competition in order to track current news and events and see how they are interacting with their customers.


Hiring Professional Assistance


If your company needs to dig deeper into the competition, then you should consider hiring a professional CI service. Marketing research non-profits like GreenBook publish databases of CI company listings, which you can search based on location, industry type, and research service types. These companies specialize in gathering data ethically, and then presenting it to your leaders in a way that can spur positive change.


Avoiding Trouble


There are several legal and ethical questions that arise when an individual conducts primary research, or contacting a competitor directly. Misrepresentation, such as lying about your identity, can lead to legal and ethical ramifications, so many CI professionals adhere to a strict code of ethics during their interactions. The Strategic and Competitive Intelligence Professionals non-profit organization is an excellent starting resource, with ethical guidelines and research articles dedicated to the finer points of collecting primary research information.


Competitive intelligence gathering has become much easier in the digital era, with so many businesses sharing information online via social media and promotional websites. There are also dangers, and your company should be aware of local and federal laws regarding trade secrets and espionage to make sure that you remain within the parameters of the law. You also want to maintain your company’s code of ethics to preserve your credibility and identity within the business community.


Do you have any tips on researching competitors or witnessed any unethical practices? Please share in the comments section below.