At the Special Libraries Association conference in Denver, CO, last June, I heard the term "competitive intelligence" uttered more than "Who's giving away the free cookies?"
CI, as it's called, is not exactly in James Bond's arena, but even he would agree itâ€™s helpful to know what the competition is up to. It's an imprecise practice that consists of Internet research, networking at events and even eavesdropping in elevators to see what you can learn about similar organizations.
It makes sense for small businesses, because they've got to move quickly, and when you're working with a small pool of people, fresh ideas that work in your market are at a premium.
Nonprofits should look to CI too, because as much as many hate to admit it, others are competing for that grant too, and it helps to know how you stand a better chance of winning it. Plus, you might find useful resources for volunteers or new funding resources.
The Web is the small shop's best friend for CI, and here are a few tools that will help you keep track of what the competition is up to:
How on earth did I manage before Google Alerts? Plug in any phrase you might research on the Web (say, "micro-philanthropy" or your competitor's name), and Google will do an automatic search and deliver results directly to you. It's free, to boot.
Most of the big nonprofits are listed in GuideStar, and trolling through their profiles will give you a good indication of their finances and new initiatives. A special tip is to look at their downloadable tax forms to see who's on the board of directors and how much they brought in last year.
This is a free tool for evaluating the traffic performance of competitor websites. Its traffic estimates arenâ€™t 100% accurate, but it's still handy for helping to compare sites. It's also a good indication of if a site is becoming more or less popular.
Zotero is a Firefox plug-in that lets you create local snapshots of websites on your local computer. Even if a website changes, you can build up a little history of their earlier iterations, so you can track their evolution. It's also useful for easily collecting reference sources.