You can gather a great deal of information online, many publications now have their own websites and there are archive services available via some of the national newspapers too. There is a great deal of information you can gather about your competition once you start to delve in. To make the most of it you need to undertake this activity regularly, but think carefully about price, the amount of budget you can set aside for this activity, quality, the quality of information that you want and need, time, the amount of time you will need to put aside to keep track of the competition.
Assessing each aspect will help you decide whether to carry out the research yourself or use a third party. If you decide to use a third party then you have a number of options. If you have a very clear idea about what you want to achieve, and have scoped it out, then it is the type of work that may be ideal for a Virtual Assistant. They work from their own office, using their own equipment and can mystery shop your competitors effectively, monitoring the experience.
For larger scale, more complex research, then you might want to employ the services of a professional market research company. The Market Research Society produces an annual Research Buyers Guide. This lists over 700 agencies and their specific areas of expertise. A market research company will, typically, be more expensive than a Virtual Assistant who would act as an extra pair of hands without expertise, necessarily, in research.
Your customers are your eyes and ears. Get talking to them. Do they use your products or services exclusively, have they used your competitors. If they have given anyone else their trade then they have valuable insight that they can share with you. It can sometimes feel awkward asking customers but using a third party can overcome this. You can then also use the opportunity to assess how the customer views your services or products compared to your competitors.
Using your networking groups is another way to gain valuable information, poll the people you network with about the sector and their experiences. Extending your network so that you are in regular touch with industry experts is also a useful tool. You will know who these people are in your particular industry. Keeping in touch with contacts at professional, trade or governing bodies as well as with journalists, is a useful way to keep up to date with what is going on in the industry. If you work in an area that generates discussion and debate then it may be helpful to track bulletin boards and discussion groups, to keep up to date with what is going on as well as keeping out an eye for comments about competitors. For a listing of discussion groups. You may need to sign up for a google group account to view some discussion groups.
Whatever research you do and whether you do it yourself, or use help, there are two key things to bear in mind. To get most value out of the activity you should view it as a long term investment in your business and something which can be maintained over time. Second, your research should not focus on what your competitors are doing poorly but what they are doing well, it is what you can learn from that, and how you can apply it to your own business, that is the real key to staying one step ahead.