Hands On

MARKET RESEARCH

Here's How to find electronic competitive intelligence

Today, more and more businesspeople are researching markets from the comfort of their keyboards. "It's not unusual for a client to come to me and say, 'I've already checked out my competitors' Web sites,' " says Janet Gotkin, an information broker in Montrose, N.Y. "Now the client wants to know 'How much is Company X spending on customer-service programs?' "

That's asking a lot. Anyone who has surfed the Internet knows that intelligence as specific as customer-service expenditures is hard to find. Still, with luck and direction, you can glean on-line details about competitors, industry trends, and customer opinions. As a first step, type in competitors' names using Internet search engines such as Yahoo, AltaVista, HotBot, or Infoseek, and see what turns up. But what next? We asked information brokers and others knowledgeable about the on-line world to recommend the best sites and services for conducting further competitive-intelligence research on a budget. We whittled their list down to the sites here, which are relatively easy to use and free unless otherwise stated.

Digital dossiers. The financial data on public companies that have always been available are even more accessible on the World Wide Web. Hoover's Online (http://www.hoovers.com) reveals income-statement and balance-sheet numbers in detailed profiles of nearly 2,500 public companies. The service is free to America Online subscribers (keyword: Hoover) but otherwise costs $9.95 a month. However, Hoover's Online lets anyone download free half-page profiles of 10,000 (mostly public) companies.

For official filings from public companies, go to the U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission home page (http://www.sec.gov/) and tap into the SEC's Edgar database. When you need numbers fast, Edgar's a pal, but this system is not so easy on the eyes. Likewise, it's handy to have statistics on the Fortune 500 on-line (select Fortune from the menu at http:// pathfinder.com/), but the site could be more user-friendly.

Avenue Technologies (http:// www.avetech.com/avenue) packages news and numbers from 11,000 private and 9,000 public companies as well as 5,000 international companies. The reports, which draw on such sources as Moody's Investors Service, cost $15 to $40 each, and the level of detail varies greatly. However, the Web site presents summaries, so you know what to expect before you buy. The first on-line report is free. Dun & Bradstreet's Online Access (http://www.dbisna.com/ dbis/product/secure.html) provides short reports on 10 million U.S. companies, many of them privately held--but no credit ratings. (D&B subscribers can get full credit reports on-line for around $30.)

Real-time research. Getting news about small private competitors can be daunting, but it's not impossible. Ecola's 24-Hour Newsstand (http://www.ecola .com/news) links you to the Web sites of more than 2,000 newspapers, business journals, magazines, and computer publications. Click on Newspapers, for example, and you'll get a city directory; type in a rival company's home city, and a list of local papers appears. Of course, some of the periodicals are more easily searched than others, and some charge fees.

To track down obscure news, it may be worth perusing the pricey archives of hard-core on-line research services such as Dialog and Nexis. But for recent news, first try CNN Interactive (http:// www.cnn.com). Information broker Stephanie Ardito recalls a client desperate to locate certain recent information on diabetes research. In vain, Ardito searched Dialog's pharmaceutical databases as well as several on-line news wires. Finally, she located the information at the CNN site. "They're right up to the moment," she says. One caveat: the CNN archives go back weeks but not years.

Some information brokers hate The Knowledge Index, available to CompuServe members, calling it a watered-down version of the almighty Dialog research service. But others think The Knowledge Index represents a real deal at $21 an hour.

The Electric Library (http:// www.elibrary.com) is also great for scouring magazines, reference works, and news wires, notes Mary Ellen Bates, author of The Online Desk Book. At $9.95 a month, the service is designed for students; still, business users can take advantage of a two-week free trial worth 100 searches. Homework Helper, a similar service produced by the same company, is available on the Prodigy on-line service. Despite its name, Homework Helper is used by businesspeople and costs just $6 an hour or $9.95 a month for two hours, plus $2.95 for each additional hour.

MediaFinder (http://www .mediafinder.com) simply provides an index and description of thousands of newsletters, catalogs, and magazines. It contains a limited number of Web links.

The on-line grapevine. The ability to "listen in" on conversations about you or your competitors may represent one of the best market-research values of the Internet, simply because it's unique to the medium. We're talking, of course, about the news groups and discussion groups so prevalent in the Usenet section of the Internet. The groups offer more than gossip; you can identify experts among the contributors.

Deja News Research Service (http://www.dejanews.com) claims to have the "largest collection of indexed archived Usenet news anywhere." Liszt (http:// www.liszt.com) is a searchable directory of E-mail discussion groups. Both contain tips for Internet newbies.

Business clearinghouses. When you're not sure where else to turn, consider several sites that have compiled good collections of business resources. John Makulowich's Awesome Lists (http://www.clark .net/pub/journalism/awesome .html) has links to more than 140 sites. American Demographics (http://www.demographics.com) maintains a directory of marketing experts. ProfNet (http://www.vyne .com/profnet) helps you quickly locate professors who are leaders in their field.

StartingPoint (http://www .stpt.com/busine.html) features an extensive list of commercial directories and resources. Babson College (http://www.babson .edu) is in tune with small-business people's needs. Finally, the Competitive Intelligence Guide (http://www.fuld.com) offers sleuthing tips along with an "Internet Intelligence Index" of company resources.

Tell us about your favorite business site by sending a message to susan.greco@inc.com.

Didyou know that...

...24% of this year's Inc. 500 companies use the Internet primarily for market research?