So you have finally held your first strategic planning meeting: Congratulations! You have now set the stage for the many potential benefits of disciplined analysis and decision-making. Expectations from your management team are high. Whether you are a first time strategic planner or you are a veteran of many cycles of the process, you realize that you need good information if you are going to make good decisions.

Then comes the biggest challenge: How do we perform the market and competitive studies that are necessary to equip the team with the information it needs to make good decisions?

Few of us in management have ever had the task (not to mention the job description) of a market research specialist. In spite of the ever-increasing access we have to information today, it is still a daunting challenge for the uninitiated to find the sources and quickly distill the information required for good planning. In this article, we will identify the easiest and most direct ways to get your research off the ground.

You' ve Got to Pay to Play (Well, Probably)

A recent visit to the Management Library at the University of Rochester put me in touch with Suzanne Bell, a management data librarian. She assured me that when it comes to market and competitive research, the amount of available information is truly staggering, but (like a tried-and-true formula for an old joke), there' s some good news and some bad news.

The good news is that many useful sources of information are available on the Internet. This is good news if you enjoy the prospect of conducting this effort from the comfort of your office chair. For many of us, just the thought of "doing research" is enough to ruin several workdays merely anticipating the sub-optimally productive time we might spend in the unfamiliar aisles of our nearest local business library.

The bad news is that many of the best sources, like the best things in life, are not free. For the most part, the most complete sources of information on the web are available through subscription services. Almost all of the sites will provide basic information teasers for free, but to get the good stuff, one has to either sign up for a year' s worth of usage or pay on a per use basis.

The favorites in this category are among a list of prominent, long-standing information providers: Dow Jones Interactive, Hoover' s Online, Lexis/Nexis, FISonline, Value Line, Investext and S& P' s Industry Surveys. It is no big surprise to discoverthat most of the information from these services concerns public companies and their markets.

It may be well within your company' s resources to join one or several of these services. Subscription rates typically run a few thousand dollars per service per year. Fees for single use depend on the level of detail that you seek. For example, on Dun & Bradstreet' s CommerceInc Research Center, the price for a single report for a small private company ranged from $25 for a simple "Business Background Report" on up to $105 for a "Comprehensive Report". Industry and product category reports from services like FISonline and S& P Industry Surveys can run from a few hundred dollars on up to several thousand. For some companies, this would not be too much to pay if it provided them with a few critical pieces of information about an important direct competitor or market opportunity. The price tag becomes high, however, if you take this approach for a dozen competitors and a handful of market segment analysis.

If all of this is beyond your budget, do not despair: Contact your nearest university' s business library and inquire about their policies concerning use of their subscriptions to these fee-based databases. If you are lucky, they will allow a limited amount of use of their subscriptions through a community membership arrangement. Armed with a list of your major competitors and market segments, a volunteer from your firm could gather a significant amount of information in a single afternoon for free!

Straight from the Horse' s Mouth

For competitor analysis, the first logical step is to go right to the source: the company' s home page. It is safe to say that, today, most companies have established their own Internet presence. To find them, try the online Yellow Pages or use any number of Web Directories (Google and Northern Light are good options). If all else fails, try guessing the address using the format Even the most basic Web site usually contains information about the company' s location, business background and most exciting new product or service offerings.

Beyond this, of course, one may find all sorts of other interesting data (e.g., descriptions of their various office or plant locations with the products and/or services offered there, sales revenue, number of employees, product specifications, pricing, etc.). Of course, one must keep in mind that the information provided there is primarily for marketing purposes. Claims that the company makes on its own behalf concerning product superiority or outstanding customer service should be measured against indicators from other, more objective sources.