Are there risks in competitive intelligence? (Part III)


Competitive intelligence combines secondary and primary research:

  • Secondary research carries almost no legal risk. A competitor’s employees may be listed on LinkedIn. A competitor’s customers may be following that competitor on Twitter, or there may be case studies on that competitor’s website. Information from such public sources is fair game. There are grey areas (for example, if a competitor accidentally uploads confidential documents to a public part of their website, which is then indexed by a search engine), but these are rare and in such cases the experienced analyst should know that if something looks suspect, it is best avoided.
  • Primary research carries some legal risk, if not executed properly. Primary research involves contacting people who may have the information required. For example, to find out how much a competitor pays their salespeople, a researcher could ask existing employees of the competitor, previous employees of the competitor, interviewees who did not become employees, recruitment agencies and other sources. It may be illegal for some of these people to disclose salary details (for example, they may have signed NDAs), whereas others may be at liberty to discuss the information. Because competitive intelligence analysts are not legal experts, it is better to err on the side of caution and speak to only the ‘safest’ of sources. In this example, that may not even be a primary source, but be the secondary information at    

The above sources are a world away from what might start to overlap with corporate espionage - for example, applying for jobs under false guises to elicit salary information. Competitive intelligence stays away from such grey areas.

The flagship legislation for preventing corporate espionage is the Economic Espionage Act of 1996. Its application in different circumstances is beyond the scope of a blog post. Indeed, as it has been sparingly used, many aspects of the Act still need clarification through case law - for example around what constitutes a trade secret and whether it needs to be proved that theft of a trade secret caused damage. In some ways, the Economic Espionage Act should not be a consideration: if an agency starts wondering whether their activities are captured by the Act or are just outside it, they may be pushing the boundaries of safe practice too far already. Competitive intelligence should steer well clear of the Act, not skim around the edges.

The legal risks of competitive-intelligence-gone-wrong are real, but they should not be overstated. Most malpractice of this nature involves employees, and where vendors are involved, these are invariably lesser-known vendors who as a matter of course do not adhere to ethical standards.

(It should go without saying that we are not lawyers...)

Are there risks in competitive intelligence? (Part II)


All categories of market research carry some level of risk. For example, social media monitoring, used in consumer research as well as in competitive intelligence, can be portrayed as Orwellian, posing a reputational risk. Telephone surveys require an understanding of consumer privacy laws. Competitive intelligence is quantifiably no more risky than any other type of market research.

Perhaps the main risk of competitive intelligence is reputational. Even if competitive intelligence is carried out in the cleanest way, it could be misleadingly painted as corporate espionage. To the public, there may seem little difference between a researcher legitimately attending a trade show, and corporate espionage at such conferences.

In fact, competitive intelligence is a low risk activity. There are no recorded examples of reputational damage caused to a company by using competitive intelligence. Occasional articles may refer to ‘spying on your competitors’ in an attempt to glamorize what is otherwise quite ordinary market research, but in such articles, individual companies are not singled out for accusations about ordinary competitive intelligence such as public search or executive interviews.

Reputational risk is a consideration if competitive intelligence enters the public domain. This could happen in a number of ways, for example:

  • One of the company’s competitors may come to know that competitive intelligence research has been done about them, for example, as a by-product of hiring an employee away from that company (although most major companies have strict policies on not obtaining competitive intelligence from new hires) or through the communication lines that many companies have with their competitors for collaboration purposes. In such cases, the competitor will typically be pragmatic about the fact that competitive intelligence is just a standard and common market research activity – it is a normal part of business.
  • The most likely source of a leak is an employee with a grudge who may publicize the fact that their employer conducts competitive intelligence, hoping to have a negative reputational impact. While every company tries to hire employees who are deemed trustworthy, and employment contracts include confidentiality and similar clauses, rogue employees cannot be completely ruled out. This remains a hypothetical scenario, as no such case has been recorded.


Any reputational risk of competitive intelligence can easily be avoided. Established vendors operate discreetly and well within any ethical or legal boundaries. That is how they stay in business.

(It should go without saying that we are not lawyers...)

Are there risks in competitive intelligence? (Part I)



Competitive intelligence is not quantifiably more risky than any other type of market research. Competitive intelligence companies have worked on thousands of projects over the last three to four decades, without there being any evidence of questionable practices that have damaged clients. Much of the perceived risk comes from equating competitive intelligence with corporate espionage, but the two activities are very different from each other.

  • Competitive intelligence is the legal use of secondary and primary research to discover information. The formalization of competitive intelligence as a modern practice can be traced to the late 1980s/early 1990s. A lot of competitive intelligence relies on nothing more sophisticated than online searches. Even primary research within competitive intelligence may be equally standard: for example, calling a competitor’s customer to ask them whether they are happy with that competitor’s service.
  • Corporate espionage is mostly illegal, and includes techniques such as ‘dumpster diving’ and hacking into computer systems.

The known examples of companies who overstepped the mark in obtaining information about competitors have all involved corporate espionage. Companies that have found themselves involved in corporate espionage include respected names such as SAP and Procter & Gamble, and the activities may have involved vendors and employees.

It is also questionable whether corporate espionage is even necessary: enough information can be collected through mainstream competitive intelligence to benchmark against competitors and create winning strategies.


Carrying out competitive intelligence has not damaged companies

There is no recorded instance of competitive intelligence causing reputational or legal damage to the company using it.

What does damage companies is corporate espionage. For example, General Motors vs. Volkswagen over the hire of a senior employee; the disclosure of confidential Gillette designs; Oracle hiring a detective agency; Procter & Gamble dumpster diving or the theft of DuPont secrets.

Some of these involved a rogue vendor, but the majority has involved the company’s own employees, for example, selling information to a competitor. Where a vendor is involved, these are one of the many lesser-known agencies, for example private investigators or former law enforcement officers. There is no record of one of the recognized competitive intelligence agencies being involved in such activities.


How clients deal with the risks of competitive intelligence projects

Competitive intelligence is quantitatively no more risky than any other market research activity.

Companies can pre-empt the risks of using competitive intelligence by setting and maintaining expectations about what methods the vendor may use. Limitations may include:

  • No employees of competitors are to be contacted.
  • No material, such as brochures obtained at conferences, is to be delivered to the client.
  • The client’s name is never to be mentioned or disclosed.

Such standards can further reassure clients that competitive intelligence is not going to cause them legal or reputational damage. Managed properly, competitive intelligence is no riskier than any other field of market research.

(It should go without saying that we are not lawyers...)

How to find your competitors' online marketing spend

Finding out about the competition’s online marketing - its keywords, ad copy, clicks, clickthrough rate and spend can help you position your own marketing. Identifying high value keywords, for example, can help you develop your own online marketing strategy - while reducing any advantage your rivals may have had.


AdGooroo is part of Kantar Media, the media intelligence group. Claiming to have “the world’s largest collection of search marketing intelligence, bar none”, AdGooroo can provide its clients with data on most global advertisers, giving an in-depth insight into your competitors’ campaign performance.

You can view current and historical data for advertising campaigns across 50 countries, including performance statistics, keywords used, and spend estimate (please note “estimates”…). You can measure your historic and current performance against the competition’s.

Other useful features include trademark intelligence, which enables you to keep an eye on any misuse or hijacking of you brand.  AdGooroo offers a demo before you leap in and subscribe. The free blog is regularly updated, and offers great general insights into this field.

ispionage doesn’t dress up what it does in fancy apparel: the tagline on its website reads “Steal your competitors’ traffic and uncover their conversion strategy.” They have a database giving 7 years’ worth of PPC and SEO information from Google, Bing and Yahoo (claiming 92,000,000 keywords).

Again, you need to subscribe, but ispionage offer a free trial, so that you can test its efficacy and interface. The basic package is $29 per month.

Moz, formerly SEOMoz, started in SEO consultancy back in 2004, and now offers SEO toolkits, as well as wise words in their excellent blog. With Moz, you sign up and create a campaign. They then start collecting data for you, and within a few days, you have a detailed insight into your area, enabling you to develop a killer SEO strategy.

The Mozscape API lets you integrate data from their index into your own applications. This index is updated regularly, providing fresh data on billions of URL status codes, titles, and links, together with any other information Moz thinks is useful. If you join and become a “Moz Pro”, you’ll be able to access historical data. You can use Moz for free, although that limits how much data is made avilable.

With over a million users, SEMRush helps you by establishing keywords, comparing your domain with others, and various reports. You can start to use their website immediately, and for free.

SpyFu is straight in there with topline financial estimates if you try their free search function.

If you register, you can track your competitors’ domain history over the last 10 years. Again, this company offers monthly packages.

This is a summary of some of the main companies offering this service. Each vendor provides a slightly different take on understanding competitors' marketing spend, and one way or another it should be possible to build a fairly good understnading of how much competitors are spending and on what campaigns.

Competitive intelligence companies - a definitive list

A while ago, we published a list of competitive intelligence companies. Our criteria was that competitive intelligence had to be their primary, or at least significant, focus. Other agencies graze the edges of competitive intelligence, but it's not their main service. All the companies we listed carry out primary or secondary research for their clients (usually both), and they all have competitive intelligence-focused websites.

In our latest update to this list, and to reflect the importance of social media, we have added their Twitter handles, where possible. We have also highlighted their locations to help you look for companies in specific countries. Naturally, there have been some changes to our original list: some new urls, a takeover, a couple of organizations have ceased trading, some companies have stopped focusing on competitive intelligence, and ISIS has unsurprisingly changed its name...

Here is our current directory of competitive intelligence specialists. If we have missed anyone out, please tweet @aquteintel

  1. Affinis, France
  2. AIM, USA
  3. Aqute Intelligence, USA, UK, @AquteIntel
  4. Aurora WDC, USA, @AuroraWDC
  5. AWARE, UK, @awareci
  6. Blue Ocean, India, @blueoceanmi
  7. Cascade Insights, USA, @cascadeinsight
  8. China Institute of Competitive Intelligence, China
  9. Cipher, USA, @CipherSisLLC
  10. CIS, USA, UK, China
  11. Clew, USA
  12. Combs Inc, USA
  13. Competia, Canada/Switzerland, @Competia
  14. DC Analytics, USA
  15. Die Denkfabrik, Germany, @think2know
  16. EMP Intelligence, UK, @Andrew_Pollard_
  17. European Agency, France, @EASI_IE
  18. Fletcher/CSI, USA, UK, @FletcherCSI
  19. Fred Wergeles, USA
  20. Fuld & Co, USA, UK, Philippines, @FuldCompany
  21. Global Intelligence Alliance, Finland HQ, global offices
  22. Helicon Group, USA
  23. I-Intelligence, Switzerland, @i_intelligence
  24. Info+Daten, Germany, @ipd+kg
  25. Inovis, USA
  26. Intelligentsia, UK HQ, global offices
  27. Ivy, Switzerland
  28. Kirk Tyson, USA
  29. MindShifts, Australia, @BabetteBen
  30. Miniera, Spain, @MinieraIC
  31. Nugwa, West Africa
  32. Octopus Intelligence, UK, @Octopusintell
  33. Perpetual Strategist, USA
  34. Proactive Worldwide, USA/China, @PWW
  35. Quantumiii, South Africa, @q3intel
  36. Rauch Associates, USA, UK, @RauchAssociates
  37. RivalScape, USA
  38. Sedulo, USA,
  39. Sharp Market, USA, @SeenaSharp
  40. The Business Intelligence Source, USA, @EllenNaylor
  41. Trinity Square, UK

You may be asking, why are we highlighting our own competitors? There aren't many service providers who cheerfully list their rivals on their websites. Primarily, we maintain this list because it is useful to companies that are looking for a competitive intelligence vendor. For example, most competitive intelligence agencies are relatively small, and their websites may get lost among general business and academic content devoted to competitive intelligence. In any case, competitive intelligence buyers are typically investigative types, who will find relevant agencies soon enough - the above list just saves time. And we like to think of our fellow competitive intelligence companies as healthy competition rather than business threats - there are good reasons why you would choose Aqute, and good reasons why you would choose someone else.

By publishing a list of what competitive intelligence companies are out there, and letting you see the scope of their offers, we are giving you a broader picture of competitive intelligence and how it can help you.

If you would like to find out how Aqute specifically can assist you with competitive intelligence insight, please get in touch with us.