Track your competition: Five apps for gathering business intelligence

The ability to stay current with industry developments and analyze competitor performance enables you to make the right business and technology decisions. Here are five apps that will help.

Five apps to help you keep an eye on the competition You can make better business decisions if you follow industry developments and stay on top of what your competitors are doing. Tom Merritt introduces five solid apps that simplify the task.

Whether you're in sales, executive leadership, or working as a junior IT analyst, keeping up with competitive companies is a great idea. Most industries will have innovators, cost-cutters, vanguards, and upstarts, and watching these companies and comparing them to your own will give you a sense of where your company sits on the spectrum, as well as where the industry is headed. An industry vanguard adopting a new technology might give you a clue as to what you'll be asked to implement in 18 months, while a cost-sensitive competitor hiring new employees might indicate rosy times ahead.

Mobile devices are great tools for competitive analysis, allowing you to get a quick read on your industry during a morning commute or a sales call on a customer, where your chair might still be warm from a competitor making a similar visit. Here are five apps that will help you analyze your competitor's performance.

Note: This article is also available as an image gallery and a video hosted by TechRepublic columnist Tom Merritt.

1: Newsle (free, web application) (Figure A) currently exists only as a web service and does not have a mobile app. It's a great tool for keeping informed about your competitors nonetheless. You can enter names of people or have Newsle pull contacts from your network on LinkedIn and Facebook. The site then places articles that mention that person, or are written by that person, in a summary page, with optional email notification.

Figure A

Figure A

If you want to keep up with competitors, suppliers, or industry peers, add a few key executives from each to your Newsle list, and you can easily keep up with the press about those companies.

2: Bing Finance (free, included with Windows 8)

There are heaps of stock tracker applications, but the free Bing Finance that's included in the default installation of Windows 8 is not only pretty but seems to pull from a broad array of news sources, from finance blogs to major newspapers around the world (Figure B). I like that Bing provides a general market view with some key stories and, for each company you add, provides basic stock performance information, relevant news, and several pages of financial performance information, starting with a nice summary of financial metrics that includes an industry comparison.

Figure B

Figure B

The news summary and comparative financial metrics make Bing Finance a great place to research competitors and track them over time.

3: Glassdoor (free app for iOS and Android, paid and free subscription options)

Glassdoor (Figure C) is targeted toward job seekers, but its employee reviews and data provide a great tool for gaining insight into your competitors. The service allows employees to anonymously provide salary information and reviews of their employer, and many of them are quite frank. If you want to see what your competitors are paying their people and get some sense of morale, Glassdoor is a great place to start.

Figure C

Figure C

Like all services that allow public reviews, do be aware that reviews tend to represent the extreme rather than the norm. People who are generally happy with their car, restaurant or, in this case, employer, generally don't go out of their way to post an online review. Temper the insights you get from Glassdoor, especially the horribly negative ones, with a healthy grain of salt.

4: Feedly RSS Reader (free mobile apps/web app)

Really Simple Syndication (RSS) was all the rage during the blogging craze. It's effectively a way to consolidate multiple blogs into a single application called a newsreader. For the hip and trendy, blogging was long ago superseded by social media and Twitter, but most companies still maintain blogs, often with deep insights into product plans and emerging strategies. Some executives even forgo the usual battery of lawyers and handlers and actually post controversial and insightful items to their blogs.

Following dozens of blogs can quickly become a time suck, but using a tool like Feedly (Figure D) lets you consolidate multiple blogs and quickly review a summary before deciding if you want to read the full post. Feedly also synchronizes between web and multiple mobile devices, making it easy to get a quick dose of competitive intelligence.

Figure D

Figure D

I also like following general industry blogs. With the consumerization trend in IT, a quick scan of feeds from sites like Engadget keeps me up to date on board trends along with specific company news.

5: CrunchBase (free web app with third-party mobile apps available)

If your competition is less Fortune 500 and more Silicon Valley startup, (Figure E) is an excellent research tool. CrunchBase allows you to search for public and private tech companies and products and provides information on everything from funding and founders to recent news from companion site TechCrunch. The site also lists a company's primary products and provides contact information. If you want to get the details on that hot new startup, CrunchBase is the right place to start.

Figure E

Figure E

Other favorites?

What apps do you use to keep tabs on your competitors? Share your recommendations with fellow TechRepublic members.

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By Patrick Gray

Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent ...