Should You Spy on Your Competition?

Spy movies are great for entertainment.

I love how the excitement and suspense builds up as the main characters investigate the case. Typically, the main characters monitor, or observe, the suspects in the case in order to learn everything that they can about what the suspects are doing. They often endanger their lives in numerous ways just to learn a little bit more than they did before.

Does the same strategy work for a freelancers? Should we be monitoring our competitors to learn what they are doing?

In today’s wired world, nearly everyone is connected in some way. It’s fairly easy to read a competitor’s blog or even to discover how well said blog is doing in terms of popularity using free Internet tools. Social media provides another venue through which a freelancer can learn about his or her competitors. Most freelancers are active in one or more forms of social media.

However, just because we can monitor our freelancing competitors, does that mean that we should? Is it healthy for us to spy on the competition?

Some business specialists would suggest that the answer is “yes.

Many large corporations monitor their business competition to ensure that their own company remains competitive. Often store managers are required to learn what other stores in the same geographic area charge. A car dealer may try to offer the same incentives as his/her local competitors’.

I’d like to suggest, though, that there is a healthy way to monitor your freelance competition and an unhealthy way to monitor your competition. Freelancers should embrace the healthy method of monitoring the competition and avoid the unhealthy method.

Unhealthy Monitoring of Competition

An unhealthy way to monitor your competition is to focus on one or two individual competitors. It’s also unhealthy (and an invasion of privacy) to try to learn more than what your competitor has posted publicly for customers and colleagues to see.

I shouldn’t have to say it, but I will. Leaving trollish comments at a competitor’s blog or website is also unhealthy.

One reason that it’s not good to focus on a single freelance competitor (or a small group of competitors) is that a particular freelancer’s experiences may not be reliable. He or she may be in a unique situation, or they may not be telling the truth online.

There is a better way to stay informed about the competition in your freelancing field.

Healthy Monitoring of Competition

A better way to stay informed about the competition in your field is to look for general trends in your specialty.

For example, if you notice that one freelancer starts bundling certain services together, it probably doesn’t mean much of anything. However, if you notice that most freelancers in your field bundle certain services together, then you may have spotted a trend.

If you do spot a general trend, then you will need to evaluate whether or not your own business should follow that trend. Not all trends will benefit all freelancers.

Looking for industry trends among your competitors can be a time-consuming process. Before something can be considered a trend, a large number of freelancers need to have adopted it (or be indicating that they are planning to adopt it).

As an individual freelancer, you probably don’t have time to study large groups of your competitors. One way to find out about trends, of course, it to purchase a professional study about your field. These studies can be quite expensive.

Fortunately, there is an easier way to spot trends. Simply look to the leaders in your freelancing field. Often, they report on or are early adopters of industry trends.

A Word About Industry Leaders

Most freelancing fields have a handful of industry leaders whose blogs and social media inputs are followed by nearly everyone in that field.

You probably already know who the industry leaders are for your freelancing field. They are the must-follow online players in your specialty. When one of these leaders writes a blog post (or tweets, or diggs, or stumbles), people pay attention.

You can learn a lot by reading tips from industry leaders. You should also be aware, however, that the experiences of an industry leader with a particular product or technique might not reflect your own experiences with that product or technique.

Often, industry leaders are so popular and highly regarded that their participation in a particular program will succeed where the participation of a less popular freelancer would fail.

What Have You Learned From Your Competition?

I’ve learned a lot by reading the blogs of top freelance writers and bloggers. One of the most important things that I’ve learned is to keep trying and not give up.

What do you spy on your competition? Learn anything juicy (valuable)?