It is not only allowed but highly recommended to watch the competitors - analyze their business model, online presence, weakness, and advantages. For new companies that can help identify a unique niche and positioning on the market. More established companies can also benefit from following competitors and industry trends to keep improving. There are many different methodologies and online tools that can help you conduct a detailed market analysis. There are also less conventional ways to “spy” on the competition.
A little bit of research creativity does not hurt.
But how far is too far? We looked at some examples that are ethical, unethical, and placed in the gray area.
Using competitors' websites for educational/inspirational purposes?
It is a common practice to browse competitors’ websites to outline common practices, and find inspiration. If you are in the process of developing your company branding or a website you need to provide your designers with references. And finding competitors’ visual identities you like and do not like, can help bring more certainty to a quite subjective task. That does not mean that you will copy any of the elements, you will simply establish a direction that will be developed in an individual and authentic way.
This brings us to the next point.
Copying style/texts/designs directly from competitors hoping they will never find out?
Very very unethical, and also quite illegal.
Plagiarism by itself is an unethical practice, but not a crime on its own. However, theft of Intellectual Property is one. A lot of small companies might not go after you legally for stealing their IP, however, it is easy to punish someone in the online space, and your reputation might never recover.
A funny situation happened to one of our clients. They once ended up in their competitor’s advertisement target. They’ve noticed that the copy and visuals were stolen from their original ads (with some minor edits here and there). If you think about it, their competitors paid for them to see their content being stolen :)
Purchasing products from competitors to check their customer journey?
Nothing wrong with buying products from your competitors. You can experience their customer journey first-hand. You can try out their product, learn about their communication strategy, offline store experience, shipping, and delivery terms. However, unless we are talking about large companies and corporations, we suggest using an alternative email and sending a friend to a store to make a purchase. No one likes to be feeling watched. And you do not want to be caught in innocent corporate espionage.
Booking a meeting with a competitor pretending to be a potential client/partner/investor to gain confidential information?
This will not be officially considered illegal. However, it is considered shady and borderline unethical. Creating an imaginary persona to gain information that is not available online can also backfire and damage your reputation. Imagine, if you get caught. This will not do any favors to your company’s reputation. On top of that, you will also be wasting somebody’s time, which is not nice. Time is money, y’all.
Sending off your friend to work at a competitor's company to gain access to their private information?
If you do put this elaborate plan into action, please, do share the stories afterward :)
Using 3rd party tools that provide information on competitor online behavior?
There are great tools like SEMrush, Mailcharts, Crayon, etc that can help you track the digital presence of your competition and help you measure your rankings and performance against them.
Hacking competitors' websites/emails?
LOL. UNETHICAL and illegal.
In short, if a competitor’s information is public, you have every right to it.
Also, we highly recommend not seeing your competitors as rivals. There are times when your competitors will be too busy to take on a client or they come across someone who is not the right fit for them, and they may want to refer this person to you. Also, you can learn from each other, and with a joint effort move your industry further. If you find yourself threatened by competition, there is a chance that a market you’re competing in is not large enough, or your product does not have a competitive advantage. In other cases, a little bit of competition is a good thing, it keeps us all improving and evolving.