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By James Mullan


Are you using Google or proprietary software to undertake business, client or competitor intelligence? If you are, but you're budgets are being squeezed then you might want to think about how you can use open source and free tools as part of your intelligence arsenal.


Are you using Google or proprietary software to undertake business, client or competitor intelligence? If you are, but your budgets are being squeezed, then you might want to think about how you can use open source and free tools as part of your intelligence arsenal.

The idea of using free and open source tools to undertake business and other intelligence gathering isn't new; we've been using Google and similar tools to search for news and information for years. Whilst this will continue, what has become apparent in the last few years is that there are a number of other tools that information professionals can use to undertake research on companies, their products and news that the company is generating.

However before you start using these tools, you need to think carefully about what you're trying to achieve. You might just be trying to identify what a company is saying; you could also be trying to ascertain what customers are saying about a particular company and its products. Or you might be interested in what third parties have to say about a company and its product. Each of these objectives requires a different approach and valildation that what you're trying to find out is attainable using open source and free tools.

One of the most obvious tools individuals could use is Twitter. Companies will often use Twitter to tell customers what they're doing, any issues they might be having and future plans. Products may also have an account on Twitter, both to engage with customers, to resolve any issues they have and to announce new developments. Finally, individuals working at companies you're interested in may also have Twitter accounts. These individuals might include Product Managers and Sales Teams. You can follow or review any of these sources to see what they're saying. Tools like WeFollow and Listorious can help find these individuals.

The major issue with Twitter is the sheer volume of information being generated. So if you're going to use Twitter seriously, then you're going to have to use a Twitter management tool like Tweetdeck or Hootsuite to organise the Tweets you're seeing.

Also 140 characters won't mean anything in isolation. To get the most from Twitter, you need to follow accounts for a while to understand the content of Tweets.

Another way you can use Twitter is to develop sector knowledge. A good starting point for this use case is the blog post "Using Twitter to develop sector knowledge" from the Organising Chaos blog.

Another tool proving popular for anyone trying to find out more about a company is LinkedIn. Perhaps the biggest draw are the LinkedIn company pages, which can provide a lot of information about a company including number of employees, new hires, recent promotions and profiles of popular LinkedIn users. The related company's page is also worth looking at for information on subsidiary companies that are listed on LinkedIn and more information about employees.

LinkedIn can also be a source of information via the profile pages of employees at companies, although you'll only see a small amount of information on a public profile. Groups on LinkedIn as well as the Questions and Answers section can also be useful places for finding information that a company or individual working for a company you're interested in has posted.

Two other tools that are worth mentioning are Quora and Slideshare. Quora is a Question and Answer application which relies on individuals (crowdsourcing) to both create and answer questions. Quora is similar to LinkedIn Answers in that on both platforms, individuals post answers because they want to demonstrate their expertise. It can be a useful way to identify what companies might be interested in, via questions, and what they're working on, via answers.

Slideshare, which recently announced that it had been purchased by LinkedIn, is another useful tool for competitive and business intelligence. Many companies will upload presentations to Slideshare, which discuss how they see products developing or other future trends. The best thing about Slideshare is that in most case you can download the entire presentation.

The development of applications like Twitter, Quora and Slideshare has meant that more and more information on companies is freely available. Gathering this information efficiently should be a priority for anyone involved in business or competitive intelligence, especially in the straightened times we work in.

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James Mullan has worked in the legal sector since 2001. He is an advocate of social media tools and has been talking about how these tools can be used by information professionals and organisations since 2005. James is a Past President of BIALL and in 2009 won the Wildy-BIALL Law Librarian of the year award for his use of social media tools. Outside of work James is a keen runner and maintains his own blog called "The Running Librarian". You can follow James on Twitter @jamesmullan6 or friend him on Facebook.

James can be reached at

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