SME Toolkit offers a primer on Effective Competitive Analysis:
Adapted from content excerpted from the American Express® OPEN Small Business Network
For your small business to succeed, you need to know almost as much about your competitors as you do about your own company and customers. Unfortunately, many small business owners make the mistake of waiting until a competitor has opened up shop across the street and is cutting into profits to find out who and what they're up against.
A competitive analysis allows you to identify your competitors and evaluate their respective strengths and weaknesses. By knowing the actions of your competitors, you will have a better understanding of what products or services you should offer; how you can market them effectively; and how you can position your business.
Competitive analysis is an ongoing process. You should always be gathering information about your competitors. Look at their Web sites. Read their product literature and brochures. Get your hands on their products. See how they present themselves at trade shows. Read about them in your industry's trade publications. Talk to your customers to see how they feel about competitive products or services.