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Welcome to the newest installment of our weekly blog series, Ethical Questions for Marketers. Each week we plan to introduce a new topic and explore it in detail, preparing marketers for the day when they face such a problem at their organization.

Last week’s topic was Price Wars.

This week’s topic: Competitor Spying

As a marketer, you always want to be aware of what your competitors are doing. Your goal is to stay one step ahead of them as you compete for eyeballs, attention, and dollars.

Most companies have someone on the team, or a third-party service they pay to keep an eye on the competition – to report on pricing and offers, changes in positioning, advertising, etc.

The question today relates to how far that kind of competitive analysis should go. Some companies will secretly shop their competition, learning everything they can about the customer experience, asking questions, completing purchases, using the product. This is an extremely helpful way of gaining valuable information you can only get by interacting with the company.

If I asked you whether or not it was okay for your company to engage in this kind of behavior, you’d likely say that it was. But if I asked you how you’d feel if your competitor was doing this to you, you might flinch.

There are some companies that might feel pressured to take this another step further. You might make an offer to buy, or merge with, or engage in a joint venture with your competitor in order to get them to reveal detailed strategic and financial information. When done in good faith this is fine. If it’s just a ploy to gather information, not so much.

So the question is, how much spying is acceptable? The best way to determine the ethical limits for your company is to think about what you would want your competitors doing to you. At the point you would be uncomfortable with their activity, draw a line for your own company.