I'm not often called on to do market research, but when it falls into my area of expertise, I'm all over it. Back when I first entered the technology field more than two decades ago, it meant being aware of who the right analysts were (e.g., Frost and Sullivan, Gartner, IDC, et cetera), and then talking to your marketing people to get access to the right research. It also meant being aware of your own market, who your competitors were, and doing some digging.
But how would you find out who the competitors are in a market you don't know quickly? And when you don't have access to the right market research, or even worse, when you are the first person doing that sort of in depth analysis?
The advent of social media makes some of this a lot easier. Want to know who works for the competition? Find someone on twitter that you know works for them, and then traverse their links and their friends links. One of those clusters is likely to be a batch of co-workers. There's a place where you can graph your linked in connections that I don't recall how to find, but what I do remember was that it was a quite accurate reflection of my employment and education history.
Want to know who your competitors are, or the competitors of another business? Find them on linked in. Then find past employees of the organization and then where they are now. There's a pretty good chance (especially in specialized industries) that it will be a competitor. The more specialized the industry, the greater the chance of it being a close competitor.
Want to find out what your competitor is doing technology wise? Have a look at the technology skills of their employees. Do they know anything about technology X? Go look. How many people on twitter mention X in their profile? How many followers do they have? What's their Klout score?
Want to find out how much of your market is using Java vs. .Net? Search for those skills and then filter by companies in your network. Want to know where a competitor has offices? Find out where their employees are.
How big is the company? Easy for publicly held firms, just go check their 10-K. But what about privately held companies? Is that a 200 person company or a single person consultancy? Locate how many people list them in social media. Find their Linked-In page and the answer is right there. If they don't have one, find out how many are on social media, and compare that number to those of similar companies where you do know the size.
Looking at a potential location? How many people in this city (or state or nation) have these skills? The right query and filter will answer that for you. An acquisition? Same question, different filter.
There's an amazing amount of data in those links. Some of it is hard and accurate, others fuzzy and gray.
Use it now while you can, because I'll guarantee that eventually you'll have to pay for it. So get the value out of it while the getting is good.
And remember, anytime someone adds something new to your landscape, understand that there's always something of value that can likely be found underneath, above, inside, beside or behind it. Even rocks deserve looking under.