In a totally made-up poll, 100 out of 100 business people confessed that they’d gladly step into James Bond’s shoes were they but given the chance. That may be comfortably outside the realm of possibility, but a milder sort of espionage may well be within your grasp, if you know a few simple steps to get yourself started.

You may not be crossing international borders or saving the world, but you’ll still be able to gain a few insights about your competitors, their strategy, and their potential weaknesses. There are a lot of ways to do this, but we’ll cover some of the most likely starting points below.

1. Start with a Search

The obvious place to start is with a simple web search for the brand you’re interested in. Right away you’ll probably get a sense of what other brands are in direct competition with them, and by extension, with you. Right away you can make certain inferences about what sort of keywords may have contributed to their rankings.

2. Get Social

During your web search, you’ll also see a number of social media networks featured rather prominently. You’ll be able to tell with minimal effort which ones are valued most highly by the brand you’re interested in. Do they have a Facebook presence? Are they sending Snaps on Snapchat? Not every brand has a presence on every social network. Discovering which ones your competitors have embraced might prove to be fairly instructive.

3. Collect Social Data

You may be surprised at the wealth of information that your competitors’ social presences can reveal to you if you know where to go. One of the most useful pieces of data you can dive into is the number of followers on each of their social pages. How many friends do they have on Facebook? How many followers on Twitter and Google+? Knowing this might actually help to sell you on the efficacy of certain social sites that you might previously have written off. For example: who knew that Google+ was so popular?

Beyond the number of fans, friends, and followers on each social network, you’ll be able to take a look at how active your competitor has been on each site, and draw some conclusions about which types of outreach efforts are having the best impact. For example: how many Tweets are your competitors sending weekly? How many posts on Facebook? More importantly: do their efforts seem to be paying off?

4. Analyze

After you’ve collected your data, you should be on the lookout for any surprises. For the most part, a strong Facebook presence will surprise nobody. What about their activities on relatively newer social sites like Instagram or Google+?

What about the posts themselves? Where do they typically send their followers with their links? Do they consistently link to their main website or their social pages? Are they consistent? Does there seem to be any correlation between the consistency (or lack thereof) of their linking practices on a particular social site versus the brand’s success on that site?

You should also make note of how many individual pages and accounts are used by your competitors. Do they have a single global Facebook page, for example, with pages for different countries or localities? Do they post with more than one account?

While the jury is still out, in some respects, on the practice of associating multiple accounts with a single brand, there might be something to be said for the idea. Different accounts might perform different customer service functions, for example. In any event, you’ll be able to judge for yourself whether your competitors’ use, or lack of, multiple social accounts is working in their favor or not.

5. Appraising Customer Engagement

To a certain extent, the marketing world has arrived at a number of more-or-less universally-accepted truths. Digging into your competitors’ social data may provide a way for you to see these truths in practice, rather than keeping them in the realm of theory.

For example: how well do your competitors’ different types of posts perform, engagement-wise? There’s a very good chance you’ll notice that posts that include photographs have a tendency to outperform posts that do not. What types of photographs are being used, though? Are they straight-up product images? Have they hijacked popular memes to get in touch with a younger crowd? You have the raw data at your disposal to figure out precisely what’s working and what’s not.

One last note on customer engagement: try to determine whether or not the most successful social media campaigns (engagement-wise) also have the largest audiences. The most valuable metric here will probably turn out to be engagement as a percentage of the total audience for a given social site. If you find that your competitors are having a significant amount of success with even modest audiences, it’s time to sit up and pay attention to exactly how they’re doing it.

Parting Thoughts

We’ve touched on a few ideas here that you may already be familiar with, particularly when it comes to which types of content prove most popular, and which social channels are worth investing in. The thing about gleaning information from your competitors is that you can see these ideas play out “in the wild,” if you will; you can watch it happen in real-time.

Seeing this information at work in the world, in a practical way, rather than a theoretical one, might prove invaluable when you’re creating your own social strategies.