I am able to access free whitepapers etc but i haven't been in the market long enough to know really what I am competing with to improve my positioning and competitive advantage. How can I access the real details about my competitors strengths weaknesses prior to just going out there and seeign waht happens when we are in the market?
This question is so broad that it is impossible to give any useful answer. I'd say search online for product of service similar to yours and start learning about your competition. Usually it doesn't take long before you can tell who the main players are and what you're going dealing with.
Industry related bulletin boards and forums is another good place to start.
Yeah, its a broad question, but it is a good one. I have cried over this dilemma more than once.
Where do my competitor's advertise?
What trade shows do they go to?
How much is there product?
Who are they selling to?
Which products are their most successful?
And on and on.
I don't think that there is anyway to know all of this in advance. Especially not for free. For one thing, a lot of this stuff is trade secret and confidential and you really shouldn't know it.
Some of it, though, like advertising and pricing, is usually available if you are tenacious enough. If you are going into a market, you should have some idea of who your customers are going to be. If you can't list 10 of them, you need to rethink the whole "going into business thing".
Once you know who the customers are, your next goal is to get a meeting with them. I have seen several approaches. If you are developing a product that they might want, you might be able to form an advisory board with some of these customers on it. Or if you have a demo ready, setup a Webex or on-site demo. However you can, get in front of the customer.
Once you are there, your main goal is intelligence gathering. Who are they using now? What products are they using? What is the pricing model for the products? What does the customer like about the product and what do they hate. In my experience, customer's will generally give this information up.
When you are done, you have killed several birds with one stone. First, you have your intelligence. Second, you are building brnd awareness by putting yourself in front of customers. Third, you are getting an idea who you can sell to and what you will make.
This information is much better than if you try to glean it from whitepapers and such. Remember that anything a company produces will paint it in its best light. Customers, however, will give you a more realistic, if not pessimistic, view of the company and/or product.
Hope this helps.