We all have our favorite hangouts online, not just the large social media sites but blogs, forums, and specific Facebook and LinkedIn Groups. Marketers call these "watering holes." The idea is to find your customers' watering holes so you can learn more about them and engage them—without appearing pushy, of course.
By hanging out at your customer's watering hole, they become a person you're having a conversation with, not a crowd you are shouting at
For expert advice to help you find your customers' watering holes, we spoke with Orun Bhuiyan. He is a "marketing technologist" with SEOcial, a company that helps its clients understand and strategically communicate "to the hearts and minds of their audience."
Water holes humanize you
Before we get into Bhuiyan's advice, we wanted to provide more background on this concept of "watering holes." It's not a new one. In doing research for this article we came across a website called Drew's Marketing Minute. Back in 2007, Drew discussed the topic.
"You're on a photo safari. You want to get a great shot of the elusive white tiger. Where do you go? How about where the tigers hang out? Where is their watering hole? Odds are pretty good that if you hang out where the tigers hang out, you'll get that shot," he writes. "The same is true of your customers. Want to have access to them? Go where they go. Walk their walk. Talk their talk. By hanging out at your customer's watering hole, they become a person you're having a conversation with, not a crowd you are shouting at."
Today you have lots of strategies and tools at your disposal to locate your customers. Bhuiyan shared his four most effective market research techniques. These techniques, he says, are great for new e-commerce sites as well as older ones "in need of a boost."
Our expert suggests you start by creating a "client avatar." And, no, you don't need the likes of a Hollywood animation studio for this. The idea is to "give your perfect customer a name and imagine everything, from their income to the names of their kids to their favorite cereal. What do they do with their time online?" Bhuiyan says.
As you find yourself brainstorming about your customers' lives, you'll find it much easier to imagine how they behave on the Web, as well as the best ways to engage with them, he adds.
Imagine what questions your customers are asking as a tool to find their watering holes
Google can help
Yes, Google is still relevant here, and it can certainly help you identify where your customers gather. But you can glean better information from your Google searches if you use old-school Boolean logic.
Bhuiyan explains how to do this by using the example of someone selling kitchen products. In this case, he says, you might use a search term like "cooking"+("forum" or "forums" or "blog" or "blogs"). Google will then serve up the best cooking forums, blogs, or lists of forums and blogs.
Search for questions
We were curious when our college-aged daughter told us once how she uses Google. Instead of typing in search terms, like we usually did, she simply types in a question. She was onto something. Bhuiyan suggests you do the same.
"Imagine what questions your customers are asking as a tool to find their watering holes," he suggests. Let's go back to our example. When you are researching kitchen products, Bhuiyan advises you to try searching for things like, "how to slow ripen fruit" or "best ways to use plastic wrap." The sites that Google shows you in response are where your potential customers visit.
Check out the competition
Here is where new tools come into play. "Your best competitors have probably already attracted some of your audience right from their watering holes," he notes. "You can analyze their inbound links using a link index like Moz's Open Site Explorer. [It] will list all the links to your competitor's site. Many of these will not only indicate where your audience congregates, but how to mention your product in a non-intrusive manner."
Bhuiyan also uses Majestic, Ahrefs and a free backlink analyzer at Backlink Watch.
The key is to keep your conversations about the customer, about their world
Now, as we've said, when you find these watering holes you have to tread carefully. Don't be the guy in the 1970s-era plaid suit screaming, "Buy from me, buy from me!" Yes, you should post comments and sign your post with a link to your items. But be careful.
"Make sure your input doesn't look like an advertisement by contributing to relevant conversation, being objective or simply asking people for their opinion on your products," Bhuiyan says.
He advises going to every relevant Web forum you can find, interacting with the audience and asking them what they think of your products. This is OK because you're simply asking for some help, not saying "buy my product."
"The links you create through this kind of campaign won't just help you in SEO, they'll drive genuine leads even for an e-commerce site that just launched," Bhuiyan notes.
Don't be shy about interacting with potential customers. Cindy Alvarez, author of Lean Customer Development, tells us that engaging potential customers "is not that hard."
"People are eager to talk about the things they care deeply about, the problems they are trying to solve," she explains. "The key is to keep your conversations about the customer, about their world."