There are only two ways to make a successful product:
- Make a bunch of things and see what sticks, or
- Offer an eager customer something they already need, want, and are willing to buy
That first approach — called “validation” — is popular because it’s so easy to get started, even though it’s hit-or-miss. There’s a reason we say that validation is backwards.
The second approach takes more work up-front, for a greater chance of success:
- First, you find your audience online — wherever they naturally gather
- Next, you analyze your audience’s behaviors — what they say (or don’t say), why they do (or don’t do) things, and why they buy (or don’t buy) things
- Then you can predict their behaviors
- And that means you can create an opportunity for them to perform an action that they’re already inclined to take (read your content, subscribe to your list, buy your product)
We’ve spent years developing a research technique that helps you develop deep insight and epic wins.
We call it Sales Safari.
When you go on Safari, you systematically mine the gold from the forums, discussion lists, blog comments, subreddits, Facebook groups, Twitter hashtags and chat rooms where your audience gathers to ask, complain, rant, rave, share, and lurk for knowledge.
Find your audience, and their actions will tell you what they need, want, and are ready to buy.
What if you can’t find your audience?
We hear from readers and students: “My audience is unique - I’m pretty sure they don’t hang out online” or “All of the places I’ve found are full of very specific questions. No real discussion.”
And yet, every time I’ve gotten this email it’s taken me less than 5 minutes of Google-fu to find at least one decent watering hole. Amy’s even better, faster, than I am. So clearly this isn’t a game of “exists/doesn’t exist.” It’s a game of knowing how to look. Yes, Googling is a skill.
So what do you do if the places your audience hangs out aren’t very good for discovering pain?
How can you systematically find new watering holes to study your audience?
Here are three battle-tested techniques for finding even the most elusive communities on the internet:
- Technique #1 - Brainstorm how your audiences describes themselves
- Technique #2 - Dig deeper with industry-specific jargon, tools, and techniques
- Technique #3 - The “lateral” search
Technique #1 - Brainstorm how your audiences describes themselves
You might get lucky and find a watering hole or two on your first try. Most people start their search with a couple of terms to describe the audience itself and then…stop if they don’t find anything on the first or second page.
If you find yourself in this situation, you’re going to need to try a range of different terms.
But as you’ve probably experienced, staring at an empty search box isn’t exactly great for inspiring the prefect search terms.
So before you even go to Google, brainstorm as much audience-describing jargon as you can.
Lots of people get stuck at this step because they’re only searching for job titles. Or just one job title, instead of the wide range of potential ways the job (and the person doing it) could be described.
To get unstuck, think about some specific examples of the kinds of people you’re looking for - industry leaders, authors, prominent business owners etc. Think about the specific terms they use to describe themselves amongst their peers, and how others refer to them. Think about the way they describe their work itself, and how that could translate into a title. Think about the kinds people who hire them. And think about the people who want to get into the field.
Start writing the terms you’re thinking of. Let them flow out onto the paper! You can always organize and edit later.
It’s a good idea to come up with different levels of specificity and even similar adjacent titles, for example:
- programmers, web developers, python developers, django developers
- writers, copywriters, bloggers, editors
- designers, interface designers, product designers
Try coming up with at least 5-10 different ways that your audience could refer to itself. Write them down in a notepad so you can reference them again in the future, and add more to your search arsenal as you go.
Once you have a list, then you can head to Google.
Use the list of keywords in our list of 21 Watering Hole search terms below along with the audience names you came up with, and click through all of the links that come back on the first couple of pages of results, opening each one in a new tab. Then go through each one to evaluate its usefulness!
Tip: Don’t prematurely bury “dead” watering holes
Before you write off a watering hole as “dead”, take a look around. What else can you learn before you leave?
Before you close the tab on a search result that you’ve deemed “not a good watering hole” take a moment to look around, and maybe even click around.
- Does the site have any other “platforms” besides the one you landed on? e.g. If you find the forum, do they also have a blog? Are they on Twitter or Instagram where you can follow them and see what they post?
- Are there any new links you can follow to other industry-relevant sites? Follow the links!
- Can you find names of people who you might be able to search for and find active or even referenced from other watering holes? Jot them down!
- Is there any new jargon you can “remix” into your searches (this will be useful with Technique #2)
Even a now abandoned watering hole will often have “clues” for where everybody went. Follow those clues!
Technique #2 - Dig deeper with industry-specific jargon, tools, and techniques
Every industry has it’s own “special” vocabulary.
Tools and processes help you get your job done faster, more efficiently, and in some cases at all. But the names of those tools and processes are also useful for finding people using them.
Terms and acronyms act as “shortcuts” within industry discussions. But those same terms and acronyms are also useful for finding the people who are using those terms.
Catch my drift?
If you can build a quick “dictionary” of terminology that’s specific to your industry, you can start using that to surface industry discussions.
Searching for tools that your audience uses
Get started by brainstorming tools that your audience uses. What stuff do they buy? What stuff do their employers give them to do their jobs? Where do they buy it?
Here’s some examples to spark your memory if you’re in a creative industry, but you can easily extrapolate this to just about any industry:
- software (desktop, mobile, command line, servers and hosted services)
- hardware (not just electronic hardware - accessories, add-ons, and axillary “stuff” that people use to do their work)
- popular books, magazines, and other reference material
- conferences and other educational events
Brainstorm as many tools as you can. You can always come back and add more to your list!
Searching for jargon your audience uses
Industry jargon can include any terms, phrases, or acronyms that get flung around among coworkers.
Jargon can be slippery, because as an insider, jargon is often “invisible” thanks to the Curse of Knowledge. And if you aren’t an insider, what may appear to be a regular term (“cloud”) can actually be jargon (“cloud computing”, “evaporating cloud diagram”).
But, with a little applied effort, you can still brainstorm jargon to plug into your Watering Hole searches:
- How does your audience describe their problems?
- Are there special names for popular “techniques” or methodologies?
- How does your audience describe their customers? (e.g. clients, subscribers, members, etc)
- Do they have any special processes that they use? (Getting Things Done, Test Driven Development, “Inbox Zero”)
- What other professional roles do they interact with (junior, senior, supporting roles, etc). Who else is involved in their decisions, their buying, their approvals?
Don’t be afraid to get super specific with your jargon!
Bonus: collecting jargon is a part of Sales Safari itself, which means that as you do more Safari you’ll have a never-ending source of jargon you can plug into searches to find new watering holes.
Technique #3 - The “lateral” search
Sometimes you’ll need to get more creative with your audience search.
“Lateral thinking” is a technique for following indirect paths to a result. By side-step the immediate search, you’re able to gather more info that can illuminate new options and even new conclusions.
Confused? This technique is easiest to understand with an example.
We have a student who is a private pilot. He already had a site that was geared towards people who owned (or co-owned) jets for business and charter use.
But he got stuck when trying to identify potential watering holes. “I can’t find a forum for uber-wealthy jet owners.” No surprise there, since “wealthy jet owner” isn’t a job title and people typically don’t go around describing themselves in that fashion.
My suggestion: Side step the problem and think laterally.
Uber-wealthy people probably don’t hang out online talking about being uber-wealthy, but you can definitely find pockets of people whom you can infer are uber-wealthy from the topics they’re talking about. People who talk about the luxury products and services they have, or want.
Note: For some elite audiences/watering holes, you might discover that you need to know someone, gain a personal invitation, or even pay a membership fee for access. They may be hard to get into, but that just means you’ll have yet another advantage under your belt.
If you’re drawing a total blank and need a starting point, you can reach out to trusted contacts to see if there is anywhere they go online to get help or solve problems. Or if they don’t already… where might they try?
All it takes is one good clue to get you started on this path.
Note: Remember that you’re not accessing these watering holes to sell to them. You’re going to lurk and study and figure out how you can participate in a way that’s helpful.
If you start with other topics that your audience cares about, and follow the other techniques in this article, you can sleuth out those discussions.
There are other ways to think laterally about your audience to figure out where you can find them online.
In the example of the uber-wealthy:
- Where do people who are newly/recently wealthy go for advice? What do they do, or stop doing? What new mistakes do they make? What new kinds of problems do they have?
- Who else besides private pilots do wealthy people hire? Think house staff, drivers, assistants, etc.
- What else do jet owners buy (or lease, or subscribe to)? Think maintenance contracts, places to park, rights to take off at certain airports, etc.
- What do the uber-wealthy read, watch, and listen to? If there are magazines, TV shows, or other content geared at this audience, you can start inferring things about them from what those content providers produce (because they’re already successfully selling it).
These questions can lead you to other products and services, which can lead you to new jargon, which you can use to dig up discussions and watering holes.
Each step of the way, you can try plugging the jargon and phrases you find into Google in different combinations along with our handy set of watering hole terms.
It does take time, patience, and practice
Honestly, the hardest part of these exercises is that you’ll feel lost up until the moment where you don’t feel lost anymore.
Your best result might not on the first or even second page of Google results. You might find 20 dead ends before you find a promising source.
You’ve gotta keep going.
Remember to jot down notes as you find new jargon and terms. Treat every note as a clue that can lead you to the answer you want.
Approach it systematically. Your audience is out there!