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Cat with large ears.

Image by John Morton

Just like a real conversation, it’s better to start off by listening to what other people are saying, to get a feel for them and their interests. Even at a business networking event, you wouldn’t start a conversation I launching into a sales pitch (would you?). It’s only polite to start off by listening and ask questions about the other person.

There are lots of great tools that allow you to listen into conversations online and gain information that will be priceless for your marketing.

The flow of conversation
When you join a social network like Facebook or Twitter and start to make friends, you will automatically start to receive updates from them. Take time to just read through these updates, to get a sense of how people interact on these networks. Notice who you find most engaging, who you’d like to spend more time talking to — and who is most annoying!

If you publish content on a blog, Flickr, YouTube etc then you have a golden opportunity to engage with your audience via the comments sections. I’ve lost count of the number of friends and contacts I’ve made by giving and receiving comments on blogs. And comments can give you valuable market research. E.g. if you are thinking of developing a new range of table decorations, you could start posting images of some of your prototypes on your website, to see which are most popular with your audience. Their feedback could help you refine your designs and better meet your customers’ needs.

Google is the obvious place to start, but there are other great search tools out there that can help you research your market and audience — as well as keep an eye on what people are saying about you.

Google Alerts — Here you can ask Google to let you know every time someone mentions a particular phrase (such as your name, your company name, or the type of product you sell). Once you’ve set up the alert, you will receive an automatic e-mail from Google containing the relevant links.

Google Blog Search — Great for finding out who is blogging in your niche. E.g. if you make beautifully designed luxury goods, you might want to make friends with prominent design bloggers like Swissmiss, who regularly feature elegantly designed products.

Twitter Search — real-time search that tells you what people are saying right now about your chosen topic. E.g. this search result tells me what people are saying about my website Lateral Action right now.

Backtweets — similar to Twitter search, except it tells you every time someone links to your website from Twitter, whether they mention the site’s name or not. E.g. here are the links to www.lateralaction.com on Twitter right now.

Clearly, you can’t spend all day every day searching in these different places. But you don’t have to. Mike Sansome offers a great tutorial on how to Search Once and Subscribe — so that these search results are automatically delivered to you in an RSS reader. (RSS seems complicated at first, but once you get your head around it, it’s a wonderful tool. See my what is RSS? page. I recommend Google Reader as an easy-to-use free service.)

Once you’ve got the hang of subscribing to searches in an RSS reader, I recommend you create a ‘Vanity Folder’ to monitor mentions of your name and your company name on the work. It’s not really vain – it’s important to know what people are saying about you, so that you can build on the positive and deal with any criticism. See Darren Rowse’s guide to creating a vanity folder and David Airey’s article When Vanity Is Good for Business.

Keyword Searches
Aaron Wall’s keyword research tool allows you to see how often people are searching for specific words or phrases on the major search engines. The more people are searching for a particular term, the more potential customers are out there for you. E.g. a search for ‘website design’ shows that about 3,000 people are searching for it on the major search engines every day, making it a large but very competitive market.


Finding your audience

1. Who are you trying to reach?
As well as customers, try to think of influential people in your industry, who could help you.

2. Using the tools above, start searching and ‘listening in’ to find answers to the following questions:

Where do they hang out online?
What are they looking for?
What problems are they trying to solve?
What are they saying about you? And your competitors?

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