Paul Young of Product Beautiful has a useful piece on The Next Frontier of Finding Prospects.
Everyone is online today, everyone who matters anyway. ... There are Billions of people online, and you must find a few needles in a very large haystack. Thankfully, the tools you need are just a few clicks away.
We've been hearing so much about job hunting and friend finding online that this advice seems almost too obvious. That said, I haven't come across many discussions of using the same services in the hunt for customers, beyond guerilla marketing and word-of-mouth marketing ideas via social media.
Even if your company doesn't have a social media presence, this doesn't mean you can't go hunting for people who might be interested in your products. There is the obvious opportunity to search profiles on just about any website where people post their profiles. But more specifically, I might look for former employees or people working at prospect companies via LinkedIn. Or I might want to search for people that talk about my products, or specific competitor products (on LinkedIn, blogs, Twitter, <pick your social networking service>). Casting a broader net, I might want to search for topics that are related to my product area -- though I have to be careful about forming the right queries, as it's easy to get lots of junk in the results too. Don't forget industry-specific websites that have forums or discussion areas.
As I read through Paul's article and wrote the above, one big barrier pops into my head: it's hard to do this on a regular basis. That is the beauty of things like Web Feeds and email alerts. I've got some regular web feeds that give me status changes from LinkedIn, articles/blogs about my products & competitors products, articles/blogs about my interest areas. Then all I have to worry about is checking my feed reader & email. And the services that don't offer a publicly-searchable space --- they don't get my attention.
The other caveat to this advice is that I am often surprised to find that "everyone is online today" is NOT true. Or at least, they are not online in ways that makes them easily discoverable for this kind of strategy. They don't always talk about their company or their business. The one blogger I was going to track down turns out to be the president of a competitor. For my products, LinkedIn seems to be the best bet.
This is why so many organizations want to build some kind of social media presence. Speaking about our products in a public way gives the company more exposure - standard public relations, right? Adding the social media element gives a more human front end to the company.
p.s. to Paul. Something weird happened in the formatting of that article. There are ASCII characters all over the place. Might want to rebuild it.