The internet makes some things frighteningly easy. Trolling, for example.
But the fact it makes research easy is a win for everyone. James Altucher has a post on how research helped him win a deal. I remember when research meant you had to head to the library, look in a card catalog and/or ask a librarian, and skim through books. If you wanted to take the information home, you used to have to check out the book. Some books were too valuable to leave the library, so you had to make photocopies of relevant pages.
That’s all changed, obviously. Now you can research a person or entity without leaving your home, though you still can leverage what libraries provide. And you can research non famous people in far more depth than you ever could in the past. When you meeting with a potential business partner, interviewee, or client, you can google the heck out of them.
The benefit of doing so is twofold.
- You have a better idea of how the person operates and how serious they are at whatever endeavor you are discussing
- You can connect to them and discuss their needs and ideas more intelligently
These are both worthwhile goals and will lead to better outcomes. If you don’t do any research, that sends a message as well–“I don’t care much about this meeting” or “I’m too busy to do any research.” That may be OK, but be aware that you are sending these messages.
So, if you want to do research on someone, how do you go about it?
I’d start with setting a time limit and a goal, otherwise you can get bogged down or sidetracked. An example: “I’m researching this client and want to know their key business goal. I’m going to invest an hour of time in this.” Write this down, and check back in as you do your research to make sure you are heading towards your goal and not down a rabbit hole.
Then, start digging. I used the term “google” above to refer to searching, but I’d suggest using more than one search engine, as they each give a slightly different view of the web, and I’ve definitely had useful results pop up from Bing or Duck Duck Go. If this is a business meeting, LinkedIn connections can be useful.
If the client maintains a blog or social media account, spend some time reading that. You don’t have to read every tweet, but getting a feel for what’s on their mind, especially in recent posts, can be illuminating.
The amount of effort to put into such research depends on how much it will help you and how important the interaction with the research subject is. That is, if you are discussing going into business with someone, research the heck out of them. If you are interviewing for a very interesting job, spend some time. If, instead, this is a random coffee meeting, you may not want to invest any prep time.
You may find something disturbing in your research (a conviction report for example). Integrate this into your decision making process, but be aware that the content may not be accurate, or may not apply to the research subject, or may be far enough in the past to be irrelevant. Also be aware of any discrimination laws that may apply, such as employment laws.
If you find an interesting blog post or article that is relevant to my audience, you can promote it before the meeting (post it to Hacker News or Reddit, tweet it out). Your research subject probably won’t notice, but if you’ve already done the research and found something of value, you might as well share it. And on the off chance they do see the post, they’ll likely be flattered.
When the meeting occurs, feel free to casually mention some of the research. I’ve been on the other side of it (someone read a blog post I wrote and mentioned it in an interview) and I can tell you it was quite a pleasant surprise. And it can be a great starting point for a conversation. But don’t get bogged down in discussing something the person wrote years ago, just use the research you found as a way to connect.
No matter how thoroughly you research someone online, realize that online we are all painting some kind of picture of ourselves. Some people and companies are more transparent than others, but the mere fact that you have to pick and choose what to post means that you’re getting a curated view. Non verbal communication matters too If you’ve done the research, you’re ready to go into that meeting and take the connection and the relationship to the next level.