If you’re lucky enough to have been on safari, chances are you didn’t start by looking for the ‘Big Five’ in an inner-city car park. You had your target – the lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant, and Cape buffalo – you knew exactly how to identify each, probably by researching them first to check their characteristics, what they look like, how they behave and the times of day they come out.

But once you had this information, you went to the savannah where you knew they’d be most likely to be found. As all life relies on a water source – even the cleverly adapted animals of the Serengeti – your guide probably helped you start your search near a watering hole; at some point or another, the animals you were searching for would have to come here.

This is what we mean when we talk about watering holes in marketing: where are your target audience going to learn more, buy and discuss? Where are you most likely to find them ‘hanging out’? And thus, where do you also need to make sure you’ve got a presence so you can see and hear them? In order to construct detailed, useable buyer personas, you need to consider where they are already sourcing their information.

Without identifying your audience’s watering holes, you’re merely firing content out into the world in the hope that a “lion” might find it. As McLellan Marketing Group puts it:

“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.”

Here, we’ve trawled the internet for the best advice to share with you. We’ve collated three sure-fire ways to discover your buyer personas’ watering holes (and what to do once you know where they are), all in one place to help you get started.

1. Use Google to search (but only when you’re ready)

Stacking the Bricks suggests thinking about how your buyer persona would describe themselves. Don’t just think about their job title – think about their ego, goals and aspirations – how do they see themselves? Don’t just type their job role into Google, take the time to really think about how they view what they do.

“To get unstuck, think about some specific examples of the kinds of people you’re looking for – industry leaders, authors, prominent business owners. 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 of people who hire them. And think about the people who want to get into their field.”

They suggest thinking of between 5-10 terms your persona might use to define themselves and, only then, commit these terms to Google. You’ll soon be able to see which forums, discussion lists, blog comments, Facebook groups, Twitter hashtags and chat rooms it throws out. Read through all of these, and even if a site looks no good – don’t necessarily abandon it at once, Stacking the Bricks recommends:

Customer watering hole advice

The importance of using online searching is also encouraged by New Breed, who explains:

“Knowing how and where your personas engage online enables you to make educated decisions about where you share your content. Additionally, knowing where your personas hang out online can further help you tailor your content strategy. By studying the content they are already engaging with and how they use the social space, you can craft content in formats they're already familiar with and align it to what they're already sharing with their peers.”

What to do next:

Once you’ve found some of these golden nuggets online, you need to become present in these environments, too. Subscribe to blogs and newsletters, join Facebook groups, forums and chat rooms, follow them on Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram. You will need to actually dedicate time to reading the discussions and comments – it’s no good joining groups and receiving collateral, only to ignore it.

You will start noticing themes and patterns emerging about your personas’ pain points (people mainly go online to rant and share experiences!) and this will help you cater your content strategy to them – it’s amazing the amount of ideas you’ll get for content from this method.

2. Track the source of your leads

What does your email database say? What can your social media contacts tell you? The fact that your leads found you through one of your blog posts, a social media post, a link from someone else’s website, or organically can tell you an awful lot about the watering holes your personas are frequenting. Marketer, Angela Raspass offers this advice:

“I encourage you to adopt the golden rule to always track the source of every lead you receive, as this is one of the primary ways of establishing your richest watering holes. Keeping track also allows you to evaluate the effectiveness of the tools and channels you do utilise.”

Lead source data is automatically uploaded in HubSpot, but you can find other platforms which niftily track this information, such as Google Analytics, Salesforce and Convertable. Angela’s point really can’t be emphasised enough – it’s essential to pay attention to where your leads come from: this is diamond data you can’t afford to be missing out on (you can also learn more on her business podcast which is pretty good!)

Customer watering hole advice

You may well open yourself up to some surprising finds; your prospects might be hanging out in some pretty unlikely places online that you simply hadn’t thought of. Like those breadcrumbs Hansel and Gretel left behind them in the woods, lead-source analysis is a clear trail from your site to potential customers, so don’t ignore it.

What to do next:

After probing around in your source data, there might be a few interesting facts kicked up you hadn’t considered: for example, maybe one particular industry blog is regularly linking to your site in their posts, then their readers are clicking through the hyperlink and finding you? Perhaps an unlikely hashtag or repost on Twitter has generated a lot of visits to your site? You should probably say thank you, offer a couple more links you’d like them to use in future (probably to your product pages), and offer them some mentions in return.

Not only does this activity lead to positive working relationships with you peers, opening up opportunities for collaboration in future, but it means you are fully utilising these “cheerleaders,” ensuring future potential customers continue to find you. It also means – if you found interest from an unlikely source – you’ve just opened up a whole wealth of similar sources who may as yet be untapped: go forth and explore this new realm!

3. Ask past and present customers

What can customers themselves teach you about their watering holes? Your circle of influence might be able to help you, too – ask your ex-colleagues, peers and especially your sales team where they find customers online, then use this information to target those places.

Your sales team should be asking how prospects found you (it could be in an email or a field on your forms). If you only seek watering-hole data from one source or team, it’s like you’re only looking at one part of the elephant and assuming you know what the whole thing looks like! We found this interesting guest blog post by Rami Assemi from Smart Host for Close.io where he explained more about this:

Customer watering hole advice

“Implement the question: “How did you hear about us?” into the top of your sales process. We got... this advice a few months [ago] and implemented the question into the bottom of every first email we send to signups. The information we’ve received has been extremely helpful. Since we started adding this line, email responses are up.

Even better, we know that 26% of our signups initially heard about Smart Host from a friend. The interesting thing is that a portion of the 26% got to our website because of a Google search. That’s what the analytics software tells us. But in reality, their friend is what got them to do the Google search in the first place. It’s powerful to know that these conversations are happening, and led to someone signing up for our service.”

It’s what Rami then says his company does with this knowledge which really makes it a valuable point: they then direct their energies into seeding relevant content to the conversation and use influencers in their industry to amplify it – this focus allows their marketing efforts to create more opportunities for conversations to happen.

Not only customers, but other groups can help you open the discussion about where your audience is already going online. Why not try:

  • Taking part in seminars and discussion groups
  • Attending conferences and talks, then networking afterwards
  • Inviting relevant influencers to talk to you about their following.

What to do next:

Regularly update your buyer personas – and encourage your team to help as well (buyer personas are the responsibility of your whole business) – whenever you find out something new about the places they frequent. If you’re too busy, then assign the task of reading these message boards, blogs and groups to someone else in your team, getting them to report their findings back to the sales and marketing teams.

Remember, the purpose of discovering watering holes is not to go and bombard people with your promotions, pitches and pushy content the second you find them – we’ve all been on the receiving end of this and it isn’t pleasant. Discussion boards, social-post comments and knowledge-sharing groups are not places for the hard sell – indeed, this isn’t the inbound way, no matter where you are!

Instead, try to be helpful. Once you’ve found a great watering hole for your potential customer, introduce who you are and post the occasional piece of free advice. Link to a helpful article or blog post (not necessarily by you) which might help solve their problems – be actively seen to educate and help others, not sell to them. Above all though, take note of what they are (and aren’t) saying and fill the gaps or answer their questions in your upcoming content.

Before you know it, the people who have already trailblazed to your site from these watering holes will lead others to you, too.