Note: Upon her indictment on federal money laundering charges and her arrest February 8, 2022, Inc. dismissed Heather Morgan as a contributing columnist. As is our practice, we do not unpublish editorial content, and rather have added this note for full transparency.

Any good journalist will tell you that sources are their most vital asset. Real reporting wouldn't exist without the countless individuals, journalists contact each day, and more often than not, the biggest stories are the result of hours upon hours spent compiling details on these sources.

In the same way, most sales experts and trainings will tell you that researching your prospect is essential. Nobody wants to look like a fool in a meeting by not knowing the other person's job title or any key industry accomplishments. But to really play the role of your customer, it's useful to take a cue from the journalists and research beyond the job title. I call this "e-stalking," and here are some tips from journalism I've found very effective for getting better results from sales prospecting.

1. Question Everything to Create a Profile

Journalists have many reasons to compile thorough background info on a source, like checking for accuracy and building rapport.

Start by asking yourself what you know about your lead already and what you need to find out. What industry are they in? If your lead is the director of marketing at a luxury-clothing company, you need to adjust your pitch to include details and lingo that are relevant to his or her area. Don't just recycle that pitch you gave last week to the president of an automotive firm.

On a similar note, what's the size of their company? A luxury-clothing company has a different set of priorities than an independently owned boutique label, just like a startup operates with a different set of rules than a Fortune 500 company.

Other questions about their work can include pain points their industry faces, what the company's priorities are, who their competitors are, and if they've raised any recent funding.

Don't stop with their work life, though. Journalists typically try to find anything and everything out about their sources, walking a fine line between thorough and creepy. The same goes for sales leads. Find out where they like to vacation, who they want to win the World Series, what time they wake up in the morning, their eating and drinking preferences. You may never use all of this information, but you also never know when it could come in handy.

2. Use Social Media

LinkedIn is the obvious place to start, assuming your prospective customer has it. Look at their "Skills section" to get an idea of their expertise. This part of their profile often can give clues as to what the tools they use on a day-to-day basis.

Take 30 seconds to comb their profile for relevant keywords, too. You'll learn a lot about their priorities this way, as well as what's trending in their industry. Seeing phrases like "data visualization" or "data analysis" on 8 of 10 marketing director profiles to see tells you that's an important area to this particular title.

Watch how much time you spend on this step of the process. Social media e-stalking is entertaining and even fascinating, but it's only one part of your job. You need to be able to do fast research in a reasonably short amount of time, say 5-7 minutes per social network.

3. More Ways to Research Your Prospects

If you're trying to sell to a crowded or competitive market, or you have a limited number of prospective customers with a high lifetime value, you must go above and beyond with your sales research. On top of LinkedIn, check out your buyers' Twitter handles (if they have them), and see who they follow and the types of articles they share and retweet.

Here are a few other places you can use for mining information about your buyers:

  • Blogs: If your contact has their own blog, or even blogs on a platform like Medium, this is an excellent source of information. You can even kick off a cold email by referencing a recent article they wrote.
  • Interviews and quotes: Depending on the person's job and industry, you could find articles where they're interviewed or quoted. Like the blog posts, you can also use these as potential sources for interesting hooks.
  • Job posts: If your prospective customer doesn't have much of a presence online or on social media, you can always look at job posts for similar roles. These will give you a better idea about their responsibilities, what will get them promoted or fired, and so on.

Sometimes you can even reach out to your mutual connection and ask them for an introduction to the person you're trying to reach. Usually, when I do this I even include a draft of an email that they can send to the contact I want an introduction to, in order to make it easier for them. That said, don't assume that your mutual connection has a close relationship with this contact, and don't put excessive pressure on them to make a request if they don't feel comfortable.

4. Everyone's a Source

In journalism, anyone can be a potential source, even if it isn't the most obvious initial connection. This is a really useful tip to keep in mind when you're tracking down leads. You may be trying to connect with a CEO, but chances are, that person has a full calendar and an overflowing inbox. While it's always a good idea to go straight to the source, don't discount the folks nearby. A manager who reports to the CEO might be able to connect you to their boss a lot faster than you could alone.