We all know the feeling: Deadlines are approaching and you need sources. Whether you’re looking for company employees to interview, want to talk to a business’s customers or are hunting for industry executives in a particular geographic region, social media networks are great tools.
There are two basic ways to use them. One is to post a query. Someone among your connections might have a lead, although the chances of seeing your request passed along are pretty small. Another downside: You might also tip off a competitor to your story idea and find them racing to get ahead of you.
And yet, it can work in the right circumstances. When Washington Post reporter David Fahrenthold was focusing on Donald Trump’s philanthropy and its ties to his businesses, he landed some good information via Twitter. Also, a Pulitzer.
Still, I’ve found the better way to go is usually searching on social networks. I’ve found LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter to be most useful.
Not everyone uses it, but many professionals are on the platform, which allows you to search for people with filters. You can use a free account to search, although to cast the widest net you’d need a paid one.
Even though a free search is limited to your direct connections and, in turn, their networks, the numbers can add up. Pick a location, a current employer, previous employer, industry, location or a combination to find people who can further your research. Because there are limitations on contacting people you don’t know, check their current place of business to find them. I remember this technique working remarkable well when I had to write a controversial piece about a major tech company. The firm wasn’t going to put me in touch with employees, so I found people who had previously worked there via LinkedIn. If you need to dig further, you can pony up for a month’s paid membership and broaden your results.
It’s simple to search for types of companies on Facebook. For example, by typing “industrial machining Detroit” into the search box, I quickly found multiple companies in that city. I could also have chosen a date and limited my search to posts published over a specific time period.
When it comes to locating people in specific professions, you’re more limited because users rarely reveal many details about employment. But if you need to track down a particular person or business, the search function is at least worth trying. Reaching them can be tricky. If you send a message to someone you’re not connected to, it lands in a category called Message Requests that many people (maybe most) rarely, if ever, check. There’s also the issue of many people having set their profiles to private, so you won’t come across them.
Although some people make their Twitter accounts private, public accounts are much more common. You can search on Twitter, or use Google to combine the word “twitter” with the name of a person or a particular topic. Plus, you can send a public message to anyone on Twitter; some have accounts set up so you can deliver a private message as well.
Remember the power of hashtags (a word or phrase following a # sign). Used by millions to add a comment or to reference a bigger trend, hashtagging a person (#yellen) or term (#bitcoin) can help narrow down a potentially large list of accounts to a smaller and more relevant number. You may also find that users christen events, companies or people with a specific hashtag (#pinkmarch), which you can use to find people commenting on it.
Don’t feel stuck with these three. Yelp can lead you to consumers who use local businesses. YouTube is a way to see what companies are saying about themselves, and what consumers think. Instagram, SnapChap, Foursquare—whatever the social medium, consider its nature and how it could be used for your story.