My Product Management Toolkit (45): Sales Safari

If you feel that doing customer interviews might not give you the learnings that you’re looking for or that you want to add a new source of customer insights, then it might be worth going on a “Sales Safari”. Sales Safari is an online audience research method developed by Amy Hoy.

Sales Safari is about of finding the places online where your target audience is and interacts, and observing their behaviour and discussions in these places. Make no mistake, the data collected through going on a Sales Safari is raw; an unfiltered bunch of data points about the needs, pain points and purchase decisions of your target customers.

This research method isn’t about asking customers what they want or your bias creeping in through your interpretation of customer answers. Instead, you’re purely observing your (target) audience at scale, trying to understand and empathise with the people that you’re aiming to serve (and without any prompts). What do people do? What do they say?

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Hoy compares this approach to going on a safari because you’re observing your target audience in their natural environment online. She refers to this as “watering holes”: those places online where people naturally hang out or ways in which they express themselves online. Think of places like Reddit, Twitter, Facebook, Quora but also of the product reviews they leave on Amazon or customer support emails people send.

For example, if ‘freelancers’ are the target audience for your company or product, you can gather a ton of raw data about freelancers, by going on places like the freelance category on Reddit or search for the freelance hashtag on Twitter.

Similarly, when I worked at Not On The High Street – a marketplace for unique gifts and artisanal products – I listened to the conversations with marketplace sellers on “Etsy Conversations Podcast” and read the threads on the eCommerce feed on Digital Point. You’re simply looking at what people are actually doing or saying on the internet:

  • What are the headlines of threads or conversations?
  • What are the topics or problems they are discussing or interested in?
  • What questions do people ask?
  • What things do they ask help for?
  • How do they help others?

Like when you visit and observe customers in their own habitat, the aim is to get an insight into what people actually do, think or how they currently solve a problem that they actually have. By pulling out common words or phrases, you’ll start seeing key trends or themes emerging.

Let’s for example say that ‘small business sellers’ are my target audience, and that I observe these sellers on a “Best platform for eCommerce Platform for a small business” thread. I look for key words quickly and crudely by scanning the thread responses:

  • Speed of getting a site up and running
  • Need for coding experience
  • Ease of use
  • Does the site cater for multi-language support?
  • Ability to customise
  • Cost
  • Loading time
  • eCommerce plugins

You might look at some of these key words and think “they all sound pretty obvious, did you really need to go on a Sales Safari for that?!” The apparent obviousness of some of these themes is the exact point of a Sales Safari. As Hoy explains: “Sales Safari leads you to stuff that’s obvious, but it wouldn’t have been obvious if you hadn’t done the research in the first place!” Yes, you’ll have to work through a lot of ‘noise’ online or people simply trying to sell stuff or services, but there are automated tools out there that can help you filter for relevant words and phrases.

After you’ve looked at the key words and emerging themes, you can go into individual threads to look for specific pain points.

If you look at the sample snippet above, for example, the pain point seems to be about getting the balance right between investing time and money. People talk about the risk of eCommerce solutions that are cheap, but require a lot of ongoing effort and time investment.

Going through these threads in more detail will give you good insights into the problems that your target customers are facing, and the impact of these problems. As Hoy points out, some people might just want to discuss a certain topic whilst others have an immediate need to solve a problem.

The biggest thing to bear in mind that Sales Safaris can be very time and labour intensive. Even if you automate your Sales Safari research, you still have to put in the work beforehand to figure out:

  • Who is my target audience?
  • Where do they ‘hang out’ online?
  • What am I looking to observe and learn?
  • How am I planning to use the observations?
  • How will the observes complement any other customer research or insights?

Granted, we need to think these things through irrespective of the research method, but given the amount of work involved and potential ‘noise’ involved in Sales Safari, doing your homework prior to doing the research / analysis becomes even more pressing.

I personally prefer to use Sales Safari in conjunction with other, more traditional ways to gain customer learnings – i.e. online experiments and solution or problem interviews. In a way, reading through what people say or do online is a good way to ‘validate’ your learnings from quantitative and qualitative research.

Main learning point: Whether you treat a Sales Safari as an infrequent research piece or something that you do continuously, I believe its true value comes from being able to triangulate your observations from other customer learning methods (e.g. A/B tests or customer interviews).

Related links for further learning:


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