“I’ve got an interview coming up with a company I don’t know all that much about; what can I do to learn more about them and prepare effectively?”

Ah, this question warms the heart of any career counselor, since so few job seekers seem to realize the major competitive advantage that research can give them in the interview process!  And while we’ve talked at length in previous issues about how to prepare for interviews from a communication standpoint, I don’t think we’ve ever focused directly on the company research component.  Given the vast array of useful research tools now available, however, motivated job candidates can easily “load for bear” and arrive at every interview armed with a wealth of pivotal facts, figures, and information.  As a result, they’ll not only be able to a) show the interviewer how serious they are about winning the job, but will b) also be much more prepared to understand the employer’s problems and discuss potential solutions.

So without further ado, here is the first wave of websites we’d encourage you to review if you suddenly get an interview lined up on your calendar:

•  The website of the employer in question (obviously)
•  Google (search on the company’s name for articles & links about them)
•  D&B Million Dollar Database (corporate directory available via King County Library if you have a card)
•  Zoominfo (use the “Company Search” option to access summarized data on the organization)
•  WA Dept. of Revenue (looking to verify a WA company is ‘legit’ and how long they’ve been around?)

Beyond the basic information the above sites provide, however, the most resourceful job hunters will also dig out some more subtle, subjective data using the following mix of sites:

•  LinkedIn “Companies” Page (interesting data about the company’s trends and new hires/promotions)
•  LinkedIn “People” Page (study the backgrounds of the people interviewing you, if you can find them)
•  GlassDoor (as mentioned above, might contain valuable ‘insider info’ on the company in question)
•  Google Blog Search (search on company’s name to see what bloggers/pundits are writing about them)
•  ProQuest (massive article archive available through King County Library if you have a card)
•  PRnewswire (Use ‘advanced search’ option to search entire archive for press releases on company)
•  American City Business Journals (nationwide business newspaper chain; tremendous archives!)
•  Indeed.com Forums (see if any other job seekers have good/bad things to say about the organization)
•  Hoovers (some basic data is available for free; might consider paying for full report, on occasion)

Hopefully, after exploring the capabilities of the above sites, you’ll realize just how thoroughly a motivated job hunter can prepare for potential hiring opportunities.  We’ve even had cases come up where the employer wasn’t even aware of some of the data that was out there about them, making the interview candidate seem like a real rock star in terms of their preparation efforts!

Now that you’ve got a solid list of research sites to investigate, here are a just a few more tips and suggestions on how to optimize your detective work on any given company…

•  Notice how all the above sites are free?  In general, be leery about research sites that charge a fee, since you can often find the same information out there at no cost if you look around enough

•  In general, small companies and start-up organizations don’t have much written about them out in cyberspace, so don’t waste hours of time if you’re not finding much; watch for diminishing returns

•  On the contrary, big companies (e.g. Microsoft) may have too much written about them; so in order to avoid being overwhelmed, use additional search keywords (e.g. department names, product names, locations, etc.) and chronological filtering to narrow the search results down to a meaningful set

•  The moment you get an interview scheduled, set up a free “Google Alert” using the employer’s name so that any breaking news about the company gets automatically sent to your e-mail inbox

And last, but certainly not least…

•  Don’t just collect piles of Internet printouts and call your research efforts complete; the data itself is worthless unless you read through it carefully, draw conclusions from it, think hard about how it may relate to your background and the target job you’re considering, and use it to formulate intelligent questions and talking points.  Without this layer of analysis and thought, trust me, you’re not going to get any credit for just having killed a bunch of trees and printed out a ream of paper!

Is that enough direction to get you started?  While there are certainly hundreds of additional research sites we could feature, the collection above has proven to be the most useful and cost-effective mix over time for our ongoing client base — and will allow you to do a fairly exhaustive “sweep” on any company within just a few short hours.  So add this new competency into your job hunting arsenal and use it to tilt the scales in your favor at the next available opportunity.  As I’ve always maintained, you can never guarantee you’ll be the most qualified candidate going into any given interview, but it’s relatively easy to ensure you’re the most prepared!