Let’s say you’re a start-up or fledgling cookie brand, for instance, and your annual research budget is, well, crumbs. How do you know what your prospective target thinks and how it behaves? Well, here’s a little (free) trick, just from quench to you, because we care. (And, even if you’re a brand manager for a megabrand, you may learn something useful, too.)

Start with Facebook. And then think about the brand you’d most like to be: a more mature competitor with an established market share and a similar offering in flavor profile and price point. Now search good ole Facebook for that brand. Chances are, it’s there. Navigate to its Page. See all those followers, the ones you’d trade your eyeteeth for, if only they’d embrace your brand instead? Wouldn’t it be great if you could just port their names and contacts into your database? Well, heck, you can’t. In fact, so zealously does Facebook guard its walled garden of data that mining those profiles would result in a lawsuit. But here’s what you can do.

Scroll down your competitor’s wall until you see a post with multiple shares. Click on the shares to see a list of the sharers. Then click on a sharer, any sharer. Now you’re on his or her wall. And, regardless of how private his or her settings are, chances are good there’s some worthwhile stuff there. What does he or she like? What TV shows? Movies? Music? How old does he or she look in profile photos? Is he or she holding kids? Grandkids? Dogs? Guess what. You’re looking at a micro persona: a single, actualized cookie monster — a loyalist to your competitor’s brand (to some degree, anyway, or he or she wouldn’t have shared).

Don’t be dismayed if you don’t see any important patterns or insight on this consumer’s wall. Just navigate back to the brand page and pick the next sharer. Repeat as many times as you'd like. Now, depending on the size of the brand, you would run out of time long before you arrived at an n-sampling that would be remotely projectable, but you’ve begun to do something equally valuable: You’ve begun to assemble a gestalt, an assembled tapestry of very real people, with very real likes. If you’re even the slightest bit intuitive, you’ll begin to get some sense of persona. Maybe the brand following is so diverse that you can’t see any rhyme or reason to it. Maybe you suspect there’s some viable psychographic segmentation there, but it’s purely a theory. No matter. You now have seen inside some of your targets’ heads...for free.

You can even use this method to gut-check your marketing communications. Ask yourself: Would this particular consumer respond to my brand’s message? Would he or she share it? Even an amateur researcher can arrive at some valid insights this way. After all, we are all humans, and we’re pretty good at judging others’ reactions. We’ve been doing it since day one. For some of us, that might even mean long before Facebook was born. 😉

MARKETING LESSON: No matter what challenges your brand faces, you can always find and refine a viable persona from “free” resources, such as social media and blogs.