Content Marketing: 3 Interviewing Techniques Stolen From Journalism

When I first transitioned from journalism into marketing, I had plenty to learn. I had to learn what a call-to-action was (not to mention how to create a good one). I had to learn the finer points of email subject lines. I even had to learn what content marketing was!

Fortunately, my new bosses appreciated the things I came equipped with already, including that I knew the difference between affect and effect. But I surprised them with another skill: I knew how to interview people—including clients—for marketing content.

taking notes content marketing journalism

photo credit: Marco Arment via photopin cc

I was surprised to learn how many marketing “pros,” while working on content such as a case study with successful client, chose the “canned questions” approach to interviews. Some of my predecessors would email off a questionnaire and call it a day. Others would actually get clients on the phone and then read through their scripted questions. No wonder so much of the resulting content was so stale!

Below, I’m sharing a few tips on how to interview people in a way that garners the kind of conversations that lead to great content. These tips can be useful for a variety of PR and marketing content, from white papers to case studies to press releases to blog posts.    

1. Create an outline, and then try not to look at it while you talk

Don’t make a list of questions that you run through, and for the sake of all that is good and holy please don’t email a list of questions and then wait for a response unless you’re really, really desperate. The fact is, most people don’t write the way they talk, and if you let your clients email you answers, you’ll probably end up with a bunch of cardboard quotes.

Instead, create an outline of the topics you want to cover. It may be as simple as a list of five words: “Problem, solution, obstacles, lessons, tips.” Then just talk to your subject. If I’m on the phone, I like to use a headset so I can type while I talk—I try to type everything the other person says (with plenty of typos that I can go back and fix later) because you never know what quotes or info will be valuable down the line.

2. Don’t be afraid to admit what you don’t know

When I first began working in marketing, I worked for a software company that had a vast array of products. I’d talk to different clients about how they’d used our software successfully, and they tended to assume I knew the product well. Of course, I didn’t, but the temptation was to pretend I did so that I didn’t seem stupid. But, thanks to a journalism background (where you’re learning something new every day) I knew it was better to simply admit my ignorance. “I’m sorry, I’m pretty new here and don’t know that product. Can you explain to me what it is and how you use it?”

The end result, 90% of the time, was a great conversation in which a client would really tell me how the product benefitted them. And they usually said it in words their peers could understand. That’s a recipe for content marketing excellence—because your prospects aren’t experts in your product, either.

3. Don’t just ask open-ended questions, but have an open-ended conversation

If you let people talk and just have a conversation with them about what they do and how they do it, you might be surprised where the conversation goes. You may want to begin with the end in mind—for instance, you may know you want to talk about a specific problem and how your product helped solve that problem—but don’t be afraid to let your subject drive the conversation. You may end up talking about some tangents you can’t necessarily use, but your subject also may bring up an angle you never would have considered.

What do you think about these tips? Do you have any content marketing interviewing techniques to share? Please leave a comment below!

*This is a guest post by Eleanor Pierce. The author’s posts are entirely her own views (excluding the event of being possessed by an alien parasite that controls her mind) and may not always reflect the views of InNetwork.*

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  • Great tips, Eleanor! "I try to type everything the other person says because you never know what quotes or info will be valuable down the line." That, I have found most valuable. It is really better to have a face to face conversation with the interviewee. It becomes very natural and the flow of the interview is so much better.

  • I really enjoyed this as I also made the transition from journalism to content marketing. Knowing how to interview people is a major advantage. Sending those questionnaires is just not the same. Having a conversation helps you get to the really important points and gather more knowledge from the person you're talking with.

  • Eleanor,

    I love #3! It makes way for discovery. An adjunct to #2, which may or may not be salient, is that customers often know more about how our products work than even our 'experts' do. How can that be? Because they deal with them in solving real-world problems every day. That said, I admire a product manager or product marketer that knows her stuff. :) Thanks for your article. I enjoyed it!

    • Thanks Mark! I think that's an excellent point – a big reason listening is so important (as Rob was saying, as well).

  • These are great, Eleanor. When I interview someone for a speech or other thing I'm writing, I do have a list of questions all set out on a Word document, with space set up between them to type answers, but inevitably after a question or two, we go off on a fascinating angle I hadn't anticipated, and the bulk of my notes are in a section by themselves. Many of the questions end up getting answered in the course of that conversation but it's exactly that: a conversation. One that's allowed to breathe and develop organically, with natural follow-ups.

    And there's nothing worse that watching an interviewer on TV making his way through a scripted set of questions and obviously not listening to the responses, leaving all kinds of fascinating sub-topics unexplored.

    • That's a great approach, too. I'll be honest, every once in awhile, my conversational approach leads to moments where I have to pause to think of how to approach the next question, but I find writing out questions is just too distracting for me.

      And I 100% agree – it's so uncomfortable to listen to a bad interviewer who doesn't follow up on what people are saying. The great interviewers are always great listeners. Just like the great actors, right?

  • Thanks Dorien! I absolutely agree with you about getting in their space. I think we are far too often reliant on email, when face to face contact is so much better, especially when you're getting to know someone. And when you can't do that, phone is still so much better than email.

  • Great tips Eleanor! I find talking to new clients at their office is also a great way to get the right information out of them. Seeing them in their comfort zone, getting a tour (the 'lay of the land') and maybe catching an interaction with a client or personnel also adds to the conversation. However, I realize that sometimes meeting in person is not possible. I will book mark this for my interview with my next new client. ~Dorien

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