Interviewing experts in your industry is an excellent way to develop and add value to content marketing materials for your business. The process of interviewing, taking notes, compiling information, and writing the finished product, however, takes a certain set of skills.
My experience working the small-town newspaper circuit prior to cutting my teeth in the digital marketing world allowed me to pick up on a few tips of the trade -- some of which, I learned the hard way. More importantly, though, I learned the value of the interview, how to reach out to strangers in a genuine manner, how to respect their words and knowledge, and how to combine facts with personal perspectives to tell a story, educate, and entertain, regardless of the subject matter. These principles can be directly applied to how we approach creating educational content for marketing purposes.
The good news is, if you follow a few best practices, you don’t need a press pass in your hat to begin conducting effective interviews.
Prior to conducting an interview:
To start, be sure to identify the right candidate to interview, request their participation, and schedule a time and place for the interview to occur.
Second, choose the most applicable method for conducting the interview depending on the preferences of the interviewee and the parameters of the project (more detail below).
Third, prepare for the interview by digging into the subject matter at hand as well as the background of the interviewee. This will help you prepare a list of thoughtful questions. I also recommend thinking about how you will record the conversation -- such as taking notes or using a digital recorder.
Different methods for conducting an interview:
Sending a set of prepared questions is an efficient way to reach out if you are interviewing multiple people for a single project, such as an influencer post or an extended report. It’s best to focus on open-ended questions to garner in-depth responses. Although you may feel that email is the most convenient way to pursue a certain project, offer interviewees the option to contact you by phone or to set up an in-person meeting. It’s also recommended to provide a time frame for responding to questions via email. That way, interviewees can contact you immediately if they are unable to participate, and you won’t be left waiting for replies under a looming deadline. Even worse, you don’t want to waste anyone’s time should they respond after you’ve delivered on the content. For a higher response rate, keep email interviews to a maximum of 5 questions. Should your project require intense questioning and clarification, an email interview may not be the best route.
Interviewing by telephone is probably the most widely used method. It’s personable, yet flexible, and most people are comfortable talking on the phone. If you’ve never conducted an interview by phone before, you might be surprised by certain physical challenges. Working in a traditional newsroom allowed me to perfect cradling a handset betwixt my ear and shoulder in the process of taking notes (known as the reporter position). To avoid dropping the phone or straining your neck, use a headset or speakerphone feature. If you can, conduct the call from a landline to avoid any mobile drops or charging issues. These may seem like simple recommendations, but even a tiny distraction can derail your focus during an interview.
Using a video chat service such as Skype, FaceTime, or Google Hangouts allows you to put a face to a name, check for mannerisms, and create a personal experience regardless of distance. Should this be your preferred method of interviewing, check to make sure your interviewee is comfortable with the technology and knows how to use it. You don’t want to waste time having to walk them through the process of establishing a connection.
Having conducted numerous interviews using different methods, in-person interviews typically provide the best results. And by results, in addition to quality content, I am referring to making the interviewee feel at ease and establishing valuable relationships. I prefer to schedule an interview on their turf if the option is available. If not, a neutral location tends to make the interviewee more comfortable than meeting at your own office. To make the most out of your in-person interviews, try to foster a fluid conversation rather than a rigid Q&A session. If the interviewee is comfortable being recorded, use a digital recorder to track the conversation rather than taking notes. This allows you to concentrate on their answers and your follow-up questions rather than taking elaborate notes. If you do choose to take traditional notes, practice writing without looking at your notepad -- silly, right? Not really. Maintaining eye contact reassures the interviewee that you are engaged in the conversation. Another bonus for conducting in-person interviews is the option to snap a few photographs to go along with your content. Ask permission prior to starting the interview for someone to take a few candid shots during the process or wait until the end for a staged pic.
Tips for conducting a successful interview:
- Restate your purpose. During your initial contact with the prospective interviewee, you may have stated the purpose of your request. When it comes time for the interview, remind them of your goals for the discussion.
- Start with a few throw-away questions, especially if you are interviewing someone about their product or service. Many people will have canned responses to prompts such as “tell me about X” or “what does X provide for businesses in your industry?” Let interviewees get these responses out of their systems -- the better answers usually follow.
- Conducting a conversational interview works well, but I’ve also found that awkward silences can be used to generate more detail. Avoid the urge to keep things moving along at a hurried pace. Often, a few extra seconds of silence after a response triggers additional information.
- Don’t be afraid to pry a bit. Use your notes to refer back to a response for more clarification. For example, if your interviewee touched on a few relevant topics but you’re itching for more, restate what they said and ask them to expand on the subject. This technique, often referred to as parroting, is a seamless way to circle back on a subject.
- Throw a curveball. This approach isn’t meant to catch someone off guard or to expose weakness, it’s simply a way to get an interviewee thinking in a new direction or from another angle. During a recent interview with HubSpot’s Luke Summerfield on Growth Driven Design, I started with a curveball a) because I knew Luke could handle it and b) because I wanted to set the tone for the conversation. Here's what I asked of Luke: In one sentence, please explain growth driven design to me. The methodology was twofold -- I was looking for a simple explanation off the bat (which may have been used as a throw-away) and I wanted to see if his initial thoughts included the value of approaching website design in a new way (the angle I was interested in covering) rather than merely the process. Was it successful? At the time I didn’t think so, but it did prompt an interesting follow-up discussion later in the day that added fuel to the resulting blog post.
- Always allow the interviewee a chance to add any final thoughts before you wrap up the session. Also, be sure to ask if it would be okay to follow up with them should you need additional information or clarification.
It may seem intimidating to conduct interviews at first, but with a little practice, the process becomes easier and more natural. The key is to remember your initial goals and how the interview process can add value to your content. If you're still uneasy with the thought of interviewing strangers and would like to practice, try starting with colleagues or acquaintances in your industry to generate some material in the process.
Have you already tried interviewing as a way to boost your content marketing? Share your tips for conducting a successful interview in the comments below.