3 journalistic interviewing techniques for content marketers

Canned questions or, worse, emailed questionnaires will get you cookie-cutter responses. Work instead from a basic outline, and let the conversation flow where it may.

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, 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.

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—but then read through scripted questions. No wonder so much of the resulting content was so stale.

Below, I’m sharing tips on how to interview people in a way that garners 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 please don’t email a list of questions and then wait for a response unless you’re really, really desperate. 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 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. Thanks to a journalism background (in which 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 percent 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 might end up talking about some tangents you can’t necessarily use, but your subject also may bring up an angle you would otherwise not have considered.

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

Eleanor Pierce is a recovering journalist now working as the social media content manager at The Brandon Agency, a full-service advertising agency. A version of this article originally appeared on InNetwork.

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