Mining Content Gold: How to Interview Content Experts

By Cheryl J. Goldberg April 19, 2011

Content marketing has become a critical part of the marketing mix for technology companies. Content marketing employs content to engage current and potential consumers based on the notion that delivering high-quality, relevant and valuable information drives profitable consumer action. According to a recent study by MarketingProfs and Junta 421, 9 out of 10 organizations market with content while 51% of marketers plan to increase their spending on content marketing over the next year. The computing/software industry is the biggest adopter of content-marketing strategies, with 94% of technology companies using this strategy. Yet, creating the right content isn’t easy. The same study found that developing engaging content and producing enough content were two of the biggest challenges facing marketers.

One of the best ways to find riveting content is to pick the brains of experts. Whether you need to come up with a compelling angle for a white paper or thought-leadership article to pique the interest of your target audience, or determine key customer challenges, or fill in technical details that will bring your piece to life, experts can help you uncover better content more quickly. Experts are likely to have access to information that would be difficult, or even impossible to find otherwise.

Mining these golden nuggets requires you to find the right experts and to know how to interview them so you can best extract the knowledge they have to offer—while being respectful of their often busy schedules.

Hunting the elusive expert

Clearly, the first step in finding the right nugget of content is identifying the right expert. To do that, you must determine what type of content you need to produce. Often your content requirements are obvious. If your sales force comes to you all the time asking how your solution addresses the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, you know what you need to produce and probably whom to ask.

But what if you simply need more content for lead-generation and lead-nurturing activities? Start by performing an audit of your existing content. Compare the content you already have with what you need for different stages of your customers’ buying process. If you need input, go to customers, prospects and your sales force. You can then determine what’s missing.

The type of content you will be producing will point you toward the types of experts you need to interview. Examples of content experts that might help you come up with content for various stages of the buying cycle are as follows:

  • Early-stage education.
    If you want to educate prospects who’ve never heard of you, you’ll want to start with thought-leadership content that defines the customer problem and what’s necessary for a solution. Helpful experts include industry analysts, customers, prospects, sales representatives that specialize in that target market, and industry solutions managers at your company who specialize in a particular industry. Your company’s professional services consultants will also be familiar with the challenges customers face.
  • Research phase.
    As customers realize they need a particular type of solution, they’ll start researching their options. To help customers at this stage, you’ll want to provide more in-depth technical information about your product and its benefits. Experts that can help you with this type of content include recent evaluators of your product, engineers at your company, product managers, and your chief technology officer.
  • Validation.
    Here you’ll want to provide proof of your product’s ease of implementation and success in solving customer problems. Interview existing customers, your professional services consultants, and your customer support/help-desk representatives.   

 

Experts are from Mars; Novices are from Venus

While experts can furnish much useful information, you may encounter one major roadblock: They literally speak a different language from everyone else. In their book Made to Stick, Chip Heath and Dan Heath call this issue “the curse of knowledge.” In the book, the authors write about a study performed by Elizabeth Newton at Stanford in 1990 that illustrates the problem. A group of researchers gave half of the participants in their study a song, say the “Star Spangled Banner” or “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” and asked them to tap the melody on a table. The other half of the participants were asked to guess what song was being tapped.

When the tappers were asked to predict how many of the listeners would guess the song, they guessed 50 percent. The listeners actually correctly guessed the song only 2.5 percent of the time: 3 out of 120. The reason for the discrepancy is that once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it. As a result, it’s difficult to share our knowledge with others because we can’t readily re-create our listeners’ state of mind.

One way the curse of knowledge manifests itself is that experts often speak in highly abstract terms. You see this all the time in marketing materials. For example, take the following description of a leading middleware product:

XYZ Company Middleware is the #1 application infrastructure foundation available today. It enables enterprises to create and run agile, intelligent business applications while maximizing IT efficiency through full utilization of modern hardware and software architectures.

Huh?

Here’s a simple test to diagnose when experts have entered “curse of knowledge” territory. As the expert is talking, your eyes glaze over and you’ll say to yourself, “Huh?”

The solution is to get people to speak in concrete terms, describing implications and providing lots of detailed examples. Being armed with a few tricks-of-the-trade will help you get the specific, concrete information you need from content experts.

Honing translation skills: How to improve your interview skills

When I interview content experts, I act as a translator between expert-ese and plain English. Much of that translation work is taking abstract expert-speak and speaking in concrete terms. The following are some tips and tricks that will help you improve this translation process.

  1. Prepare carefully
    Every good interview starts with preparation. You need to be clear on what you want to accomplish and do your homework. But at the same time, remember that an interview is a conversation; know what you need to get out of it, but don’t follow a script.
    • Set goals. Before setting up any interviews, clarify what you want from the interview and communicate in advance your goals with your content expert. For example, are you looking to determine the direction to take for a particular piece? Do you need to know the primary messages a piece should convey? Do you need clarification about a product’s messaging? Write down the items you want to cover and send this list to participants before the meeting so you both can prepare.
    • Do research in advance. If you’re looking for direction on a good approach to take in a particular market, read some trade publications or analysts’ reports about relevant trends before you do the interview. If you’re looking for more information about a product, read any existing materials about the product and its competitors including white papers, PowerPoint presentations, analyst reports, press releases and news stories.
    • Create a list of questions. Content experts are always busy so you’ll want to make the most of their time. Prepare specific questions. For example, if you’re looking for high-level direction, be prepared with the types of questions that typically appear on a creative brief, such as the goals for the project, the audience, message, the three-to-five supporting messages and so on. Alternatively, if you’re looking for clarification on technical points for a datasheet or brochure, go through existing materials and have specific questions ready.
    • Mentally prepare to depart from your list. At the same time, keep in mind that when you conduct an interview, the person may answer one question in the course of answering another. Don’t think you must go through your questions one by one. Keep your questions at the ready, but be prepared to change course as you proceed through the interview.

  2. Handling the preliminaries
    Once the interview has started, you’ll want to set the stage to make your interview subjects feel comfortable and keep them on track.
    • Set the stage. After some initial chitchat while you’re waiting for everyone to join the call, review any procedural details. For example, when conducting interviews for customer success stories, I always talk about the review process; reassuring customers that they’ll have an opportunity to review and adjust any of the copy as well as to provide written approval.
    • Ask for preliminary information. Next, go over any housekeeping information. For example, be sure to get the correct spelling of the expert’s name and their proper title.
    • Summarize your agenda. Once you’ve attended to the preliminaries, review any information the subject should keep in mind. For example, you might want to briefly remind them of the audience for the piece, the topic, and objectives for the interview. Sometimes I’ll even summarize the types of questions I’m going to ask.

  3. Conducting the interview
    An interview ideally should be treated as simply a conversation whose purpose is to find out information. However, the following techniques will help you get people talking, make sure you truly understand what they have to say and extract the most useful information.
    • Start with open-ended questions. Although I always come to the interview prepared, I like to start with open-ended questions rather than close-ended questions that can be answered “yes” or “no.” For example, if I’m talking to an expert about what direction a piece should take for a given audience, I’ll ask: “Given that our audience is large group medical practices, clinics or small hospitals, what’s the most important problem our product might solve?” If I’m interviewing a customer for a case study, I’ll ask, “What are the most important benefits your company has achieved from using our product?” Remember you’re talking to someone who knows more about the topic than you do and simply getting them talking may well lead to insights you hadn’t considered.
    • Repeat what the expert just said. If you want to be certain you understood what your subject has just said, repeat what they told you in your own words. If you don’t have it exactly right, they’re sure to correct you. And maybe add an additional insight or two in the process.
    • Go from abstract to concrete. Earlier, I mentioned the curse of knowledge. If you can’t quite get your mind around something someone tells you, it probably means that their explanation was too abstract. There’s a few types of follow-up questions you can ask to gain clarification:
      • Ask for an example. If you’re talking about a particular product feature, ask them to describe a particular instance of how someone would use that feature.
      • Ask them to describe a process. Another way to obtain helpful examples is to ask how people would do a particular process without the feature and then how using the feature improves the process.
      • Ask them to tell a story of one particular time that they used the feature and how it helped solve their problem.
      • Ask them to say the same thing another way.
      • Ask how they would explain the subject to a non-technical person.
      • Ask why the feature or idea is important.     
    • 5W and 2H. In journalism, people talk about how you need to find out the 5Ws and 2Hs. This is a good construct for helping you understand software capabilities.
      • Why is this feature/technology required?
      • Who is going to use it?
      • What does the feature/technology do? What are the specific benefits of the feature/technology?
      • When is the feature/technology used?
      • Where does it fit into the workflow?
      • How is the feature/technology used?
      • How often is the feature used? Is it one-time only or administrative in nature?
    • 5 Whys. Another reason you may be interviewing a product expert is to determine the benefits of a product or service. Yet some technical experts have difficulty describing how the feature might benefit a particular audience. Taking a page from Six Sigma methodology can help. In Six Sigma methodology, people talk about using “the 5 Whys” to fully determine the root cause of a problem. You can use the same technique to fully understand the benefits of a solution. For example, people often give the example that the feature is the drill and the benefit is the hole. But there might be an even more important benefit for a particular audience. If the driller is a furniture maker, the benefit might not just be the hole, but the fact that because the drill makes holes so quickly, the craftsman can finish their handcrafted pieces in half the time. Going one step further, the reason why that’s important is that it allows the furniture maker to make more pieces in the same time. The reason that’s important is that the furniture maker can make more money in the same amount of time.
    • Ask great questions. This tip comes from Michael Stelzner. He gives examples of how to improve your questions:
      • Bad question: Is a data backup plan important?
      • Better question: Why is a data backup plan important?
      • Great question: Can you tell me three reasons why a backup plan is important?
      • Excellent question: What are the implications of not having a backup plan?
    • Repeat the question. When I first started out in journalism, I once asked an experienced reporter what to do if someone wouldn’t answer a question. His answer, “Ask it again a different way.” This advice holds true not just for a budding Woodward or Bernstein but for someone interviewing a content expert. An expert may not answer the question you thought you posed, or they may not understand the question. Asking it a different way will help them understand what you mean and may just elicit the response you’re looking for.
    • Embrace silence. When someone stops talking, don’t say anything. Give people a moment or two or three of silence before you jump in with your next question. This may feel uncomfortable, but do it anyway. People abhor a vacuum in the conversation and will often come up with another idea that they might have forgotten if you rushed in to save them with your next question.
    • Anything else? In the same vein, once someone seems to have run out of steam on a particular topic or at the end of the entire interview, I always ask them if there’s anything else they want to add. Often I get the most interesting information from the off-the-cuff responses they give when they think the interview is over.
    • Ask permission to follow up. For complex, technical topics, it’s often necessary to do a second interview to clarify points missed in the first interview. For example, I recently interviewed a sales rep for a telecommunications equipment vendor about the ROI of his company’s optical networking products. The piece we produced was based on a sales presentation. In our first interview, the rep went over the presentation and the key points he wanted to get across. In the second, I drilled down on specific technical details that he hadn’t mentioned in the conversation as well as discrepancies I’d found between the presentation and other datasheets and brochures from the company.

Logistics

Here are a few tips on the logistics and procedural aspects of conducting an interview.

  • Taking notes.
    Content from your interviews is very valuable. You don’t want to lose any of it. Different people prefer different methods for recording content. Because I do a lot of interviews and type very quickly, I almost always type my notes during the conversation. This saves me from having to transcribe either written notes or tapes. I prefer to type as much of what people say as possible. However, many people suggest jotting down the main points and then going back and filling in the details once the interview is over.
  • Taping the call.
    If the content will be very technical, I usually record the call and take notes. That way, I can go back and fill in any details from the conversation I may have missed. While you can use a tape recorder to tape conversations in person or over the phone, I use the RecordMyCalls service that records calls over the phone. You simply dial into the service and then dial the phone number you’re calling and the service starts recording the conversation. At the end, you have a digital sound file you can listen to on your PC or send over email. RecordMyCalls charges a small monthly fee and a per-minute charge for each minute of recording time. For an additional fee, they’ll even transcribe your call.
  • How long should a call be?
    Calls with content experts vary. At minimum, they’ll be 30 minutes. Sometimes calls can go as long as 90 minutes. Generally speaking, I prefer to keep the calls under one hour because any longer and it’s difficult for everyone to focus and retain information.
  • Group conference calls.
    If you have several experts at your company in the same area of expertise, it’s helpful to have them all on the same call. In this way, each expert can hear what the other is saying, interact in real time and come to an agreement on what information to include and what to leave out.
  • In person or on the phone.
    One might argue that it’s best to interview people face-to-face because it allows you to have a real conversation with them. Also, people like to draw diagrams on whiteboards and reference other props while they talk. Nonetheless, with most content expert interviews, the phone works just fine. If you really need to see something, many companies are equipped with an online conferencing solution like GoToMeeting.


Conclusion

Interviewing experts provides valuable information that will help you create more compelling content and infinitely enrich your content-marketing efforts. By finding the right content experts and employing some of the interviewing techniques described here, you’re more likely to extract just the golden content nuggets that will bring your content marketing to the next level.   


Cracking the Tough Nuts:
How to Manage Difficult Interview Subjects

Your first few interviews were flawless. You think, “This is a piece of cake.” Don’t get cocky. With a little preparation and a few interviewing techniques in your back pocket, most interviews will go off without a hitch. That’s because most people are flattered to be asked for an interview and there’s nothing most people like to talk about more than themselves and their areas of expertise. But a small percentage of folks are far from easy to interview. Don’t let them throw you for a loop. Be prepared.

Here are the most common types of challenging interview subjects and how to get what you need from the interview anyway.


The Strong, Silent Type

Arguably the most common of the “problem” interview subjects are those that simply don’t like to talk—even about themselves. When you ask a typical, talkative subject an open-ended question, such as how does your company benefit from using our product, they’ll talk for 10 minutes about which features they like best, why they like them, and what benefits they provide. Some people will cover most of the questions on your list without your even having to ask. But when you ask an open-ended question to the taciturn type, they’ll respond with five words.

So how do you get the information you need from these people to create a piece that really elaborates fully on the facts in a way that will provide enough context for the average reader?

When you encounter a taciturn subject, take a step-by-step approach. For example, if you’re interviewing them for a customer story, you might need to go through the entire list of product features and walk them through every aspect of what you need. For example, I may ask “What about this particular feature? Is this something you use? Do you benefit from this? How? What are the implications of that? How did you do things before? What do you do differently now?” While these are the same questions I’d ask anyone, the taciturn type requires a lot more explicit prodding.

Although many interviewers and journalists warn against using leading questions, you may have to resort to this tactic with the strong, silent type. Don’t get me wrong, my purpose isn’t to get them to say what I want them to say. I use this technique simply to put forth a theory for them to react to and find out if they agree or disagree and why. Because my interview style is friendly and non-threatening, this works well for me. Someone with a more forceful, combative interview style, however, may not get the subject’s true opinion from using this tactic.


The Wanderer

The wanderer is the interview subject that constantly veers off on tangents. You ask them about X and before you know it they are off to the races on topic Y. The wanderer is also fairly common.
To keep the wanderer in line, you need to be very clear from the outset on what you need from the interview. To this end, you’ll need to keep a list of questions in front of you and keep going back to it. In addition, it’s useful to have a pre-approved outline and continue to gently remind them of your agenda and pull them back to the task at hand.


The Arrogant Snob

I don’t run into people who are arrogant in interview situations very often, but you encounter them from time to time. Often, they’re technical folks who look down on marketers as a lesser species. Whereas most people take the attitude that there is no such thing as a dumb question (although it is a good idea to do your homework first to ask as few questions that appear dumb as you can), the arrogant interviewee will go out of his way to pounce on any “dumb” question or otherwise find ways to make you feel stupid.

So how do you avoid the scorn of these interviewees? You need to do your homework, learn your topic and be as prepared in advance as possible. When you ask questions, make sure it’s clear that you’re asking for clarification for something that’s unclear to a reasonably intelligent person. Restate their answers in ways that pull in related information so they know you know what you’re talking about.

You don’t know what you’ll get

Of course, the thing about interviews is that you never know in advance what your subject will be like. Prepare for the worst by doing your homework, having an outline and a list of questions at the ready, and by having a bag-of-tricks up your sleeve for dealing with difficult interview subjects—just in case.

Categories: Go-to-Market
Cheryl J. Goldberg

Cheryl J. Goldberg

Cheryl Goldberg has been interviewing content experts for more than 25 years as a marketing copywriter and technology journalist. As principal of Goldberg Communications, she currently develops, writes and edits marketing communications—such as white papers, customer success stories, thought-leadership articles, solution sheets, email campaigns, web content and much more. She has previously held senior editorial positions at PC Magazine, DBMS Magazine, and Macintosh Business Review. For more information, go to www.cjgoldbergcommunications.com and read her blog at www.hightechcommunicator.typepad.com. Contact Cheryl at cheryl@cjgoldbergcommunications.com.

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