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Mining Content Gold: How to Interview Content Experts

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  • 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.

Woman waving at someone on her computer during an interview.

Content marketing is a critical part of the marketing mix for product teams. 

Relevant, high-quality content is the foundation of advertising strategies, company articles, social media plans, product descriptions and sales pages. Done well, it drives prospects through the buyer’s journey and converts them to customers. 

According to a recent study by Hubspot, 82% of marketers actively use content marketing. 

Yet, creating the right content isn’t easy. 

A study by the Content Marketing Institute found that the second biggest challenge is finding subject matter experts that can contribute to the content strategy. So, when you do find them, you have to make the most of the opportunity. 

 

When you have subject matter experts you can:

  • Quickly uncover better content angles 
  • Produce thought-leadership articles
  • Address key customer challenges in new and interesting way
  • Explore more technical details that might be otherwise hard to explain

 

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. 

Start by performing an audit of your existing content. Compare the content you already have with what you need for different stages of your customer’s buying process. If you need input, go to customers, prospects, and your sales team to uncover what’s missing.

The type of content you will be producing will point you toward the types of experts you need to interview. 

Here are some examples of content experts that might help you come up with content for various stages of the buying cycle: 

 

  • 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. 

 

  • 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.

 

The Curse of Knowledge 

You may encounter one major roadblock in utilizing subject matter experts: 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.” 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. 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 the full utilization of modern hardware and software architectures.

 

Huh?

 

Here’s a simple test to diagnose when experts have entered the “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 many detailed examples. Being armed with a few tricks of the trade will help you get the specific, concrete information you need from content experts.

 

13 Strategies to Improve your Interview Skills

When you interview content experts, you must act as a translator between expert-ese and plain language. Much of that translation work is taking abstract expert-speak and speaking in concrete terms. 


Here are some strategies that will help you become the expert translator between content experts and your audience. 

 

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.

 

2. 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.

 

3. 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, slide decks, analyst reports, press releases and news stories.

 

4. 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, the 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.

 

 

5. 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.

 

 

6. Make the guest comfortable 

Once the interview has started, you’ll want to set the stage to make your interview subjects feel comfortable and keep them on track.

After some initial chit-chat 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 the objectives for the interview. Sometimes I’ll even summarize the types of questions I’m going to ask.

 

 

7. It’s a conversation not an interrogation 

An interview ideally should be treated as simply a conversation whose purpose is to find out information. 

Don’t be afraid to 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. If you can’t quite get your mind around something someone tells you, it probably means that their explanation was too abstract. There are a few types of follow-up questions you can ask to gain clarification:

 

  • Ask for an example. 
  • Ask them to describe a process. 
  • Ask them to tell a story of one particular time that they used the feature and how it helped solve their problem.
  • Ask how they would explain the subject to a non-technical person.
  • Ask why the feature or idea is important.

 

8. Use open-ended questions. 

For example, if you’re interviewing a customer for a case study, ask something like, “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. 

Try starting a question with who, what, when, where, why or how. These are more likely to elicit interesting answers.  

 

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?

 

Another strategy is using the 5 whys. 

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. 

 

9. 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.

 

10. Open the floor 

In the same vein, at the end of the entire interview, always ask them if there’s anything else they want to add. In this figurate open floor, the interviewee can speak off the cuff about the things important to them. This strategy can uncover some of the most interesting information. 

 

11. 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. It also gives you an opportunity to fact-check any of the content created after the interview before it is published.

 

 

12. Take Robust Notes 

You don’t want to lose any information from your interviews, so taking notes and recording are important. Notes might help you navigate your recording more efficiently, but they shouldn’t distract you from what the guest is saying. 

If the conversation happens in person, you can use a simple recording device on your phone. But more often than not, conversations are now happening over platforms like Zoom that have built-in recording capabilities. Additionally, you can use services that use AI to provide quick and pretty accurate transcriptions of the entire conversation. 

 

 

13. Schedule an Appropriate Amount of Time 

Conversations with content experts vary. At a minimum, they’ll be 30 minutes. Sometimes calls can go as long as 90 minutes. Generally speaking, keep the calls under one hour; any longer and it’s difficult for everyone to focus and retain information.

If you have several professionals in the same area of expertise, it’s helpful to speak to them at the same time. In this way, each expert can hear what the other is saying and interact in real-time. 

 

Cracking the Tough Nuts: How to Manage Difficult Interview Subjects

Your first few interviews were flawless. You think, “This is a piece of cake.” 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 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 will provide enough context for the average reader?

When you encounter a taciturn subject, take a step-by-step approach. 

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. 

This technique is how you can put out a  theory for them to react to and find out if they agree or disagree and why. 

 

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.

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 the golden content nuggets that will bring your content marketing to the next level.

 

Enroll in Market

Of course, interviewing content experts is only one part of a marketing strategy. Pragmatic Institute’s Market course helps you gain a thorough understanding of your buyers and how they like to buy so you can build the product marketing strategies that deliver results. 

Learn how to align across go-to-market teams by effectively sharing and leveraging your buyer knowledge to prioritize the right product marketing strategies. 

COURSE INCLUDES

  • Marketing Canvas
  • Buyer Personas
  • Buyer Persona Interviews
  • Message Matrix
  • Goal Prioritization
  • Sales Goals
  • Marketing Assets
  • Marketing Programs Calendar
  • Marketing Metrics
  • Strategy Scorecard 

Learn More 

Author

  • 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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