My first job was, in many respects, a content marketing dream. Our primary product was video content that could be repurposed and shared in a thousand ways, creativity was valued as a primary resource company-wide, and I had regular access to interesting and insightful figures from our industry.
I decided it might be a fun idea to do a profile-style piece for our blog, something that would give our audience a “peek behind the curtain” of our filmmaking work. I didn’t know how to interview a subject—my sum knowledge comprised a couple of movies about hard-hitting investigative journalism and a handful of New Yorker opinion pieces about the decline of journalistic integrity. But I figured, “how hard can it be to speak to someone about something they enjoy?”
The answer: very.
When the day came, it seemed everything I tried just failed outright. My questions were met with quick yes and no answers. More than a couple of times, my interviewee had to correct me on items of knowledge about his work. By the end, all of my material was short, uninformative, and off point from my initial goal for our chat. Needless to say, we decided to go in a different direction for that weekly blog.
As the gap between content marketing and journalism continues to close, more and more content creators are finding themselves wearing a proverbial press pass to work. Practiced right, journalistic content can build trust and provide interest for your audience. Without the proper preparation, however, it can lead to awkward conversations, damaged reputation, and unusable content for your team. Here’s how to make sure your work falls on the more positive end of this spectrum.
Before diving into interviews, it’s important to understand the fundamental difference that journalistic style content brings to your marketing mix. Typical content marketing material falls into some combination of three categories: informative content, entertainment content, and thought leadership content. Informative work focuses on news updates, how-tos, and other actionable resources. Thought leadership tends to be more opinion- or analysis-based, and it aims to solidify your company’s position as an authority in the industry. Entertainment is . . . well . . . entertaining.
What is key about all three of these styles, however, is that they don’t require external sources. Additional sources are always a good practice, but in theory your brand could produce all three of these content types internally without too much trouble. Journalistic content is the opposite—it thrives on the external. Journalism pushes your brand into conversations and spaces outside of itself, and offers your audience a look into those moments. Where most content marketing focuses on being useful, journalistic content focuses on being validating and trustworthy.
In this way, a journalistic approach can be added to any style of content you decide to produce for your brand. For the most part, it can also improve anything your brand produces.
Image attribution: Matthew Henry
Interviews are an essential tool of the journalist and, by extension, the content marketer. Interviews grab primary information, give a human face to the opinions and data that dominate our conversations, and help marketers expand their network of authoritative resources. (Ever wanted to speak to a titan of your industry? Ask them for an interview! You might be surprised how accessible people can be.)
Here’s how to approach your interview from start to finish in a way that eases both you and your subject into the conversation, while also protecting you from making some of the most common rookie errors.
Do. Your. Homework.
This is, by far, the most essential practice of being a good interviewer. Spend some time learning about your subject’s history, their work, their accomplishments, and any current events that might be affecting them today. Make note of anything that might be useful for informing your conversation, taboos you want to avoid, or points of interest that you want to investigate further.
Specifically, you’ll want to research your subject in relation to your interview. What might you expect them to think about your topic? What unique insight or access do they have that you’ll want to break open for your reader or viewer? Use this prep time as a way to set up a frame for your conversation without removing room for flexibility to follow the conversation where it goes.
There are also some logistics to the interview itself you’ll want to knock out. Make sure you have at least two systems of record ready so that if one fails, you always have redundancy (the classic recorder and notepad has always worked for me). Specifically for use of any electronic recording, you’ll want to check if the state (or states if your interview is at a distance) you’re operating in are single-party or two-party consent states. In the case of the latter, you’ll need explicit consent to record from your subject at the start of the interview. As a point of courtesy, it’s usually good to ask regardless.
Lastly, while communicating before your interview, it is often best practice to send some or all of your interview questions to your subject ahead of time (at least as far as content marketing is concerned). There are certainly exceptions for more investigative pieces, but for the most part in the content world, the content you’ll be producing involves you reaching out to an expert of some kind to get their advice or insight. Giving them more time to prepare puts them at ease and sets you up to receive quotable answers.
So the time has come. You’ve done your research, mapped out a general conversational direction, and you’re now either on the phone or in the room with your subject.
The first thing you’ll want to do is find a way to put your subject at ease. For the purposes of most content related interviews, this means a little small talk on the front end, along with explaining the format and length of the interview. Giving your subject road markers of what to expect in terms of time commitment is a great way to keep them present and comfortable for your thirty minutes to an hour together.
For longer engagements like, say, a day-long documentary-style video, you’ll want to try to find some time to get to know your subject before you start your project. Get dinner together or meet up to discuss the logistics of the project at least once before you start. This will let both of you know what you’re getting into in terms of personality, mannerisms, and pacing for the coming project.
Now it’s finally time to start asking questions.
When interviewing, there are two primary types of questions: open-ended and closed. Closed questions are what we’re used to in everyday speech. These are questions with quick, direct answers that tend to be more specific in nature (the shortest possible ones being yes or no questions). Open-ended questions on the other hand are more conversational, and encourage your subject to think out loud for you. These tend to produce longer answers, reveal topics for follow-up, and give room for your interview to maintain a more natural flow.
There are good uses for both open-ended and closed questions, but for the purpose of content creation you’ll likely tend more towards open. These questions give you more material to work with and give your audience detailed insight into what your subject thinks. Closed questions, however, are excellent for quick, decisive topics that you want an unequivocal position on, or for matter-of-course questions that you want to get out of the way.
Your interview is done when you’ve accomplished two things: First, you’ve asked and received answers to the five Ws of your topic (who, what, when, where, why, and how), and secondly you’ve gathered information and quotes that relate to the topic you’re writing about. An easy way to structure most conversations to accomplish this goal is to start broad and hone in: Begin by getting your subject’s thoughts on their industry or the world today (establishes context), use this to bring up the specific event or topic you’re creating material about (gets the subject on topic), and then ask numerous follow-ups about what the subject thinks this should mean for your audience (what do they think your audience should do or think because of this context and topic).
Finally, as you come to a close, thank your subject for their time and give them some insights into what the next steps will be for your project. More often than not, your subject will also ask to have some kind of proofing access to your piece before it’s released: You’ll want to have an answer prepared regarding how and when your subject gets to interact with your work while it is in progress.
Image attribution: Maciej Korsan
Just because you’ve conducted your interview doesn’t mean your work is done. In fact, some of the most important work that makes or breaks good journalistic content happens at this phase.
First, you’ll want to follow up with your subject by email with a thank you and answer any lingering questions they may have had. This would be the time to organize getting them access to your content ahead of time and put them in touch with anyone else from your editorial team they may need to speak with.
Next, you’ll want to verify information. Most opinion-based interviews don’t require too much verification—after all, you’re working with one person’s perceptions. But anytime a factual claim or figure of some kind is made, you’ll want to find other sources that verify it. At the time of publishing, this not only makes your content more authoritative but it also protects your brand from publishing anything potentially erroneous. This step is what makes or breaks good journalism. Do not skip it.
Once your project is complete, all that’s left to do is speak with your subject to get any necessary approvals and then ask them to promote the work! Interview-based content gives your publications team a unique way to break into new networks and build trust with your audience by tying your brand’s view to authoritative figures.
Remember that trust is the primary commodity of journalistic work: Everything you build around your interview and everything about how you promote it later should work to reinforce your brand as a trustworthy source. If you’re able to achieve that, then you’ve not only learned how to interview; you’ve invested in a long-term audience resource that will help support your brand for years to come.
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Featured image attribution: Roman Kraft