How to ace interviewing for content in 8 steps

I’m going to share what I believe are eight key rules to bear in mind when you’re interviewing for content. These are the principles I swear by when I’m creating any copy. Although I’m coming at writing from an agency point of view, the pointers I’ve picked are equally relevant to for internal marketing team members tasked with content creation.

1. Make sure interviewees understand the value of collaborating on content

Many of the clients we work with have dipped their toe into the waters of content marketing in the past, often with mixed results. To begin with, we ask, directly what content-marketing challenges they have come up against previously. Where have the clashes of opinion been, where did stumbling blocks occur? Time and again, the most common complaint is that staff reported feeling ‘too busy’ to add blogging, or interviewing for content to their to-do list.

The second most common problem is that people often fail to recognise the value of investing time in content. HubSpot’s complete guide to content creation does a great job of answering the question ‘Why Is Content Important?’, so it’s a good place to start if you want to understand the strategic value of content creation.

When a client chooses to partner with us for content creation, we help to get the team on board by explaining the concept of adding value to customers before you extract value (by making a sale). The more you can give them, in terms of genuinely useful information and insight, the more likely they will be to trust your business and feel inclined to pay for your products or services once they are assured it is the right fit.

And HubSpot’s tracking tools make it possible to track which pages of your site are getting most hits, and which of those translate into sales further down the line (even on repeat visits), so you can directly see when a piece of content has been part of the buyer’s journey for a customer. Once a sceptical team member has that kind of data in front of them, making time for an interview no longer feels like a problem!

2. Cut through the sales-patter

The moment content starts to sound overly sales-y is the moment the reader switches off. Good content needs to be interesting in and of itself, regardless of whether a potential customer is going to buy from you. A good content-interviewer will have an ear attuned to sales-patter, and the skill to (politely) interrupt it and elicit a more original response.

The questions addressed to an interviewee should avoid being too product-centric, as focusing on the specifics of products tends to result in a standard ‘selling’ response. Where this is the case, the result is content that’s ploddy and reads like a press-release: ‘We do this and we do this, and here’s another thing we do…’ This is the antithesis of story-telling, and the warmth and human quality gets lost in the dissemination of product information.

Our aim is to create content that sounds friendly, and engages and educates customers, rather than bombarding them with facts. And because it’s SMART content, a key principle for HubSpot Partner agencies (including our friends over at Six and Flow), it will all be fully optimised with CTAs and strategic inbound links.

3. Find the hidden heroes in your business

The ideal person to interview for content often isn’t all that obvious. A lot of the time, they may not believe they have much to contribute. They may be the person who is on the phones all day speaking to customers. They may be a junior sales-person rather than a director. We have often found that marketing teams worry that they need to offer up their CEO or CTO for an interview when much of the on-the-ground insight can be found lower down the hierarchy.

Less senior members of staff are more likely to have a keen sense of the day-to-day concerns of customers. These team members are likely to hear your customers’ pain points spelled out clearly, every day. Without necessarily being aware of it, they will make connections and see patterns that may not be as obvious to those at the top of the business. So sometimes, when we start work with a new client, we’ll ask: 'Who's been at your company the longest?', 'Who knows the product inside out and backwards?' or 'Who talks to your customers every day?' And that's where we find the real gold. Think laterally about the best people to interview.

Admittedly, if it’s someone that's been sitting in a computer room doing their job quietly for the past 20 years, they may be a bit out of their comfort zone suddenly appearing on the website, but it’s a great way to showcase your team to your customers, and is a far more convincing demonstration of your expertise than a slick presentation delivered by an MD.

4. Transcribe the whole interview

We started recording and transcribing interviews to save time. What we didn’t anticipate was that we’d get more and better content as a result of having a transcript of a whole content interview. Recording the whole thing means we can do a better job of creating a tone of voice that sounds like you, something we think is essential for good content. When you play back snippets of a conversation, writing as you go, you are more likely to miss things, and less likely to accurately capture the nuances and phrasing that will give the content personality.

But the biggest benefit of long transcripts is that almost invariably, there are the germs of future content ideas in them. Tangential thoughts and suggestions that don’t quite fit with the brief for the piece we were interviewing for, but that could well be the springboard for a separate blog post in the future.

5. Create some stock questions

Although it’s important not to be too formulaic when it comes to interviewing for content, it’s helpful to devise a set of standard questions to fall back on. We created some content-creation playbooks which inform how we speak to all our customers in the early stages. Not all of the questions are appropriate to each customer, but they are a useful touchpoint for early-stage content conversations. By referring back to them, we make sure we have all the bases covered.

Some of the most crucial stock questions relate to the customer persona – the target audience for content. It’s absolutely crucial to pin this down and have an accurate idea of the primary concerns and pain points of your target reader. All content should spring from a keen understanding of the questions they want answered. But rather than asking our client to define their customers’ pain points in so many words, we come at it in a more lateral way.

Experience has taught us that questions such as: “If a customer decides not to buy your product/ service, what will they miss out on?” are more likely to garner a positive response than more obviously sales-based questions such as: “Why should I buy your product?”

6. Ask ‘stupid’ questions when you don’t understand

This is a useful one, particularly where an interviewee uses lots of technical language. Sometimes jargon is unavoidable, and sometimes a liberal sprinkling of technical words can be key to demonstrating genuine expertise. But as an interviewer, the most important thing is to make sure you have material you can use that will make total sense to the target reader.

We will ask: "Will your persona understand what you've just said?" or: “Do you think we need to go into more detail there? Because I, as a marketer, haven't completely followed some of the language you've just used. So do you think someone that you're trying to sell to would?" More often than not, that makes them backtrack and go: "Oh actually, no, they probably wouldn't. I'll explain that in layman's terms." Or sometimes they'll say: "Oh no, everyone knows that term." We take the client’s lead, but it’s important to ask the question.

7. Check it back

One of the biggest concerns that gets raised by clients in the early stages of content collaboration is how their interview material will be used. Most people have a lurking suspicion of journalists and interviewers, and their reputation for taking words out of context. They worry that the bigger picture, and their intended meaning, could get lost in translation.

We understand this concern, and are quick to emphasise that copy approval is a key part of our process. It’s something that is integral to the process, and never gets left out. Usually, clients request changes that are minimal, relating to the specific wording of particular phrases, or the use of terminology that is sector-specific. We allow time for our clients to circulate content internally so that appropriate team members can give sign-off before publication.

8. Know what matters

To produce quality content, it’s essential to have a clear idea of what ‘quality’ means! The QA process we use ensures we are always checking the content we create is of high quality. Content should be long enough to get picked up by Google, and with its new algorithm more attuned to natural language, keywords aren’t so important.

Good internal and external links do matter, and are another sales tool, directing customers to more pages on your site that might nudge them towards a sale. Poor-quality content is often short and has insufficient links (all of which means nobody is likely to find it). Most important of all, is good writing that has been well thought out and researched.

Following these pointers will ensure you produce great quality content which maximises opportunities to convert browsing customers into prospects.

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