Written by George van Rooyen
The ability to conduct an effective interview is underappreciated in marketing. That’s a shame
because interviews form the foundation of so many marketing activities.
After all, marketers interview people all the time—they interview product managers for
marketing collateral; they interview prospects for win/loss analyses; they interview customers for
case studies; they interview company CEOs and COOs for press releases; they even interview
industry experts for webinars, podcasts, and conference roundtables—yet it doesn’t seem to be
a skill that marketers are boasting about on their LinkedIn profiles. Why is that?
This is certainly not the case in journalism (a field that I spent about a decade in). Journalists
know how important a good interview is (and they all secretly think they’re one of the best
interviewers in the world). More importantly, they’ve all had that one disastrous interview where
they showed up underprepared and were met with a stony-faced interviewee who replied only in
one-word answers. Not only is it an excruciating experience—it leaves you with very little to
A bad marketing interview can have similarly dismal results. How do you write a great product
page, blog post, case study, or press release if you’ve failed to coax any useful quotes or
insights from an interviewee? Or how do you keep a conference or webinar audience’s attention
for an hour if even your panel is bored and checked out after five minutes?
The good news, however, is that a successful interview largely comes down to forethought and
preparation. Like anything, interview skills improve with practice, but regardless of how many
people you’ve interviewed before, there are practical things you can do to set yourself up for
Here are six ways to improve your marketing interviews.
1. Do Your Research
Nothing is more important than doing thorough research ahead of an interview. Not only is it a
waste of time to ask questions that can be answered with a quick Google search, it also reveals
to an interviewee that you’ve put very little thought or effort into prepping for the meeting. And if
you’re not taking it seriously, why should they?
Most crucially, good research allows you to elevate the conversation. You can’t be an expert on
every niche topic, but solid research allows you to ask the right questions and get the most out
of your interviewee.
Before the interview, do research on both the topic and the person you’ll be speaking to.
Nowadays, there’s a good chance that a podcast, webinar, or YouTube video already exists that
not only features your interviewee but also deals with the topic at hand. If this isn’t the case,
check out their Twitter and LinkedIn accounts to see what they regularly post about, and browse
their company website for any blog articles they may have authored.
2. Make a (Long) List of Questions
As you do your research, create a list of questions. Stay away from easy and obvious
questions—they’re unlikely to produce anything more than dull and predictable answers. You
want questions that force the person to pause and really consider what’s being asked. This
doesn’t mean that every question has to be unexpected; it can also mean approaching a
standard question from an interesting angle. For inspiration, have a look at Sean Evans on Hot
Ones. He asks incredible questions—all stemming from deep research. (And be sure to check
out Dan Levy at 5:20 in the video linked above).
Make sure that you have enough questions. You don’t want to run dry ten minutes into your
interview and find yourself desperately scrambling for things to ask. It’s also a good idea to send
your questions to the interviewee ahead of the meeting—but try not to have them simply email
you the answers. Whenever possible, have an actual meeting. Typed answers are better than
nothing, but they rarely have the rawness and authenticity of a spoken response.
3. Be On Time
This is simple but vital. Whether it’s a virtual or in-person meeting, you should be the first to
arrive. Showing up late when someone has set time aside to speak with you appears
disrespectful and sets the wrong tone at the outset. Moreover, it’s hard to recover and take
control of a meeting when you barge in ten minutes late.
4. Ease Into the Interview
You don’t want to waste someone’s time with pointless chatter, but whipping out your notepad
and firing off questions too quickly can put your interviewee on edge. It shouldn’t feel like you’re
conducting a police interrogation. Take a few minutes to chat and put your subject at ease
before you press record and start taking notes. Also, provide some context. Explain what the
goal of the interview is and what the next steps after the meeting will be. Make it clear that they
will get to see the final paper, article, podcast, etc. before it’s published. (This isn’t a gotcha
interview with a politician, so giving your subject a chance to review before you publish is the
right thing to do).
5. Take Copious Notes (and Press Record)
As mentioned earlier, the best thing about an interview is that you get to hear someone explain
a topic in their own words. And if you ask the right questions, the person will often provide you
with an authentic and unfiltered statement that’s absolute gold. You’ll recognize it the moment
you hear it—you’ll just know that you’ve unearthed a precious nugget that’ll feature in loads of
your marketing pieces.
To ensure these quotes don’t pass you by, take careful and thorough notes throughout the
interview. You might be tempted to merely scribble down a few keywords related to an answer,
especially if the person is talking quickly, but that’s a bad idea. Those notes might make sense
in the moment, but they’ll be impossible to decode when you revisit them a few days later.
When you get a great quote, write it down verbatim. There’s nothing wrong with asking the
person to slow down so you can capture it all.
You’re probably thinking that you can simply use the voice notes app on your phone to record
the conversation. Or, if you’re meeting virtually, you can record the video call. You can definitely
do that—just be sure to ask for permission first. If there’s any hesitation, it’s best not to record. A
person who’s uncomfortable being recorded won’t give you the honest and open responses you
need. Lastly, remember that apps can crash and saved files can get corrupted, so even if you’re
recording, it’s still a good idea to take notes.
6. Don’t Just Rattle Off Your Questions
Showing up to an interview with prepared questions is important—you’re there to get your
hands on specific information and your list of carefully-crafted questions is the most powerful
tool you wield. However, merely running through your list and jotting down the answers probably
won’t deliver the result you’re looking for.
A successful interview requires that you steer the conversation and keep your subject on topic,
while also allowing the discussion to evolve organically. Ask follow-up questions when the
person makes a statement that suggests there’s more to be discovered. Also, allow them to go
off on a (slight) tangent—your best quotes will sometimes have nothing to do with your original
questions or research.
The (Unnatural) Art of Interviewing
Lastly, don’t be afraid to keep digging if an answer is unsatisfying. Subject matter experts tend
to toss out jargon-filled sentences that are incomprehensible to non-experts. Keep asking for
clarification until you get an answer that’s usable in your marketing content.
Firing questions at someone doesn’t feel natural, especially at first—it seems intrusive and
disrespectful. But it gets easier.
Here’s what Willaim Zinsser, author of the classic On Writing Well, says about interviewing.
“Interviewing is one of those skills you can only get better at. You will never again feel so ill at
ease as when you try it for the first time, and probably you’ll never feel entirely comfortable
prodding another person for answers he or she may be too shy or too inarticulate to reveal. But
much of the skill is mechanical. The rest is instinct—knowing how to make the other person
relax, when to push, when to listen, when to stop. This can all be learned with experience.”
If you put real thought and effort into every interview, you’ll find that you get better at it. Not only
will the quality of your research and questions improve, but as Zinsser suggests, you’ll develop
an instinct for getting the most out of the person you’re interviewing. Instead of boring canned
responses, you’ll get authentic and insightful answers. And your marketing content will be so
much better because of it.