The art of interviewing for marketers

How to get the most out of a client, subject-matter expert or just about anybody else

[Image courtesy of Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung at Flickr Creative Commons]

“They really said that?” asked an incredulous client recently. “Why do they never say this stuff to us?”

The answer was simple. I’m not my client, just a writer who was conducting case-study interviews on their behalf.

So the compliments just kept on coming, in a way that would have been impossible if my client had been talking direct to their clients. “You’re fabulous and I love working with you” is a lot more difficult to say than “They’re fabulous and I love working with them”. 

So being an impartial third party definitely helps.

But there are also some general guidelines that will make any interview go more smoothly. Here are my top 10: 

  1. Decide on your objective. I know it sounds obvious, but it’s a really easy step to skip. The key thing here is knowing what you want to get out of the interview. A killer story about a successful deployment? In-depth knowledge of a subject from somebody who’s a definitive authority? Quotable quotes for testimonials? Customer insight? 
  2. Always confirm. Plans change and priorities shift. So what was a convenient time when you set it up last week may suddenly become an inconvenience in a packed diary. It’s always a good idea when you speak to an interviewee to confirm they’re still OK to talk. If you sense hesitation, reschedule. There’s nothing worse than a hassled or rushed interviewee, dispatching questions with the briefest of answers. 
  3. Record the call. It’s much easier if you know that you can play back your conversation later and pick up anything you missed. Plus, you’ll get more accurate quotes and won’t spend all your time desperately trying to write or type verbatim in a real-time conversation. You should tell your interviewee you’re recording – and most people are fine with that. 
  4. Set expectations. I always start by telling people what I’m hoping to achieve, and how the interview fits into the wider picture (‘Acme Inc is relaunching their website in a couple of months, and they’d like to have some new case studies.’). Nobody likes being interviewed, so if you explain clearly what you goal is, and how the process works, they’re much more likely to open up and give you what you want. 
  5. Have a clear structure and a logical sequence, so your interview follows a predetermined path. It doesn’t need to be exhaustive – just a skeleton list of bullet points will do. It’s easy to forget what to say next next when you’re focusing on the here and now. Having another question on your list means you’ll never have one of those embarrassing pauses.
  6. Don’t be afraid to deviate. Structure and sequence are all very well, but life isn’t a straight line. Almost every interview I’ve done has taken a detour. Sometimes you have to guide the interviewee gently back on track, but often, the direction they take you in is more interesting than the one you mapped out. The trick is recognising when you’re on to something good and running with it. 
  7. Ask open questions. ‘Did the deployment go well?’ is just asking for a one-word answer (yes/no). As is ‘Do you enjoy working with Acme?’ It’s much better to say ‘Tell me about the deployment’ or ‘What’s it like working with Acme?’ Even so, when you ask an open question, you may well have to gently encourage the interviewee with a supplementary question. A really effective tactic is simply to repeat what they’ve said back to them (‘So the deployment took just a month?’) which is often all it takes to keep them talking.
  8. Talk less, listen more. As an interviewer, you need to get out of the way and let somebody else take centre stage. An interview doesn’t obey the normal rules of conversation, where you generally talk as much as you listen. I remember years ago playing back an interview I did and marvelling at how long my questions were, and how often I interrupted the interviewee. I learned my lesson, and never did it again. 
  9. Ask for details or clarification. Not interrupting interviewees is all very well, but only if they’re on topic and it’s all making sense to you. If not, interrupt sooner rather than later to clear up uncertainty or get them back on track. It’s always a mistake to do the equivalent of nodding obligingly when you’re struggling to understand a native speaker of a language you’re learning. There’s nothing wrong with admitting you don’t understand. 
  10. Round things off. Once the interview is over (and you should always finish on time), recap the procedure to the interviewee: next steps, editorial control/veto (usually required for case studies), photo/bio information and when they can expect to hear back from you. Also, whether it’s OK to contact them by email if any queries come up.

Follow these tips, and you’ll be interviewing like a pro. But just one last thing: do remember to double-check your recording technology before you start. Not doing so is a mistake you make only once.

Take my word for it. 

The marketing lessons we can learn from politicians

The business of politics – and the politics of business

Marketing lessons we can learn from politicians

It’s only a few short months since I was quietly admiring the political skill of David Cameron, after reading a biography by Lord Ashcroft.

Fast-forward and Cameron has disappeared off the radar, his political career engulfed by the Brexit storm.

He’s out of Number 10, and will soon be leaving the green benches of Parliament to head into early retirement or a lucrative career in the private sector (becoming what the French charmingly call a pantouflard – a ‘slipper-wearer’, a reference to how cushy a politician’s life is when they make a seamless transition to the business world).

His fall from grace set me thinking about how politicians are like brands, with their success often owing more to marketing and clever PR than any objective differentiation. 

So how do today’s crop of politicians shape up as brands? What are their strengths and weaknesses? And what can we learn from how these animals operate in the political jungle?

Let’s see.

The challenger brand

This is a great position to be in: you simply take pot-shots at the market leader or the incumbent leader, immediately putting them on the defensive. You’re the new broom, and sweeping is high on your agenda.

Donald Trump is a challenger brand, with a deep war chest that he’s not afraid to break open to gain market share. He’s riding high on a wave of anti-establishment resentment. 

But this position by definition doesn’t last if it works.

When you overtake your rivals, or you get elected, you now have a target on your back, and you’d better come up with the goods. Just look at what happened to Nick Clegg in the UK, and you’ll see what The Donald has to look forward to if he heads down Pennsylvania Avenue.

The brand you know and trust

Hillary Clinton is part of the establishment Trump is hitting out at, so she has to turn that necessity into a virtue.

Though the Clinton brand is instantly recognisable, it’s not without political baggage – containing the notorious dress of ‘that woman’, among other things.

But as a Washington insider, she can confidently play the ‘voice of experience’ card. She regularly asks who voters would choose to have their finger hovering above the nuclear button. (Personally, I’d have a hard time trusting any politician, of any stripe, past or present, with their finger anywhere near it.)

Clearly, having been close to the heart of power for many years, her message is that she’s the safer, more predictable, more stable choice.

It’s important to remember here that people often vote not for a candidate but against another (cast your mind back to Jacques Chirac vs. Jean-Marie Le Pen in 2002). 

Commercial brands often make the mistake of thinking their marketing message exists in a vacuum – but it doesn’t.

Just like Hillary and Donald, they’re put in a lineup and compared and contrasted. So you’re judged not just on your own merits, but on your relative merits when you’re standing next to your competitors.

The non-stick brand

Just eight years ago, Barack Obama couldn’t put a foot wrong. He was the ultimate in cool brands – the Apple of politics. 

But he hasn’t closed Guantanamo, Obamacare still raises hackles across the US, and his inability to get legislation through (especially in the last two years, with the Republicans controlling both houses of congress) all mean he’s leaving if not under a cloud, then at least with less than blue skies.

But he’s managed the message well, and is an unparalleled speaker. He forms instant connections with people, and is not afraid to let his human side show. He does gravitas perfectly, but balances it brilliantly with levity and good humour.

Eight years on, and he’s still the coolest political brand – internationally, it not domestically. 

The anti-brand

In a world of 24-hour news cycles, constant spin and managed messages, refusing to play the game can often work in your favour.

Teresa May is the ultimate safe pair of hands. She adopted a low-key strategy during the referendum campaign, and avoided the cut-and-thrust of the power struggle that followed David Cameron’s departure. She then stepped in as the compromise candidate, and preached a story of reconciliation and harmony. 

It was brilliantly played – if, in fact, she was playing. Of course with politicians you can never tell, but she’s either sincere or fakes it very convincingly.

May is returning to a low-key style of leadership out of the media spotlight. She says she’s ‘just getting on with the job’ – a phrase that was much used and abused by predecessors, but one which she actually appears to be putting into practice.

Virtual reality

In the end, what matters in business as in politics is presentation, credibility, and the subtle interplay between the two.

It’s a well-worn cliché that you create your own reality, but when it comes to political campaigns, it goes even further – creating other people’s reality.

In marketing as in life, there is no absolute truth. You only have to look at the below-the-line comments on some newspaper sites (The Guardian is the frontline of the Brexit battlefield) to see how implacably opposed the pro and anti sides are. And how neither will cede an inch in the ongoing struggle for the moral high ground.

You can’t win all of the people all of the time – so you shouldn’t even try. Instead, much like the politicians, you should play to your strengths and play up the competition’s weaknesses.

It doesn’t much matter what the product is – it’s how you market it that counts. And we can learn a lot from politicians when we look at how they’ve sold their political messages, and positioned themselves over recent years.

And yes – even from The Donald.

How to connect with a stranger (or a prospect)

Beautiful interruptions, unexpected connections and shoes as a secret weapon

Connect with a stranger

As I settled into my seat on the London-bound Eurostar at the Gare du Nord early last year, I was feeling sad and happy in equal measure.

I was leaving Paris after three wonderful months, and would miss it terribly. But at the same time, I was returning to friends and family, and to my old familiar routine back in England.

I’d almost abandoned my madcap idea to temporarily decamp to the City of Lights, when I had a chance encounter online that changed everything.

One thing led to another, and before I knew it, I was installed in Montmartre in a spacious des res, whose owner had fled south to the sun to escape the European winter. 

And so I spent three months meeting new people, following new routines, and exploring new possibilities. From the stranger I spoke to on the outbound Eurostar journey to the chap I bumped into in the boulangerie, from the South American translator to the reiki healer, my life had been full of chance encounters and mind-broadening experiences. 

Stranger danger

So when a woman came trundling down the aisle sighing heavily under the weight of her many bags, I somehow knew she was destined to sit next to me.

And so she did, after wondering (incorrectly) if I’d taken her window seat. She was clearly in a foul mood, muttering to herself as the train pulled out of the station.

Two-and-a-quarter hours of this, I thought. And then I decided to act.

“Vous aimez les mots croisés?” I asked her, pointing to her crossword book. “Ça m’a l’air vachement compliqué, celui-là!” And indeed the puzzle did look fiendishly complicated, with few black squares and mind-bendingly cryptic clues.

That was enough to get her to smile and start a conversation.

Two-and-a-quarter hours later, we pulled into St Pancras in London, still talking. We’d ranged across a wide variety of subjects, from teaching to city living, from happiness to startups.

As we entered the arrivals hall, she hugged her waiting daughter (an expat startup owner) and introduced her to me. Before leaving, she gave me her card and invited me to her farm in France.

And the moral of the story? Talk to strangers. Connect. Find a point of interest and use it as a springboard for a conversation. 

Not just on trains, but on your website. Not just in boulangeries, but in your e-books. Not just in alternative bookstores over the reiki titles, but in your newsletter.

Which brings me around to a TED talk I watched last week.

Kio Stark’s Why you should talk to strangers transported me back to my Paris experience, and reminded me that it doesn’t end when you return home. 

She’s not talking about marketing, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t apply. She says we should use our senses instead of fears, perceptions instead of categories, and start thinking of people as individuals. She talks about ‘beautiful interruptions’ and ‘unexpected connections’, which is something we all hope our marketing efforts will do. 

You’ll find out why it’s easier to smile in Asia than Denmark, and why shoes (or their virtual equivalent) may very well be the secret weapon you’re looking for, hot on the heels of dogs and babies.

I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

[If you’re reading this in an email, click here to see the talk on]

The 10-step guide to creating a marketing e-book

It’s time to get those creative juices flowing. Here’s how.

[Image courtesy of David Salafia at Flickr Creative Commons]

They say everybody has at least one book in them – and in most cases, that’s where it should stay.

You only have to look at the self-published masterpieces on Amazon to realise that the bar has been placed so low, virtually anybody can get over it nowadays. 

If the Muse hasn’t yet struck, and you’re feeling creatively frustrated, you could always turn your attention marketing-wards, and consider writing a non-fiction e-book.

Gone are the days when you could just broadcast a sales message and your audience would flock to your door. Today, you have to engage and entertain them, inform and impress them. And e-books a great way to do that, letting you fly under the radar and connect with your reader.

They’re also easier than writing a lad-lit pot-boiler, or a triumph-over-tragedy family saga.

For a start, a marketing e-book is much, much shorter than a novel. Typically, it’s 2-3,000 words, which is only as long as a short story. You also don’t need to work your imagination quite as hard, as you know all the facts already.

It’s really just a case of arranging them in a way that captivates your reader. 

So how do you go about it? One step at a time.

Here are my 10 steps for writing an e-book that has them turning those pages faster than any bodice ripper. 

  1. Define your audience. Are they customers or prospects, and where are they in the sales cycle? Can you conjure up a typical reader? If it helps, try creating personas and supplying as much detail as possible to make them seem real.
  2. Set an objective. Is this a high-level piece that aims to give a broad overview of the market and issues? Are you educating readers and making them aware of the big picture? Or are you solving a specific problem? Sometimes, you’ll want to helicopter out and other times, you’ll want to zoom in, depending on where this piece sits in your sales funnel. 
  3.  Write an outline. This is a crucial step, and one that you don’t want to miss out (believe me, I speak from experience here). Creating an outline for your e-book will let you break the story down into manageable pieces, and move them around if you need to. It can be just headings and subheadings, or a little more fleshed-out. The important thing here is not to simply dive into the writing, without an overview of the structure.
  4. Keep it short and simple. We all have reduced attention spans nowadays, so make sure your book is broken up into small, easily digested pieces. If the total length is 2,500 words, then aim for sections that are 300-400 words. You should help the reader through the copy with headings, bolded text, bullet points and boxes.
  5. Include quotes. Nothing builds credibility more than input from third parties. They could be experts in your field, or industry commentators – or even clients. Weaving quotes into your copy also provides variety, so it’s easier to read. 
  6. Find the stats. There’s no shortage of figures out there to help you build your case. Whether you’re writing about the unstoppable rise of the Internet of Things, or the latest trends in customer satisfaction or mobile marketing, there’ll be a survey, a study or a slew of charts and graphs to help support your argument. 
  7. Say it with confidence. Whatever the message you’re getting across, and whatever the audience you’re addressing, nothing sells like confidence. Not swaggering confidence that’s just a bit too pleased with itself, but quiet, low-key confidence that keeps a friendly smile on its face. 
  8. Lead the pack. Try to find an angle and take an approach that shows you think differently. Tackle big problems and be bold in suggesting solutions. Thought leadership has become a bit of a hackneyed term over the last few years, but that’s really what we’re talking about here. Get out in front, and show them you know your stuff.
  9. Be human. Way too many e-books take themselves way too seriously. If you turn yours into a friendly chat with your reader, you’re far more likely to keep them reading to the end. Some of the most effective e-books are the ones that talk about complex subjects in a simple way, using language that’s informal and pared-down. They connect with the reader on a human level – which, when you think about it, is all any of us wants.
  10. End with a bang, not a whimper. Too many e-books simply fizzle out at the end. Remember step 2 – set an objective. Do you want your reader to register for more information? Set up a meeting? Attend an event? Join your mailing list? Contact a reseller? Just like a novelist knows how a book is going to end before they write the first sentence, so you should know what happens on the last page of yours before you start.

And when you’re finished, push your book out through every available channel. Put it on your website, either gated (fewer downloads, but more info on readers) or freely downloadable (more downloads, less info).

Publicise it on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter. Turn it into a Slideshare. Atomise it for blog posts, tweets and articles. Release it into the wild, letting anybody, anywhere put it on their site (with attribution, of course). 

Then start on the next one. Because when it comes to marketing e-books, we all have more than one inside us. 

And they definitely shouldn’t stay there. 

How far can you push transparency in marketing?

Playing the game and breaking the code

Joined-up service

When was the last time an advert stopped you in your tracks?

For me, it was last weekend, when I came across this poster on a bus shelter not far from my house.

Normally, I just walk past these ads without a second thought. They’re funny (that’s a given nowadays) and they’re slick, and they all end up looking pretty much the same. 

Except this one was different. We’ve got sales targets.

I gasped inwardly at the cheek of being so blatant about their motives. Forget being led by benefits, or selling the sizzle not the sausage. This was in-your-face honesty: you want a drink, and we want your money.

It’s not a relationship, it’s a one-night stand, they’re saying – let’s not pretend it’s anything more.

So it’s a bold departure. Can you just imagine how the marketing department at Coca-Cola, who produce Oasis, reacted when their ad agency presented the campaign? I’ll bet they thought long and hard before they gave it the green light.

Further down the road, and around a corner, I passed another bus shelter with another poster winking conspiratorially at me: You need a tasty refreshing Oasis. Trust me, I’m an ad.

Just a few hundred yards along, I spotted yet another: Merry Xmas. First Xmas ad of 2016. Take that, advertising. 

Telling it like it is

There’s nothing new about honesty in marketing.

Avis did it way back in the 1960s when it pushed the benefits of being the second-largest car-hire company (We try harder. When you’re not the biggest, you have to). Southwest Airlines famously has its Transfarency campaign (Low Fares. Nothing to Hide.) that helps customers avoid those ‘pesky fees’.

For 25 years, adverts for Stella Artois beer in the UK boasted that it was reassuringly expensive. And Domino’s Pizza tackled criticism head-on and ‘reinvented our pizza from the ground up’. 

I worked with one tech client who’s completely honest about their dashboards, admitting they aren’t the slickest or the sexiest out there. But they say that pretty barcharts don’t tell the whole story. If you’ve got ‘business intelligence at the speed of light’, who needs whizz-bang graphics?

So honesty in marketing can work very well when deployed intelligently. But this campaign takes things one step further.

So what’s going on here? And why is it getting people talking?

Through the looking glass

Well first, it’s genuinely funny – but it adds a twist to the usual advertising recipe. It’s gently mocking the medium, making other ads seem less genuine – and more like ad-like. It’s honest, but without being naive (they’re not doing a Ratner, which crossed the line into recklessness). 

It’s also getting people involved with their cleverly named #refreshingstuff hashtag, so people are tweeting their advertising and giving them more bang for buck.

But mostly it works because it’s different. And Oasis got there first.

If everybody starts using these self-referential ads, the spell will be broken for good. It’s a bit like an actor who steps out of character and addresses the audience. It works because it’s unexpected, and breaks the norms. If actors routinely did it, the effect would quickly wear off.

So (sun)hats off to Oasis for upending our expectations, and getting us to take a new look at an old formula. It’s a brilliant marketing move, but they know as well as anybody that it has a limited shelf life – a bit like a bottle of their Summer Fruits.

Let’s hope they hit those sales targets before autumn rolls around.