Sure, you can spend hours whiteboarding what you think will inspire your audience to connect with you. Or, you could keep it simple and just ask them. It’s like that quote your 9th-grade teacher used to say, “When you assume, you make an a** out of you and me.” Just us? Okay, let’s make this easy so you can interview your audience effectively, efficiently, and with time to spare. Here are seven techniques for conducting insightful audience interviews.
From us to you: Going into interviews blind is bad news. Before interviewing your audience, consider what you want to talk to them about. What questions do you want to ask? What knowledge gaps do you have? What would be the most valuable information to have about them? What do you need to build your brand and develop a robust content strategy?
Spend a brainstorming sesh with your team, hashing out a blueprint for your interview. There are a few buckets you can place audience questions into that lead to meaningful insights. Here’s how to look at it (in case it helps you get the juices flowing):
- Industry perception—to what extent do they engage with your industry and what walls do they run into.
- Brand perception—ask them for feedback, including what you’re doing well and what they wish you would do instead.
- Content engagement—what have they read, listened to, or watched lately, and what stood out to them about the content.
- Behaviors—explore their actions in the context of your products or services.
- Emotions—ask about their emotional reactions to your offerings.
- Defining characteristics—to understand your audience, you must know what makes them tick. Ask them about their hopes, dreams, priorities, and challenges.
Your blueprint for your interview can evolve (more on that below), but if you go in with a plan, you’ll be more likely to get what you need out of the interview, which ultimately saves you time and money.
Set the Stage
Yes, how high you have the heat set or whether you schedule a Zoom interview can all impact your audience interview results. Before you have your heart to heart with your audience, make the setting conducive to an insightful interview.
- Eliminate distractions—have somebody babysit the children, put the dog in another room, and reschedule that team ping-pong tournament for another day.
- Adjust stimuli—check your lighting, ambient noise, and even your artwork on the walls.
- Let your interviewee call the shots—if they’re more comfortable being interviewed in their home, try to oblige.
- Be a tour guide—explain the purpose of the interview, what the interviewee can expect during the interview, and how long you anticipate the interview will last.
- Provide space—address any concerns or questions from the interviewee before starting.
- Ease them into the interview—pretend you’re on a date; break the ice before jumping right in.
Once the infrastructure is there, everybody’s sole focus can be on the interview itself.
Record, Sleep On It, Revisit
Always ask your interviewee if it’s okay if you record them. Even though it’s technically legal to record without consent if you are a participating party in the conversation, it’s good manners to let your interviewee know what’s going on. Recording your conversation comes with multiple benefits.
When you’re in the middle of interviewing somebody, your focus is on guiding the conversation, not on the insights. You will need to return to the conversation in a different mindset to gather your insights.
The interview contents may help you pull quotations or come up with content ideas. You can share the recording with relevant team members, who can offer their interpretation of the interview. That can lead to additional or refined insights. Either way, once you conclude the interview, set it aside for at least a few hours to let the experience digest. Then, revisit it to discover what you learned.
Yes, you can take notes but we recommend you put your full attention on the interviewee.
Ask High-Quality Questions
One of the biggest mistakes interviewers make is to ask the wrong questions, such as leading or close-ended questions. Or both. The issue with leading questions is that you’re apt to fall victim to confirmation bias, encouraging the interviewee to answer how you want them to respond, not how they think or feel. And close-ended questions leave little room for exploration. Insights can exist on the surface but are much more likely to be found after peeling back the layers.
So the secret to compelling audience interviews is to ask open-ended questions. What’s the difference between open-ended and closed-ended questions? We’re glad you asked. Look at these two questions.
Was your last experience purchasing our product positive?
What was your experience like the last time you purchased a product from our company?
The first question elicits a yes or no response. Functionally, it tells you nothing. If your audience says yes, great, but you need to know why it was positive. Maybe they loved your expanded shipping options, or they spoke with a rep that provided fantastic customer service, but you’ll never know because of the verbal door slam. The second question asks them to share a description of the experience, which allows you to mine for gold (insights).
Let’s try another one but this time with a leading question.
Lots of women find it challenging to balance work and family. So how do you balance work and family?
We’re interested in your experience with balancing work and family. How would you describe how you balance work and family?
With the first question, you’re planting a seed that introduces bias. The word “challenging” is that seed. So instead, the second question maintains neutral phrasing and provides space for the interviewee to tell you about their experience using their own words.
Here are bonus pointers to keep your questions effective.
- Avoid using adjectives; they’re often leading (see above).
- Keep your phrasing neutral, direct, and concise.
- Don’t reference other audience interviews; just ask them.
- Ask one question at a time, and then let them answer.
- Use the fewest words possible to avoid confusion.
- Avoid asking “why,” as it can put interviewees on the defensive.
- Ease into the more personal questions.
- Ask about the present first, followed by the future and the past.
- Remove your opinions/perspectives from the questions.
Listen Actively and Reflectively
Your interviewee will be more likely to open up to you if you are an engaged participant in the process. No robots here. Your go-to technique is active listening, and in certain circumstances (interviewing a long-time customer), you can take it up a notch by being a reflective listener.
Active listening is an art form. It’s founded on holding space and creating the circumstances for somebody to feel heard. Most people just want to be heard, and when people feel heard, it’s amazing what they’re willing to disclose.
You achieve active listening through a combination of verbal and non-verbal communication.
- Eye contact
- Open body language (turned towards the interviewee, relaxed posture, sitting still)
- Refraining from interruptions; let them finish what they’re saying before you make a peep.
- Using silence to encourage further sharing
- Encouraging more sharing, i.e., “Tell me more about that.”
- Acknowledgment responses “Yes,” “Go on,” or “Right,” for example.
- Open-ended questions (see above)
- Restating to ensure understanding, i.e., “You weren’t happy with your recent purchase.”
Bottom line: it’s not about you. Your non-verbal and verbal communication centers the interviewee and demonstrates that you’re paying attention to their non-verbal and verbal communication in tangible ways.
Be a Reflective Listener
Reflective listening is like active listening 2.0. Everything above plus a deeper level of emotional engagement with the interviewee. As stated above, it’s appropriate when you’re talking to an audience member you’ve interviewed before, that has a long history with the company, or has some higher level of familiarity with you, your team, or the company in general.
Whereas active listening is more, “I’m here, holding space for you to share,” reflective listening is more, “I see you. I really see you.” You’re not just listening; you’re digesting, analyzing, and in many ways, collaborating.
You summarize what they’re saying.
You reflect to them what you’re understanding in their words and expressions.
You help them clarify and refine what they’re saying.
You identify the root of what they’re saying.
Let’s pull out that last one. The interviewee says, “The last time I bought your products, it took foreverrrrr to get to my house. I had to decide whether it was worth it to hold out for you or find another company to buy from. And I thought about it! I’ve used your products for years, and all I wanted was for my order to arrive on time.”
You might respond, “Your order didn’t arrive on time. You felt frustrated and conflicted. You needed to know you could rely on us to deliver your products when we said we would.”
You’re not only validating what the interviewee said; you’re pulling out what’s important, even if they didn’t explicitly state it. You identify and name the meaning behind what they said and the emotions they’re expressing.
In the above example, your interviewee just gave you incredibly valuable information. They considered absconding from your brand because they worried they couldn’t rely on you. You can then troubleshoot your shipping and logistics process, provide better shipping updates, and offer discounts when delays happen to stay in your audience’s good graces.
Let the Story Lead You
Our final interview technique might just be the most important. When conducting audience interviews, always, always let the story lead you. It’s important to check yourself because audience interviews are exciting, and you’ll probably go into them with all kinds of thoughts, questions, and ideas. So have a plan but step back and get out of the way when necessary. That means you may not get to all of your questions. You may have to come up with new questions in the moment. And you may go down a questionception—asking follow-up question after follow-up question to explore an area of interest.
Your marketing strategy will be more compelling when you base it on your audience’s story.
Ultimately, when conducted well, your audience interviews will reveal insights that form the chapters of your audience’s success story with your brand. With a storybook of your audience’s journey, you have all the pieces you need to inform your marketing strategy, content strategy, and sales process. It’s a pathway forward based on real data points rather than guesswork.
Doesn’t that sound like a relief? To get started, all you have to do is have a conversation with your audience.
Go Deeper Into Audience Insights
One-on-one time allows you to truly see and hear a member of your audience, putting a name and face to the customer journey. Yet, there are limitations to one-on-one interviews. To understand whether the insights you gain from interviews are relevant to your big picture, conducting audience research is the way. It validates your interviews and provides insights that you can directly apply to your content strategy and sales pipeline. Ready to talk next steps? We’re waiting by our email inboxes to talk about your audience. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Caitlin Lead Copywriter
Caitlin Knudsen is a writer, editor, and food photographer based in the Midwest. With a background in nursing and decades spent writing, she is a published eBook author and knows a thing or two about communicating complex concepts in easy-to-understand language. Caitlin spends her free time developing gluten-free recipes, reading psychology books, and wrangling two pugs and a Dutch rabbit.more posts by Caitlin →
Content Marketing, Websites
Content Marketing, Small Business
Audience Research, Content Marketing
Audience Research, Content Marketing