Overcoming 5 sneaky pitfalls in audience and stakeholder interviews

Photo Credit: R. Nial Bradshaw
  • By Team CSI
  • |
  • Sep 15 2016
Categories: |Toolbox

Different roles, distinct challenges

In any content strategy effort, you’ll inevitably need information that other people have, whether they know it or not. Interviewing people can be hard work (which is why we have some general pro-tips).

To help you get the most valuable information possible, we’ve come up with five sneaky challenges that often pop up and our tips for overcoming them.

Stakeholder interviews

Internal stakeholders come in many different forms and have a lot to contribute. They may have strong opinions, budgets to spend, a deep understanding of the customer, and/or have subject matter expertise valuable to the organization’s content.

They also have valuable information about the business’ complexities, like how projects get approved, what groups are allied with others, and how sensitive the corporate climate is to change. How much of that information they may share will depend upon your interviewing finesse.

1. Political crossfire

You may find that some stakeholders withhold their honest opinions due to their concern over company politics. They may not want to stir the pot when they’ve seen things go poorly for their colleagues in similar situations.

Interview pitfall #1: Political politics. Here's what to do about it. Click To Tweet

What to do about it

To navigate sensitive political situations, focus on presenting yourself with honesty and relatability. This may encourage stakeholders to open up by creating a safe space for sensitive topic discussions.

You can also take your conversation “off the record” and problem solve how to bring in their insights. Assure the stakeholder you won’t recommend any resultant action without consulting them first. This may sound like tying one hand behind your back, but if it helps you get to the truth quicker, then the trade-off may be worth it.

If the political situation is simply too intense, it may be time to bring in a neutral third party who can claim innocence from the day-to-day difficulties of your organization and is less bound by your organizational politics.

2. Agenda dominance

Stakeholders with significant organizational power have a tendency to… well, start monologuing on their current favourite topic. They may:

  • Be so busy in their day-to-day that they’re unlikely to read the meeting agenda.
  • Enter the room with a topic in mind or discover one early in the conversation that they refuse to let go.
  • Have recently read a white paper or article and are keen to apply the findings to their organization.
Interview pitfall #2: Dominating the agenda. What should you do? Click To Tweet

What to do about it

During these interviews, you’ll need to be particularly flexible and hands-on in shaping the conversation. Remember: these stakeholders want to help! They may override your agenda because they see their topic as more “helpful,” so it’s important not to reject their topic outright. You will need to be creative here and find ways to connect their thinking back to your agenda and interview focus without being dismissive.

If the monologue threatens to derail the entire interview, then you may need to pause the conversation and realign on objectives for the interview. You will likely only have 30 minutes, so you can suggest that you want to be sure to cover other topics before they leave.

Audience interviews

User and customer groups are infinitely complex with a wide range of biases that can crop up during interviews, so preparing for these sessions can be especially difficult. You just don’t know what to expect until you begin talking.

3. Customer gripes

If any of the audiences you’re interviewing are current or recent customers, you’re bound to hear about how great (or, more commonly, how not-so-great) their experience with the brand has gone so far. Even with strong participation incentives, customers rarely hold back if they have something to gripe about. This can really bog down your interview time and make focusing difficult.

Interview pitfall #3: Griping about the company. Here's how to handle it. Click To Tweet

What to do about it

In these cases, keep your energy focused on the content problems you need to solve. It’s understandable to want to solve EVERY problem, but you’ve started this research to solve specific issues. If the gripe isn’t related to your research scope, take note of the customer issues and guide the conversation back to your research.

Don’t let gripes dominate your conversation. If the customer continually returns to the gripe, you may need to assure them you’ve taken note of this but need to talk about other things to continue.

4. Irrelevant feedback

It’s easy to forget that real-life audiences don’t always speak the same language as business and content strategy professionals. When we use jargon or ask business-first questions, we run the risk of having our audiences not totally understand the question, but feeling too uncomfortable to ask for clarification. This too often leads to irrelevant feedback.

What to do about it

Just like efficient, usable writing, you want to be sure that everything you ask audience groups is free of jargon and speaks to the participant on their own terms. Put yourself in their shoes and speak to them accordingly.

For example, you wouldn’t ask customers to define their perceived “value proposition” from the brand, but you could ask them directly why they purchased services at all, with whom they were comparing services, and what they thought was different about each brand.

Interview pitfall #4: Giving unrelated / irrelevant feedback. Here's how to avoid it. Click To Tweet

5. Solving the wrong problem

If you give audience members too much context about the problems you’re looking to solve in your project, they will oftentimes start proposing their own solutions.

This can be a distraction from your research purpose. You want audience members responding comfortably, without thinking about their answers so you get honest opinions. If you explain too much about a website redesign, for example, they’ll start telling you what designs they think would work and would like to see. This is usually not their professional vocation, so if they get sidetracked on a design rant, it can waste precious minutes.

Interview pitfall #5: Solving the problem. Here's how to get back on topic. Click To Tweet

What to do about it

Try to limit how much context you give the audience member. It should always be JUST enough to spark a quick and knowledgeable response, but not too much to give them more to chew on than they need.

For example, rather than detailing the content strategy process, in which these interviews will lead to key findings, that shape user personas and journeys, which will impact the brand’s digital content, simply note that you’re here to try and make the brand’s content better and more useful. If the audience member is curious how that happens, simply explain that these interviews inform what we understand about their specific audience needs are so we can create content that’s useful in those situations.

It may help to imagine you’re speaking to a customs officer as you re-enter your home country. You don’t need to belabour the point when answering questions. Instead, quickly explain your answers and working context and resume your research and investigation.

You can’t always win… and that’s okay

In your work, you may find that an interview or two goes so far off the rails that it can’t be salvaged. Don’t worry – these things happen!

It’s rare to have a 100% success rate with audience and stakeholder interviews, which is why it’s best to plan for a few more than you think you need. If you think you need 10, schedule 12. And if you feel an interview losing focus and you can’t save it, finish it early and save yourself some time.

Further reading

From research to content tools: in-person interviews and focus groups

Get what you need: Learning from journalism when interviewing stakeholders and audiences

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