I would argue that subject matter interviews are the essential way to understand any B2B industrial audience.

Independent research is great, but there’s no beating the information you get from a real person who speaks like your audience speaks, thinks how think and suffers the same problems they suffer.

But how do you make sure these conversations are productive?

It’s all about preparation. And, it’s all about throwing your preparation out the window.

Senior Strategist Grace Wright and I explain.

5 ways to make sure your subject matter interviews are productive

Send interview questions in advance. This journalism “no-no” is a content marketing “go for it.” It’ll help you know if you’re on the right track or off the mark. It can also help establish your credibility with an expert in advance. Finally, it can help your expert feel more comfortable if they’re not used to being interviewed.

Stay on your toes. Even if you send questions in advance, it’s no guarantee your subject has read them. Grace warns that you should always be ready to pivot if it turns out you swung and missed. The best antidote? Prepare. And when you’re done preparing, prepare some more.

Make room for nuance. I might ask only half the questions in an interview that I had prepared for. Why? Because complex topics contain lots of nuance. That’s why my question lists read more like a map with multiple viable routes. Good interview prep means knowing there are forks in the road — and being ready to go either way.

Listen and follow. The best subject matter interviews almost never follow the chronology an interviewer plans for. But sticking rigidly to the order your questions appear on a question list is a great way to throw yourself — and your subject — off the scent. Show some trust. Listen to your subject and follow where they lead you.

Keep your mission in mind. Subject matter interviews are means to an end but not an end in themselves. Grace says that the goal of a subject matter interview is to answer pressing questions or collect information that addresses pains or challenges you know your audience has.