The art of the enterprise case study interview

Profile picture for user jreed By Jon Reed September 1, 2015
Summary:
Case study interviews are the foundation for all the content that follows. But if you botch the case study interview, you won't get a good content result. Here's Jon's tips for written and video case studies.

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As enterprises become skilled at producing their own content, the art of the interview takes on greater importance. Interviews can get you into trouble - ask the wrong questions, and the final content is limited.

Companies make mistakes on their case study interviews by taking a narrow solutions focus. Video interviews have specific limitations that create new ways to screw up. Podcasts, now taking on greater relevance, have a different set of nuances. Here's a few notes on how I approach these interviews. Maybe you can avoid some of my knee scrapes.

The case study interview - think beyond solutions

The case study interview is at the heart of your content efforts. Companies have been publishing case studies for years, falling into pitfalls along the way (I've written about avoiding those). The case study remains a vital piece of the puzzle. Once the case study is approved by a customer, you now have validated numbers/results you can share.

Companies tend to limit their case study interviews to a narrow focus on their own technology and the wonderful things that it did. Great - but that interview structure is only interesting to Kool-Aid drinkers or those or who are deep - and I mean deep - in the sales funnel. So what's a better approach?

Wrap the solution part of the interview into a broader look at industry challenges, which can be used either in the case study or subsequent blogs.

Here's how I "wrap" the solutions part of an interview, from the intro onward:

  • A bit about the individual and their professional background. This can work well as an icebreaker. As long as there is time, I go beyond the current job role and dig into how they got there.
  • A view of their company's industry challenges/opportunities and competitive position. Every industry is facing disruption, from retail to tech manufacturing. Readers enjoy this content, and it frames why the company is looking at new solutions.
  • How technology (e.g. cloud, database innovation, big data, etc) is impacting their go-to-market and business opportunities. Set an honest tone about which technologies are directly relevant to the customer's business today. The question should focus on overall tech, NOT the solution in question.
  • A look at the solution chosen, why it was chosen, and what the results were after go-live. This is when I finally get into the branded solutions part of the interview. Often, to the consternation of the PR folks, this is halfway through the interview time. But it works. Now you have the context readers appreciate. Ask about the challenges the company was facing, how the solution helped, and a realistic look at the project. If time, ask about skills/training challenges and the support needed from consultancies, if any. Business user adoption/buy-in is becoming a crucial theme.
  • Specific results and an example or two are ideal. By example, I mean anecdotes, such as a story about someone on the project who resisted change, but then got on board. Results are always important - ideally, hard numbers. User adoption, stakeholder feedback - all that good stuff is needed.
  • Advice for other customers - if time, ask for advice for other customers in their industry. That question tends to surface great content.
  • Personal wrap - if time, you can ask your subject a final question about their own career goals, leadership role models, or books they are reading. Or you can float the classic "what keeps you up at night?" At this point, you are banking content, because too much is better than too little.

Video interview - shorter and harder hitting

For the video interview, you probably won't have much time to work with. If you have the time and resources to shoot a relaxed interview and edit it later, you can hit most of the questions above. Usually, you'll be filming under time constraints. At most shows, Den and I film in thirty minute time slots, which is not a lot when you consider getting people sound-tested, coffee/restroom trips, and ready to film.

As you ponder the video interview structure, remember that you will have a "lower third" with the person's name, company, and job title displayed on screen, so you don't necessarily have to repeat all that information during the video itself. If someone has a ridiculously long job title, I try to avoid messing it up by saying it out loud. That's what the lower third is for.

For the on-site video interview, here's a few structures:

Quick testimonial on the show floor - some companies have great luck getting their customers to film quick testimonials right on the show floor. These are 30 second quickies, where you ask only an open-ended question such as "Tell us about your experience with our company/product."

Five minute video, taped or streaming - at a conference, you may find yourself doing a live customer interview, or taping a five minute testimonial. Often, you will have an additional five/ten minutes to prep the customer for the taping. Use that prep time to ask what they want to talk about, and get them comfortable. Then you can mutually agree on the topics to cover.

The danger with the five minute video is that if the video subject is not concise, you can take up a couple minutes with a long intro about them or their company. If the company is a well known brand, I might skip asking them about the company itself and jump right into the project, opening with something like:

"Tell us about your project and the challenges you were facing" or
"Tell us about your project role and the challenges you were facing".

If the company is not as well known, you'll need to work that in, such as "Tell us a bit about your company and the project you're involved with" (notice how my language guides the subject towards focusing on the project and NOT a longer branded spiel about their company).

A video interview should be an appealing narrative, so the heart of it is:

  • challenges faced
  • solution chosen
  • obstacles overcome/results

Of course you'll need some type of intro, ergo:

intro of some kind (background of individual/company/project in some combination), then:

  • challenges faced
  • solution chosen
  • obstacles overcome/results

You don't need a lengthy wrap. Sometimes you will need to choose between a nice ending and an important follow up question. Usually a good video interview has one completely unscripted moment, or an unexpected follow up question. That keeps things lively.

Humor is always important to keep a subject relaxed during an interview. It's crucial during a video interview. If you and the subject are enjoying the talk, relaxation sets in. That helps with any on-camera nerves.

For your wrap question for the video, possible options include:

  • advice to fellow customers
  • advice to the vendor/solution provider (yes, including strongly-worded feedback)
  • what's next (if they have an interesting project on the horizon they are allowed to talk about)

If you're at an event, sometimes it's good to work in a question about the customer's event reactions/experiences.

Podcasts - a different animal entirely

Podcasts are a different situation completely. The format can be very compelling for the listener, hitting on more nuanced points and unscripted reactions. I do NOT suggest combining the case study interview and the podcast. The case study interview requires a certain thoroughness and careful structure. It often means going over numbers and clarifying them. That's not such good podcast listening.

A podcast can make a terrific follow up to a more formal case study interview. Podcasts are a great format for subjects who can speak freely, and who have great stories or strong opinions. It's worthy of a longer piece - for now, check out my podcasting for business article with Brian Clark of Copyblogger.

Final thoughts - preparation gets results

I prep extensively for my case study interviews, but I don't want the customer to do that. I want them to feel relaxed and natural, not reading off of a note card. So when I am asked about the interview prep, I tell folks that they don't need to prep. But: I will sometimes ask them to think about the project results they can share. If you are conducting a formal case study interview, that's where the customer should focus their prep time.

Unless they are going on video, they DON'T need to get PR approval on every number they will be sharing with you - not yet. But they should pull relevant data or metrics out of their systems, and think about how to quantify such data.

It's usually better to get the written case study approved before you shoot a video. Don't make the mistake of shooting a video that doesn't have approved numbers in it. If that video has to go back to PR/legal, it may never see the light of day. Or it may come back with twenty or thirty "edits" - equivalent to the amount of hair you will pull out trying to fix it.

If you have the written case study done, you can simply tell the customer that the video interview will refer to numbers/results already approved in the case study. Voila! That sets minds at ease. With any luck, you avoid PR/legal spiderweb, where many good project are permanently stuck. No one needs that. As always, you learn as you go. Nothing wrong with trying radically different approaches either. That said, I hope these tips help.