B2B White Paper Interviews – 7 Questions (Part 1)

interview a subject matter expert

Subject matter experts (SMEs) have the story in their heads. White papers make that story readable, and customer interview questions help build the paper.

“We want you to interview our SME, then write up the result into a paper we can use in our content marketing effort,” you say to the marketing communications writer.

Sounds easy enough. But most SMEs don’t think like a writer. They think like a businessman or exec or technologist or financier. And if they simply improvise their way through the interview, the content will suffer for it.

Not all writers understand interviews or how to write them up into a white paper; it’s not like interviewing a baby bird. And not all SMEs give good interview. Send your writer in with concrete customer interview questions designed to tease out the information you need.

7 interview questions

Here (and in the next post) are questions whose answers make a balanced white paper easier to write.

1. Who are your ideal readers for this paper?

The better you understand this, but more readily you can make the jillions of small decisions that will go into the paper: word choice, technical depth, amount of background information to include, hypothetical scenarios and examples to cite. It’s easy to answer this question incorrectly – or to think you know the answer, yet be wrong – and end up with a white paper that misses the mark.

2. What do you want them to do once they’ve read it?

The short answer is, “Move along in the sales funnel,” which can mean a lot of things:

  • click on a link
  • pick up the phone and call you for more information
  • think that you’re cool
  • pull out their credit card
  • discuss it with their boss
  • Tweet/Like/share it

Make your expectation clear in the opening summary; e.g., “This paper will equip readers with a business case for integrating baseball card database management in their own companies.”

3. What keeps these readers awake at night? What are some of the biggest problems they face (that your product/service can solve)?

Readers will devote about 2/73rds of their attention to your product and the other 71/73rds of it to their business problems. If they’re thinking about your product at all, they’re trying to figure out how it would fit in with whatever is causing those problems and envisioning life afterwards. Given that, shouldn’t you write from their perspective?

Information about customer problems is what you and your marketing communications writer need from the SME to demonstrate to readers that you understand their predicament and, in fact, have been dealing with it in lots of variations. When readers see that you you’re thinking more about their problems than you are about your own products, they begin to trust you.

In Part 2, we’ll see customer interview questions that touch on your products, but only obliquely. Remember, nobody really cares about your products. They care about their problems and whether they can trust you to help solve them.

photo credit: eren


Author: John White

John White of venTAJA Marketing is a content marketing writer for technology companies. He posts about technology writing from the perspective of the marketing manager. It’s a dirty job, but somebody has to do it. Download his eBook, “10 Questions to Ask When Hiring Your Content Marketing Writer.”