In the current age of Big Data, market research gives us access to endless amounts of useful data and customer feedback, but this doesn’t mean that marketers have gotten much better at listening. Having started out as a journalist before embarking on a career in marketing, I began applying investigative interviewing practices into brand-building activities. It was a natural way for me to more quickly immerse myself into the mindset of an organization and create an authentic tone of voice that reflected its people. This “conversational research” as a method of engaging and surveying stakeholders has become a cornerstone for our brand strategy process.

The shift towards integrating journalists into branded content development has become widespread among marketing firms, but a journalistic approach also offers plenty of advantages to research and brand development as well. The first step, then, to getting yourself into a journalist mindset is to ask questions and listen like one.

Be ready to toss out your list of prepared questions

People like to tell their stories. Yet, too often we’re so focused our own agendas that the idea of “listening” is really just waiting for our turn to speak. The risk is that you only end up validating your own perspective instead of uncovering deeper insights that give a brand nuance. A good interviewer doesn’t just ask probing questions—they also know when to shut up.

Some journalists have told me that they go into interviews with only one question prepared. I wouldn’t necessarily advise this as a practice for a voice of stakeholder survey, but it gets across an important point — if you’re doing conversational research right, the questions should flow out of the conversation. Going into an interview with a list of questions that you are dead set on getting answered often means you’ll miss something important brought up during an answer to your first question, possibly fertile ground for further investigation. To get to that great stuff, you only have to remember one follow-up question: “Why?”

Get the colour

When you read profiles of your favourite celebrity or businessperson in a magazine, often the most insightful (and juicy) parts come from the journalist telling us what emotion or attitude was betrayed by the way the person answered a question—sometimes even in opposition to what they are literally saying. In journalism, a descriptive article in this vein is called a “colour piece.”

In stakeholder interviews, what people don’t say is often just as informative as what they do say. The feedback from a voice of stakeholder interview should be more than a transcription of words—it should take careful note of the feeling beneath those words.

Dig for the dirt

You’ve probably heard the term “fluff piece”—it’s the resulting story when a journalist paints a subject in only the most positive light, ignoring any opposing viewpoints and devoid of any challenges to facts stated by its subject. In a voice of stakeholder interview, you still need to ask your subject to explore things that may be difficult for them to talk about. Drawing out these points of tension, conflict, or difficulty can be some of the best feedback for a brand.

We once worked with a client who never suspected that his company’s brand had a perception problem, because their customers never indicated there was anything to worry about. But by digging beneath the surface, our interviewers uncovered some extremely critical feedback and negative impressions of the brand. It was one of the most difficult presentations I’ve ever had to make, but although it was hard to hear, the client embraced the feedback. Working together, we leveraged those insights to build a stronger brand platform. It’s never easy to deliver bad news to a client, but in our experience solving these challenges not only provides the quickest routes to improvement, but in the end, will also prove that you listened.