4 min Read
January 23, 2019

Interviews as research: gaining fast, smart insights

Audience research (or collecting information about your audience’s needs or motivations) is often a “nice-to-have” for nonprofit communicators, it’s not something that’s always prioritized in schedules or budgets. That’s a mindset that needs shifting.

Think of research as an investment in making smart decisions that are grounded in information you’ve gotten directly from the source: the people you want to engage. For time-strapped communicators, there are many simple ways to conduct a little bit of audience research that goes a long way.

This post breaks down just one research method: interviews. Interviews are an effective way to have an open conversation with people about the motivations they have for interacting with your organization, the channels they spend time on, and much more.

You don’t have to be a professional market researcher to understand how to interview someone effectively, but there are some best practices to keep in mind to ensure that you get the most out of interviews.

When are interviews helpful?

Interviews are most handy if conducted at the start of a new project. Let’s say you’re about start your year-end fundraising campaign and want to know what inspires your donors, or you’re recruiting new volunteers and want to know how people heard about your organization, or perhaps you want to know how you could improve the communications around your annual 5K.

In all of these instances, directly talking to the people who participate in those projects—your donors, volunteers, or runners—will give you insights about their experiences and help you shape plans about the best strategies, channels, and messages to use as your project takes shape.

Before you get started ask yourself this question: What are the key things we want to learn from this audience? This will help you begin to define the overall purpose of the interviews, which ultimately will help you draft the essential questions you need to ask (more on writing effective interview questions later).

Who should you interview?

Interview the people who are going to be most helpful answering the questions you’ve posed (e.g., how could we improve the 5K communications and experience?). They are often people who are directly engaging with and experiencing the work—donors, volunteers, participants, etc.

Interview people with various levels of engagement with your organization to get different perspectives. If you only interview people who have participated in your 5K for over a decade, you might not get the range of opinions you need to improve, for example.

Plan on doing at least five interviews if possible. It’s important to talk to enough people that you can begin to connect dots between themes and patterns that emerge, but after around five interviews, you’re going to start to hear repeated information.

How do you conduct a good interview?

Now that you’ve clarified what you want to learn and when you want to learn it, it’s time to actually talk to people.

Prepare your questions in advance. Avoid leading questions—questions that assume the opinion of the interviewee (e.g., “Why do you like the emails you get from us?”), as that will lead you to biased answers. Instead, ask neutral questions (e.g.,“What do you think of the emails you get from us?”) which will let the interviewee form and share their own opinion.

Use your questions as a guide, not a script. Interviews should feel like a natural conversation, so it’s ok to skip around and change course. The more comfortable an interviewee feels, the more likely they are to trust you and share helpful, candid information.

Embrace the silence in your interview. People have a tendency to want to fill awkward silences, but interviewees will often fill it for you, perhaps with the deeper truth or more detail, if you let them. If you get a short answer from someone, don’t just move on to the next question, give them time to expand.

Lastly, be sure to remain objective. While it can be hard to stop yourself from jumping in and sharing your opinion, your interview will be more value if you think of yourself as a neutral facilitator, someone there to listen and gather as much feedback as possible.

Once you’ve done all five interviews, take a step back. What common ideas or feedback came up? How can you use those in the project you’re working on? With just five short interviews, you’re equipped with opinions directly from your essential audiences—use them!

So at the start of your next new project, remember interviews. It doesn’t take a professional market researcher, just a few hours, a set of objective questions, and an eagerness to learn—and you’ll gather insights that will help you create smarter, more audience-centric communications.