Let me say this up front: Email interviews are not really interviews, from a journalistic point of view. I’ve shared my view on that repeatedly.
But writers are increasingly relying on this method of extracting quick quotes from experts.
Often, they’re either scrambling for blog-post fodder.Or they’re simply scared to call people and conduct real interviews.
I see posts on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, Help a Reporter Out, and other places, nearly every day for sources to “send your best tip on email for inclusion” in roundup posts for blogs large and small. Sigh.
In a typical week, I dozens of requests asking me to participate in email interviews of 6-10 questions. They’re usually idiotic.
And it doesn’t have to be that way. I’m always going to choose picking up the phone over email interviews. But if that’s your only option to connect with a source, here’ how to make sure it doesn’t suck.
If your email interview looks like this…you’re in trouble
I’ve received hundreds of email interview requests like this over the years. Usually, I just send them straight to the trash. But sometimes I take a minute to share a few thoughts about lazy journalism, lame questions, and basic communication skills.
If your email interview questions look anything like this you’re in trouble. Here’s a recent email I received. Let me break it down for you, and provide some commentary about why the typical email interview doesn’t work.
The introduction of suck
Most requests for email interviews I’ve received go something like this:
This is [NAME] from [a startup blog you’ve never heard of], a blog that intends to interview top successful bloggers that have made it big in the world of blogging and share their incredible and inspiring success stories with my readers.
I read your blog regularly and very well know that youâ€™re a successful blogger and freelance writer and itâ€™s my belief thatÂ you have a blogging success story to tell.
I would be very grateful if you share your success story with us by responding to the following interview questions:
Now let’s take a look at the rest of this email request for an interview, and you’ll see how this approach can put a wedge between you and the person you’re trying to reach.
Q1: Get to the point…what do you want?
Email: Welcome to the blogging success stories interview series.
Me: Um, that’s not a question
Q2: The false-assumption failure
Email: Many people know that youâ€™re one of the most successful bloggers on the web. When and how did you stumble upon blogging and how has it changed your life so far? What doors of opportunity has blogging opened for you?
Me: Actually, I’m not one of the most successful bloggers on the web. Not by a long, long, shot. I don’t recall stumbling. And if you really wanted to know how I started, read my About page and find out.
Q3: Get the facts straight, please
Email: I know you were in employment before you started being a full time blogger, how do blogging and having a 9 to 5 job compare? What opportunities and challenges are there in blogging than having a full time job and vice versa?
Me: Actually, I was freelancing for three years before I started blogging.
Q4: Everybody knows the path to success is never a straight line
Email: What has been (and still is) your biggest secret to successful blogging? In other words, what strategies and measures have you put in place to make your blogging venture an absolute success?
Me: Oh sure — I’ve got one big secret nobody else uses and that I have yet to share with anyone, and once I tell it to you, you’ll make millions. Does floundering around until I figure it out count?
Q5: When a stranger wants your site traffic data…run!
Email: Lets talk traffic. What percentage of your blog traffic comes from what source and how do those visitors convert in terms of buying?
Me: Seriously? Why would I share that with you, total stranger?
Q6: Oh, how naive you must be about freelancing
Email: How many hours a week do you spend on your blog and does working more on your blog equate to getting bigger rewards?Â
Me:Â You really don’t want to know how many hours I work a week. Will working on my blog pay off? I sure hope so…otherwise I’m going back to watching lotsa TV.
Q7: The question no source will ever answer by email
Email: I know you’re a very established successful blogger, but what has been your biggest failure in your blogging journey and what have you done about it?Â
Me: Um-hm…tell me something I don’t already know. If I have to think about all my failures and then try to decide which was my stupidest move, I’m gonna cry.
Q8: Never expect a source to give everything away
Email: I believe there are certain blogging tools and resources that have helped you do things on your blog in one way or another. Can you please share some of your favorites with us?
Me: I’m not really a tool expert…but if I wanted to list them al,l I’d do it in a post on my own blog.
Q9: This is supposed to be an interview, not a commercial
Email: Bloggers starting out would always be interested in learning from more established and successful ones like you. Can you recommend products that you have created that may be helpful to anyone starting a blog and where they can be found?
Me: Not comfortable making one of my answers a flog for my classes or mentoring…doesn’t seem like useful information for readers.
Q10: Everybody knows you never ask a stranger this
Email: And finally, how much money do you make from your blog? Give us an estimate if you’re not comfortable sharing the exact amount you make.
Me: Stranger danger. See my response to Q5.
Most email interviews, in my experience, are just like this one. They ask uninformed, stock questions in a vacuum.
They suck. And now you can see why.
Usually, the questions either don’t apply to me, or they’re requesting answers that would run thousands of words — I think one of those questions above is the focus of my old 200+ page Make a Living Writing ebook — or they’re asking stuff I wouldn’t want appearing on some strange startup blog I’ve never heard of.
The big problem with email interviews
The downside of email “interviewing” goes deeper than not getting an interview, or at best getting canned answers.
This blogger not only didn’t get an interview from me, he blew a chance to start a relationship with me. I think he’s a jerk now, and I’m never going to help him with anything.
BUT…all that said, I have to admit there are ways to make email interviews work. I’ve recently had a chance to see these methods in action, and they resulted in interesting, unique responses.
- How can you use email for interviews and still get some tasty info for your article or blog post?
Here are three tips:
1. Only ask connections
Don’t ever make your first reach-out to an established blogger something along the lines of, “Hey, would you give me some of your valuable time for free?” That’s just not a good icebreaker.
Build a relationship first. It’s more important than this one interview or that one blog post.
2. Be like freelance writer Mary Jaksch
Write to Done editor Mary Jaksch came up with a wonderful approach to email interviews, in part because she lives in New Zealand and it’s hard for her to interview many top bloggers live due to the time-zone problem.
She used the approach years back to interview top blogger and business consultant Liz Strauss, and it worked great. What’s her technique?
She asks one question, then waits for the reply.
Then based on that response, she emails out another question. And so on.
This makes the email interview much more like an interactive conversation. Her followup questions are guided by the subject’s answers. Which means the questions are more informed and the answers end up way more interesting than the usual canned email replies.
3. An even simpler interview approach
When I got an email from pro marketer and friend Danny Iny, and Michael Agene, someone I didn’t know, they had a completely different approach.
They both got my buy-in to participate in a roundup post with data collected via email interviews.
Their secret? They each asked just ONE question.
Danny asked for a 1-3 minute audio recording of my answer, and Michael just wanted an email response. Their questions were fresh, intriguing and didn’t require me to fax them my tax forms or reveal other highly personal information.
Quick, simple, bang, I did them both and I’m done.
Bloggers are always interested in spreading their information and links to new audiences. But the process has to be easy, comfortable, and quick.
Realize that even modestly popular bloggers like me get a lot of requests — more than I can fulfill if I’m going to keep my own writing commitments. Why should I answer yours? Think of a way to make your question more interesting than most others.
The simple alternative to email interviews…
One even better solution to the email interview request — ask if you can chat for 10 minutes on Zoom.
I know! That means it’s a live interview. But take the plunge. It saves time, creates a virtual-interview environment, and helps you build a better relationship with the person.
Another writer I know had a short deadline and asked me for a quick email — but I was able to talk her into a Zoom call. I know my answers were way more lively in that live conversation than they would have been in an email. And we had fun getting a chance to see each other live, even briefly.
Before you fall back on email interviewing, consider how much more valuable it would be to your career to really get to know that person.
It’s the right thing to do, instead of just grabbing a short, emailed answer to your question and going on your way, still strangers.
How do you handle email interviews? Share your tips in the comments.