Subject matter experts (SMEs) are authoritative voices in your industry: founders, head of product, COO. But importantly, they usually are not in charge of creating marketing campaigns or writing blog posts.

SMEs have industry insights that your marketing team doesn’t but these experts can be tough nuts to crack. Infusing your content with their knowledge can be tricky.

You need a strategy to extract the best ideas from your SMEs; we’ll explain how.

How to Identify the Right Expert

Start by considering the audience for what you intend to publish. 

If you are writing a blog post about the challenges companies face when implementing software, talk to the people on your team who lead those implementations. Those SMEs’ perspectives will help your readers envision the work that lies ahead for their teams.

A warning, too: When looking inside your company, “don’t rely on titles alone,” advises Ann Gynn, editor at the Content Marketing Institute blog. Take the example above. It would be tempting to reach out to your company’s director of implementation for their insights, but directors might not have the boots-on-the-ground perspective of an engineer. If you’re not sure whom to talk to, Gynn suggests asking coworkers who they’re most likely to approach for guidance.

Outside of your company, resources like LinkedIn, HARO and Forbes Councils are all excellent places to start your search. You could use contacts you made at the last networking event you attended, including keynote speakers. 

When dealing with people from outside your organization, it makes sense to test how communicative they are before committing to a piece of content with them. “Ask them about their preferred contact method and how quickly they typically reply to messages,” says Christopher Pappas, founder of the eLearning Industry publishing platform. 

“Send them a few questions before the interview and pay attention not only to how they respond but also their timeline. Do they reply within an hour with well-constructed answers, or does it take them 48 hours to respond?” The results of this test will determine whether experts are a good fit.

two women converse at a sunlit table; subject matter experts concept

Prepare for the Interview

Once you’ve identified your SME, spend time preparing before each interview. Your goal here is to prepare a list of questions that will elicit the most helpful information. 

“Good questions start with good research,” Brooklin Nash, cofounder at content marketing company Beam Content, tells us via email. “I’m not just talking about your interviewee, either. Take time to understand (as much as possible) the space they work in, what matters to them, and what matters to those who might be interested in hearing from them.”

Agencies create client briefs so that information like that is easily accessible. If you’re having to build that knowledge base from scratch during your interview prep, a good place to start is keyword research. Keyword research is especially important for topics you aren’t familiar with, writes Katie Chapa, a marketing manager at data management platform Lotame. This will help you get acquainted with the terminology of the industry and reveal many of the most relevant ideas in the interviewee’s field.

Next, reach out to each SME prior to the interview to set an agenda, and to put them at ease. This way, the interviewee will have lead time to prepare answers to some of your questions and organize their own thoughts.

Finally, ask whether the interviewee consents to being recorded. If so, set that up in advance. Our team finds it helpful to generate transcripts of our recordings. We use a very inexpensive AI service which produces an accurate-enough easily-skimmable document.

Get the Most From Each Interview

SMEs are busy, and you’ll only have a limited amount of time to interview them. 

Make every question count, says Fio Dossetto, editorial lead at Wildbit and editor-in-chief at ContentFolks. “Don’t waste their time (and yours) by just covering top-level questions like ‘what is X?’ and ‘how does Y work?’—you could probably google that anyway.” Instead, she recommends asking questions that go deeper, like:

  • What do non-experts believe about your topic that’s wrong?
  • What does success look like in your area of expertise?
  • What do you wish you knew before you started?

Nash warns about sticking rigidly to your list of questions. After all, the best interviews are conversations that flow naturally. “You might hit on something at the 35-minute mark that ties into something the interviewee said at the very beginning,” Nash says. “Or you might get insights at the very end of the call that would work best to frame up the entire article.” 

Give the interviewee room to let their thoughts flow. This is often what unlocks the best ideas and the best quotes.

Finally, Nash says to be sure to ask this at the end of the interview: “Anything I didn’t ask that you wish I had?”

abstract black and white reflection of a man working at a laptop; subject matter experts concept

Integrate Their Input Into Your Content

When the interview is finished, you’ll likely have several pages of notes and, ideally, a transcript of the conversation.

Nash recommends reviewing those documents to identify the three or four best insights and pulling those quotes. If you have already outlined the content the interview is for, you can map the quotes to that outline at this stage.

As you begin to draft the content, it’s often helpful to loop the SME back in for clarifications and fact checks. The SME might want to be more hands-on at this stage, or they might simply want to sign off on the content at some point during the editorial process.

When the piece goes live, be sure to share it with the interviewee. That keeps them engaged and committed to a long-term partnership, writes Andrew Hanelly, chief creative officer at content marketing services firm Revmade. 

“By showcasing the wins, congratulating them, and conducting post mortems on the losses, the SME will start to see content in the field it is competing against and it will help them understand your audience—their customer—a bit better along the way.” 

Showing SMEs that thousands of people read their latest article isn’t just a nice ego boost for them. It’s great for your content marketing efforts, too. The more you work with subject matter experts to create content, the better your results will be and the more success you’ll experience.

Images by: Rita Morais, Christina @, charlesdeluvio