How to Work Well with SMEs (and Solve Your Biggest Content Challenge)

In 2015, “producing engaging content” was the top challenge for most B2B marketers (54 percent) and for half of B2C marketers, too. According to CMI’s annual research, it’s been this way for the past five years. Five years!

The magic solution?  There isn’t one. Researching your audience, tapping into their conversations, addressing their interests: it all takes time. But it can take less time if you’re in cahoots with someone who speaks the language.

Say hello to the subject matter expert (SME). Most companies already have a handful of SMEs inside their offices. They could be engineers, lawyers, accountants; your CEO is probably a SME, having once held a role similar to the one you’re trying to attract with your blogs, guides, and webinars.

If you don’t have any in-house SMEs, there are several ways to find qualified experts. Start with your LinkedIn contacts. You could also try ProfNet, Help a Reporter Out (HARO), or Reporter Connection. But that’s a conversation for another blog…

This post is about getting content creators (you) and SMEs to work effectively as a team. How do you tap into the knowledge you need to create meatier, more engaging blog posts and beyond? Sometimes it’s just a matter of asking (emphasis on “sometimes”).  To cover your bases, see the list below.

1. Respect her schedule.

SMEs are crazy busy. Even if they’re truly happy to help, getting on your SME’s calendar could be a challenge. Start with an email. I like to include the following components in an email request for content help:

  • Who you are (in case you haven’t been eating lunch in the same break room for three years)
  • Why you’re contacting this particular SME (Who referred you? What do you know about the SME’s background?)
  • The specific project you’re working on (title, intended audience, intended aim or thesis)
  • How he can help (general information, ideas, opinions, quotes, fact-checking, etc.)
  • Sample questions you might ask and estimated interview time (ideally 30 minutes or less)
  • Your deadline (with some cushion to protect your actual deadline)
  • Your intent to let him review/revise the work before publication (if applicable)
  • Times you’re available to meet or Skype (try to give three to five windows)
  • An advance thank-you for his time

After sending the email you should be prepared to jump into the interview at a moment’s notice, with questions accessible. (SMEs often have fluid, unpredictable schedules.) If your request is denied or deferred indefinitely, try politely asking for another contact who might be available.

2. Be interested.

For most SMEs, the only thing worse than giving up valuable time is giving it up to someone who is bored/unappreciative. Be friendly and enthusiastic. Try to avoid listing your questions (i.e. Let’s get this over with…). If the interview feels like a homework assignment, SMEs are less inclined to share personal experiences, surprising facts, or anything above and beyond what you’re specifically asking. That “extra” material is often content marketing gold!

3. Play up the benefits.

Aside from being a generous person, why should a SME help you create content? What’s in it for them? If you can answer this question you may have better luck securing expert insights. For example, if the SME works for your company, it might help to mention how reaching certain marketing goals is a key priority for senior leaders—that your piece will be part of a high visibility campaign. If the SME has no stake in your organization, you may want to appeal to his or her “Wikipedia motive” (i.e. the need for someone to explain this issue in detail, or correct the faulty information currently available online).  An opportunity for a byline or greater visibility in one’s professional community can be compelling, too.

4. Don’t assume that he’s a natural explainer.

In my writing career I have interviewed butchers, bankers, industrial hose makers… Architects, estate planners, and anesthesiologists. Some of them were natural sharers and teachers. (I could name a topic and let them riff on it until I had three months’ worth of content ideas). Others seemed to think the details of their work were common knowledge. (In one sentence, they would use three terms that appeared nowhere in my keyword research. Back it up, please…)

If your SME is a woman of few words, your job becomes a bit harder. Make peace with the fact that you’ll have to reveal how much you don’t know. Start with the basics and branch out. Use open-ended questions. Resist the urge to borrow her language before you really understand it. Sometimes when your questions sound too well-informed, SMEs assume they don’t have to explain the nitty gritty details.

5. Prepare for fast talkers.

Is it okay to record SME interviews? Depends. Recording frees your brain from the task of note taking, so you can engage in more fluid conversation, and ask natural follow-up questions. On the other hand, some SMEs clam up when they hear that their words will be “on the record,” replayed, scrutinized, etc.

Recording phone calls can be a legal issue, too. As a best practice, request permission up front. If your SME agrees, start the recording with a reminder that you are doing so (so their permission is captured on tape). If he declines, you might ask another member of your content team to join and take notes while you guide the interview.

Whatever you decide, try not to request that the person speak slower. Asking fast talkers to slow down often results in getting shorter (not necessarily slower), less comprehensive answers.

6. Beware of hidden agendas.

You’ve spent time compiling and studying your buyer personas. Assume your SME hasn’t, and start each interview with a quick summary of your audience’s problems, questions, etc. You may also need to explain the broad strokes of inbound marketing—that your blog or eBook isn’t intended to sell one specific solution, but to provide more background on the issue at hand, whether it’s How to Tell When Backyard Trees Need Pruning, or How Patient Wait Times Are Affecting Small Physician Practices.

It may become apparent that your SME still doesn’t understand or doesn’t care about your goal. Say, for example, your SME is also the VP of sales, and his answers betray an obvious bias (“…no homeowner should ever prune his own trees.”). Or maybe he’s your company’s product developer, and he’d rather not talk about problems that require features his product doesn’t have.  

Be prepared to pivot in these cases. You can still make valuable use of the time, by moving on to a different topic (5 Reasons Why Homeowners Shouldn’t Prune Their Own Trees), and getting the insight you’ll need for a future piece.

7. Define your role as a content creator, versus his as a SME.

Some SMEs will jump at the chance to talk about their work. Others will be more guarded, even defensive—particularly if your professional background seems removed from the very complex, technical, or otherwise niche work to which they’ve devoted umpteen years.

It’s your job to explain, upfront, how very different but complementary your two roles are. Start by outlining (without pandering) how essential their knowledge is. Follow up by explaining the skills you bring to the table as someone who can organize information, write for the Web, inject personality, etc. If you’re willing and able to let the SME review the final product before it’s published, this can be a great diffuser at the outset, too.

8. Share results, and build on them together.

Don’t assume your SME is too busy to read/promote the final product you’ve created together. Send a link along with a genuine note of thanks and any positive inbound results you’re able to report. Encourage your expert to share the piece with his or her network. Send an open invitation for future content ideas and collaboration opportunities. Just like content marketing itself, your working relationships with smart, insightful experts will become exponentially more valuable over time.

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Liz O'Neill
About the Author
Liz O'Neill

Content marketing specialist (and current Director of Marketing at C&S Insurance), Liz O'Neill enjoys writing informative, engaging copy about pretty much anything—helping companies and their customers cut through all the digital noise; find each other faster; form deep, abiding relationships; and ride off into the sunset (while Instagramming the entire journey).