Working Effectively with Subject Matter Experts: Tips for Content Marketers

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Interviewing subject matter experts (SMEs) is an invaluable part of the content marketing process. SMEs have specialized knowledge about your company’s products, services and industry that can help you create compelling, authoritative content. However, many marketers struggle to build relationships with SMEs and extract the information they need during interviews.

In this article, I’ll summarize tips from a podcast featuring content marketing expert Sarah Parker on how to work effectively with subject matter experts.

Why You Need Subject Matter Experts

As a content marketer, your goal is to produce content that provides value to your readers by addressing their pain points, needs and interests. SMEs are uniquely positioned to help you understand:

  • Technical intricacies of your products/services
  • Industry trends and challenges your customers face
  • Your company’s competitive positioning

This insider knowledge enables you to create content that resonates with your audience and establishes your company as an authority. Without input from SMEs, your content risks being generic, misinformed or irrelevant.

Challenges in Working with SMEs

However, some SMEs are reluctant to work with marketers. Common roadblocks include:

  • SMEs dismiss marketing content as superficial or “flashy.” They don’t see it as a valuable use of their specialized expertise.
  • They prefer communicating directly with customers rather than translating their knowledge for a broader audience.
  • SMEs are focused on internal deliverables and don’t prioritize supporting marketing initiatives.

As a result, securing SMEs’ time and input can be an uphill battle.

How to Build Relationships with SMEs

To overcome these obstacles, focus on demonstrating how content marketing benefits your SMEs directly:

  • Explain how thought leadership content can help establish their personal brands as industry authorities.
  • Highlight how content supports sales enablement by communicating the value of their products/services to buyers.
  •  Discuss how content marketing extends their reach beyond one-off customer interactions.

Emphasize that you want to capture their unmatched insider expertise – not just have them promote products. Maintain an open mindset rather than pushing your own angle or agenda. Let SMEs guide the conversation to the issues they find most compelling.

When reaching out, be transparent about your content development process, intended audience and expectations for their involvement. Above all, remember that SMEs are invaluable partners, not just sources of information extraction. Foster a collaborative relationship based on mutual understanding.

Interview Tactics and Best Practices

Here are some tips for conducting effective SME interviews:

Know enough about the topic to have an intelligent conversation, but don’t make assumptions. Allow SMEs to expand on concepts in their own words.

Ask open-ended questions that allow SMEs to provide in-depth responses vs. yes/no answers. Follow up on interesting tangents that arise.

Record interviews and take detailed notes. Identify unique insights you can develop further through independent research.

Rephrase technical terms and concepts for a mainstream audience without over-simplifying. Ask SMEs to define terminology in their own words.

Align around target personas. Discuss which concepts will resonate most with each audience.

Have SMEs review draft content to ensure you’ve captured their expertise accurately and pitched it appropriately.

The goal is to facilitate an organic, back-and-forth discussion focused on the SME’s specialized knowledge vs. sticking rigidly to a predetermined list of questions. Maintain flexibility to explore unexpected but valuable detours together.

Repurposing SME Content Across the Buyer’s Journey

A common challenge is balancing SMEs’ desire to talk technical specifications and product details vs. your need for broader thought leadership content. A few tips:

Discuss business goals and market trends before diving into product features. Identify angles that foreground customer challenges vs. product capabilities.

Map content to different stages of the buyer’s journey. SME interviews can feed both top- and mid-funnel thought leadership content as well as late-stage product literature.

Develop a content calendar that reserves SME access for your most valuable assets, such as in-depth guides and reports. Allocate adequate time for interviews.

Supplement SME interviews with outside research to convert product-centric details into customer-centric insights.

Choose the Right SMEs for Each Project

Not all SMEs make great interview subjects. Look for these qualities:

  • Strong communication skills, including the ability to explain complex topics clearly and concisely
  • Understanding of your target buyers and their priorities
  • Genuine passion for educating others, not just promoting themselves
  • Engaged listening skills and conversational style
  • Commitment to the content development process from start to finish

If early interactions reveal an SME won’t be a good fit, consider moving to another. Every company has multiple experts who can potentially contribute valuable perspectives.

Finally, consider your SME’s accessibility and bandwidth. The most knowledgeable experts are often the busiest. Weigh the costs and benefits of engaging C-suite execs vs. tapping their deputies or up-and-coming team members.

Should You Hire an Outside Content Writer?

Stretching SMEs’ time is one advantage of bringing on contract content marketing resources. Benefits of working with freelance writers include:

Allowing overburdened teams to maintain focus on core responsibilities

Providing bandwidth for large-scale projects like ebooks and guides

Bringing in an objective outside perspective to balance internal viewpoints

Producing polished deliverables without imposing on SMEs to write

Freeing up internal staff to concentrate on high-value strategy vs. content execution

Look for writers with experience conducting SME interviews and translating technical concepts into audience-focused copy. Subject matter expertise in your industry is an added bonus.

Final thoughts

Securing SMEs’ cooperation and effectively capturing their expertise during interviews is critical to content marketing success. To recap:

  • Demonstrate how content supports SMEs’ goals to establish mutually beneficial relationships
  • Maintain flexibility vs. rigidly adhering to an agenda during interviews
  • Repurpose SME insights across the buyer’s journey from high- to low-level content
  • Carefully select SMEs based on communication abilities and commitment
  • Consider hiring contract writers to ease the burden on internal teams

Prioritizing SMEs’ specialized knowledge helps ensure your content provides the depth and authority buyers seek. Using these tips, marketers can nurture SME relationships and develop world-class content from their expertise.

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