How to Get the Most Out of Your Subject Matter Expert

In my 20-plus years working in account services, I’ve been a part of more SME, or subject matter expert, interviews than I can begin to remember. I’ll be the first to tell you that a good SME interview can make or break any piece of content.

But the reality is that the steps to a successful SME interview begin long before the writer and the expert hop on a conference call. A fruitful, focused conversation starts the moment a client puts us in touch with the expert — and, on the flip side, when these crucial first steps get skipped, it shows in the end. Businesses sometimes have a case of wishful thinking when they identify an SME for collaboration on a content piece, and results can go awry when SMEs don’t feel properly equipped or enthused about the topic.

Keep these questions in mind to approach your SME identification process in a way that inspires your sources to help create top-notch content. 

Related: Good or bad, customer feedback can be a powerful tool in your marketing plan.

In a sea of experts, how do you find the right SME to contribute to your content?

Ideally, you will want to identify colleagues or associates who have firsthand knowledge of the subject matter.

If you’re having trouble finding someone, you can find a known authority on a subject on your own and get validation of their input from your colleagues afterward. LinkedIn can be a great resource; industry blogs and publications can also yield leads. Send the potential SME an email or give them a call, explain your position, and see if they’re open to giving you a few minutes of their time. It never hurts to ask.

When you have selected an SME, be sure to research their background and read other content they have published or contributed to to make sure they’re a good fit all around.

How do you get buy-in from an SME?

Show them the value

Unless there is some type of compensation arrangement for the SME’s time, the best incentives for participating are credibility and publicity. A great piece of content means valuable exposure for the SME, regardless of whether they are associated with the company.

If you’re working on a digital project, the SME can benefit from your company’s social media to increase their influence and following — especially if there are promotional dollars amplifying it.

Respect their time

Assume that SMEs are busy. Communicate precisely what is needed from them and how their contribution is important. Moreover, encouraging any suggestions they can bring to the table can help get SMEs enthusiastic and on board.

Should you arrange multiple SME interviews?

If you’re covering a broad topic that requires multiple areas of expertise, you might need to reach out to several experts. But if you’re utilizing multiple SME interviews, you may find they have wildly differing opinions on the same subject matter. If possible, try to arrange a group call so a consensus can be reached among them.

When using multiple sources for one piece, be careful not to overdo it — too much information can muddle the focus of your content. Ask yourself if each SME will offer a clear, unique contribution to the piece.

What are the qualities an SME needs to make them a good interviewee?

There can be a disconnect between a subject matter expert and somebody who interviews well. You need to gauge whether your chosen SME clearly understands the bigger picture of your project and the role they will play in helping to achieve its objectives.

Aim to find someone who will be:

  • Prepared: Will they take the time to give your topic some forethought?
  • Excited: Will they look forward to the interview and their contribution to the project?
  • Flexible: Will they take initiative and explore areas that might not have been considered initially?
  • Aligned: Will they understand how their contribution will help your project succeed?
  • Understandable: Will they discuss complex information in digestible, conversational terms and steer clear of industry jargon and sales-speak?
  • Transparent: Will they answer your questions honestly without an agenda? Or will they feel pressure to answer in a way a superior or their peers would want them to?
  • Collaborative: Will they be willing to add to the effectiveness of your content by volunteering useful information that the interviewer might not know to ask about?

Even with plenty of up-front preparation, things sometime still go sideways. If the SME turns out not to be a talker or they can’t answer a lot of your questions, ask them to suggest a colleague who might be able to help — tapping into their network is a valuable resource in itself.

When you find the right SME and approach them in a way that makes them excited to collaborate with you, they can be a gold mine of untapped insights. This can turn an average content piece into something that is hugely beneficial to your client’s brand, the SME, and, most importantly, the reader.

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