News flash: We don’t know everything.
I’m not trying to be a smart-ass. Effective content marketing is all about producing insightful and provocative information for sophisticated audiences. But the smartest, most experienced marketer can’t always pull that off alone (though sometimes we think we can). Which is why we rely so much on subject matter experts, or SMEs. Sometimes these SMEs are third-party experts, but more often, they’re internal experts in a client’s organization.
These experts are absolutely critical because they’re, well, experts. Our job is to interview SMEs and draw out content that meaningfully moves the audience toward our client goals. But as anyone who’s ever worked as a journalist can tell you, these interviews can sometimes go horribly, horribly wrong. Here are a few lessons we’ve learned the hard way.
Start with the strategy
Get the right idea
Making the most out of SME access ideally begins with a brainstorm to come up with content ideas that align with your strategy. This isn’t always possible, but a team of client SMEs freely discussing issues important to their customers produces some of the best, most interesting content.
Find the right SME
You won’t have to do this if your blog idea came from the SME themselves (during your brainstorm, see above). But let’s say you have to identify an SME for a topic which you came up with. Better make sure she’s the right one. Can you imagine getting on the phone to interview someone about a topic she knows nothing about? Talk about awkward. Work to find the right SME for each piece of content. If you can, run the topic by the expert for a once-over to make sure she’s comfortable with it.
Prepare your brief
This part is absolutely critical. SMEs have jobs — real, demanding jobs which they work very hard at. So we don’t expect them to know anything about us, our blog (or content vehicle), and why we’re asking for their valuable time in the first place. Prior to the interview, we send briefs that cover everything they could need to know, explaining our content marketing mission, our strategy, and the content topic. Not only is this a way to help the SME focus their thinking, but it’s also a chance to validate the topic itself. We also set the expectation that the SME can (and should) use this as an opportunity to build their brand by promoting the finished content to colleagues and friends over social media and email (yes, the elusive what’s-in-it-for-them factor).
… And ask for feedback
The brief isn’t a one-way conversation. We love getting input from an SME, especially when it runs counter to our original thinking. Does the content make sense? Are we missing anything? Are there topics or questions the SME believes are essential background to cover and can they provide research, case studies, or data that supports points they want to make?
Set the right context (before the interview)
Here’s the deal: SMEs don’t usually spend their days pontificating about the future of their industries. So we try to frame the upcoming conversation for them, and we get explicit: If the content isn’t supposed to mention service offerings (and it usually isn’t), we tactfully but explicitly explain that to the SME. Instead, we tell them that we want to hear their deepest thoughts and ideas about trends, topics, and pain points that resonate with the audience.
Do your due diligence
The onus isn’t just on the SMEs. The interviewer or writer has to know the client’s content strategy, industry, and topic that’s being covered. This critical step helps the writer ask smart questions and elicit SME insights to make for great content. We also don’t want to waste an SME’s time. The interview isn’t a discovery session for the writer or for us — there’s nothing worse than hearing a sigh on the other end of the line when you’ve asked an industry expert to explain something you could have learned by, say, visiting her company’s website.
Pick the right interviewer
We typically stick with journalists skilled at getting insightful answers out of interview subjects. Most SMEs are not accustomed to being interviewed and, as an expert, they may dwell on details or not know what information is most important to disclose — an experienced journalist can keep us from missing a larger and more important point.
Someone has to set up the interview when it takes place. A short recap of the goal and topic of the content being discussed focuses everyone’s brain on the task at hand.
Stay in touch
After the interview, we follow up immediately with anything that still needs to be confirmed, like a data point, or materials that need to be shared, such as a report which only the SME has access to. The writer gets writing, we get reviewing, and our fact-checkers scour everything. They’re given access to the SME, where appropriate, to confirm facts and figures, though we also provide SMEs a chance to review the content to make sure it’s accurate. During this critical pre-publishing process, we kindly remind the SME to share the content through their own social channels — and to continue offering new ideas for blogs and other content.
Engaging with SMEs pushes your content further than you’ve ever taken it before. But doing so effectively requires some planning, precision, and ultimately, appreciation for the time the SME is taking to help you do your job. Take that kind of attitude, and you (and your readers) will be pleased with the results.