Finders, keepers: Your guide to engaging subject matter experts

For credibility and authority, there's no better source than subject matter experts (SMEs). Learn how to find them and build the right relationships.

BY Mychelle Peterson
VP, Content, Imagination

Almost anyone can write an article by stringing together a series of catchphrases and buzzwords with snappy transitions. But that’s not what content marketers need, and it’s not what audiences want.

When it comes to creating content that meets business objectives and piques readers’ interests, there is no better source than the subject matter expert—known fondly known as the SME. SMEs provide credibility, validation and expertise that a general Google search simply can’t.

Working successfully with an SME takes time and care. These useful steps will help you create harmonious working relationships with these gatekeepers of knowledge.

Find the right one(s) for your topic

Despite what the phrase says, it’s not just about subject matter. Finding an expert who resonates with your audience is key. Are you targeting millennial women about to start saving for retirement? Then using an older man to deliver your message, no matter how smart his theories on compound interest may be, might come across as condescending. Selecting the right expert paves the way for success.

Appeal to their ego

Editors and reporters need SMEs to share their wisdom, and they’ve been named a source for a reason. Perhaps they’re widely recognized in the field or a rising star in their organization. Either way, everyone likes to be reminded their knowledge is meaningful. Since you’re asking them to give up some of their valuable time, reinforce why you’re asking for their expertise and who recommended them (especially if it was their boss, which goes a long way in getting them on board in short order). Genuinely thank them for their participation early and often.

Follow the experts where they go

Often, a writer goes into an interview with a plan of how the process is going to go. When an SME offers a different path, it can throw things off. But a good writer or reporter will be flexible enough to give SMEs leeway with their responses and see where it goes. Sometimes your best real-life examples come from veering slightly off-topic.

Answer the question: What’s in it for me?

Remember you’re asking for someone’s valuable time. Encourage SMEs to see this as an opportunity to highlight themselves, their organization and their ideas. Let them know how you’ll be promoting the piece, and make sure they know they’ll be able to share the finished product with their own networks. Many SMEs have strong social media networks, so you’re expanding your reach through their channels. It’s a win-win.

Maximize their time—and yours

Showing SMEs that you’re thinking beyond one piece of content demonstrates your confidence in their expertise and interest in their knowledge. If you’re planning an article, consider also gathering information for a tip sheet or data for an infographic. You might also explore recording the conversation to use as an audio snippet for a podcast.

Be honest

Occasionally, things don’t go as planned. The SMEs aren't pleased with how their story has been told or the fact that it may be one small element of a bigger story or program. Set expectations up front about their place in the story, and confirm what the review process will be so there are no surprises.

Follow up and follow through

This is a life lesson, not just one for developing a good SME relationship. If you’ve promised an SME a chance to review the piece in a week, get it to him or her in a week, not two. Clear and open communication goes both ways, and it remains one of the most important factors in ensuring your first interview with a great expert isn’t your last.

published: April 11, 2017