Your guide to engaging subject matter experts

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

BY Mychelle Peterson
Imagination Contributor

Almost anyone can string together a series of buzzwords with snappy transitions. But that’s not what content marketers need, and it’s not what audiences want. They want reputable sources of wisdom and accessible voices.

When it comes to creating content that meets business objectives and piques readers’ interests, there is no better source than the subject matter expert interview.

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

What is a subject matter expert?

An SME (subject matter expert) is an industry professional who can offer precise information and nuanced insight on a given topic. Perhaps they’re widely recognized in the field or a rising star in their organization. For example, an article about saving for retirement would do well to showcase a banker with 20 years of experience in retirement planning. SMEs provide credibility, validation and expertise that a general online search simply can’t.

Find the right SME for your topic

Selecting the right expert paves the way to success, yet despite the name, 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 asking an older man to deliver your message — no matter how smart his theories on compound interest may be — might come across as condescending.

Show gratitude

Everyone likes to be reminded their knowledge is meaningful. Editors and reporters need SMEs to share their wisdom, and these experts have been chosen as a source for a reason. Since you’re asking them to give up some of their valuable time, reiterate 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

Often, a writer goes into an interview with a plan of how the story will unfold. So when an SME offers a different path, it can throw things off. But a good reporter will be flexible, give SMEs leeway with their responses and see where the conversation goes. Sometimes your best real-life examples come from veering slightly off-topic.

Explain what’s in it for them

Again, you’re asking for someone’s valuable time. Encourage SMEs to see their discussion with you as an opportunity to highlight themselves, their organization and their ideas. Let them know how you’ll be promoting the piece, and how they can share the finished product with their own networks. And since many experts have strong professional networks, you’re expanding your reach through their channels, too. It’s a win-win situation.

Maximize their time—and yours

If you’re planning an article, consider gathering additional information for a tipsheet or data for an infographic. You might also explore recording the conversation to use as an audio snippet for a podcast. Just make sure you communicate those add-ons. Showing SMEs that you’re thinking beyond a single piece of content demonstrates your interest in their expertise and confidence in its appeal.

Be honest and upfront

Occasionally, things don’t go as planned. Perhaps the SMEs aren’t pleased with the fact that their story may be a small element of a bigger story or program. Set expectations early about their place in your story, and clarify the review process so there will be no surprises.

Follow up and follow through

If you’ve promised your SMEs a chance to review the piece in a week, get it to them in one 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. This is a lesson for life, not just for developing a good SME relationship.

published: April 13, 2021