Content creators may be proficient on a topic, but they’re rarely experts on the subject.
And experts on a subject usually aren’t the most proficient content creators.
So what do you do when you need to create content with relevant, accurate, and detailed information on topics where you lack expertise?
You partner with people who are experts in the topic. Working with subject matter experts helps in a couple of ways. First, SMEs help content creators understand and explain topics in-depth. Second, SMEs lend credibility to the content and may help promote it to their networks.
But incorporating SMEs into your content creation process isn’t always easy. To do it, you need to:
- Find and vet experts inside or outside your organization
- Earn their cooperation
- Work them into your content creation process
Preparation and organization go a long way. Try these suggestions for refining each stage of the process for SME-input (not SME-created) content.
Find the right SME
You can find quality subject matter experts inside your and outside your organization. Each type can add value to your content. Just make sure to understand the pros and cons associated with each choice.
You can quickly identify some SMEs by their position or title in your company. But don’t stop with executives and team leads. Ask co-workers, “If you had a question about [TOPIC], who in this company would you ask?”
Pros: The content raises the SME’s profile and reinforces your company’s expertise on the subject. These SMEs don’t need any background on what your company does (though they might need a little education on your target audience or content.) They’re also more likely to cooperate with your content-related requests because it’s all for the good of your shared employer.
Cons: Audiences could feel skeptical about the insights from SMEs who work for your company. And, in some cases, internal politics might require the content team to work with an “expert” who isn’t the best choice. The SME’s involvement in content often is outside their job scope, so their contribution happens on top of all their usual work.
TIP: Don’t rely solely on company profiles in your search for an SME. Look up their digital profiles – consider what they’re saying, what others say about their work, and where their expertise has been featured.
Working with an SME outside your organization expands your source pool to more experts on your topics. You can find them in several ways:
- Identify people who have presented, been interviewed, or written about the topic on their own platform, at conferences, on social media, etc.
- Use source services such as HARO, ProfNet, Help a B2B Writer, etc.
- Explore resources at academic institutions. You can reach out directly to a professor or work with the university or college’s communication staff.
- Visit online communities like Reddit or other topic-focused forums.
Pros: Audiences perceive the insight from external SMEs as more objective and credible since they don’t work for your company. Searching externally can also lead you to someone who specializes in a subtopic your internal contacts don’t cover.
Cons: Identifying sources outside your company typically takes longer (and they may be less likely to agree to your request). If you receive a response through a source service, make sure they are who they say they are – and they are the expert you think they are.
Earn their cooperation
With your SMEs identified, it’s time to ask for their help. Before you reach out, set yourself up to get a yes:
- Introduce yourself. Explain your content creation role (and who you work for when approaching an external SME). Limit this to a sentence or two.
- Explain why you’re reaching out to them. Detail briefly why you’re contacting them and explain the platform the content will appear: “We’d love to include your expert insight in an article for our email newsletter, which goes out to 200,000 marketers.”
- Tell them what you’re asking for. Explain the specifics of your content piece and how you’d like them to be involved: “I’d like to ask a few questions about what you see as the most important metrics now and in five years. I’ll include your comments in an article on analytics.”
- Invite them to ask questions. Encouraging them to ask questions indicates you see this as more than a transactional relationship: “I’m happy to answer any questions you have about the interview or the details of the project.”
- Identify the modes to connect. Don’t dictate the interview format unless the content type (i.e., video) requires it. Give them a couple of options and a time frame: “We could do the interview in a 30-minute phone or by email, whichever you prefer.”
- Explain the next steps. Here’s your call to action. Let them know how to accept your request, and make sure to mention the deadline you’re facing. “Please let me know if you’re willing to help out with this article. I can send you the questions, or we can set up a time to talk. I need to complete this article in the next two weeks. Thanks for your time.”
TIP: Don’t make promises you can’t keep or you risk damaging the SME relationship. For example, don’t offer the SME the opportunity to approve the content if your company’s policy only lets them review the excerpts in which they’re mentioned or quoted.
TIP: If you’re asking the SME to create the content themselves, mention in your request that the piece will be edited by a content team member for style and to aid audience understanding.
Work the content creation process
Factor in the SME’s involvement from the beginning of your content planning process. Using SMEs – internal or external – usually lengthens the content creation time and, in some instances, the review process.
Plan how to use the SME input
You could just include their comments in a single blog article. But, if it’s a hard-to-reach or high-profile SME, you might want to take this opportunity to create pillar content. In that case, your questions would be more wide-ranging than they would for a single article. Or you might want to do both a blog post and a video, which require making sure they’re willing to do an on-camera interview. You also could ask them for their ideas on future content topics.
TIP: With the SME’s permission, record the interview. Even if you don’t plan to use it in a video or audio format, the recording can be transcribed to supplement your notes.
Prepare your questions and conduct the interview
Remember, you’re the expert in content creation, not the expert in the subject matter. You just need to be informed enough (about the topic and the expert) to ask the necessary questions. Listen carefully to their answers and be ready to ask relevant follow-up questions. If you don’t understand something, ask them to explain.
As you conclude, ask an open-ended question, such as: “Is there anything we haven’t touched on that you think would be helpful to our audience?”
TIP: It’s OK to ask a question even though you know the answer (or the answer is simple.) That’s your job – to learn how the expert explains the answer. After all, their quote will appear in the content.
TIP: Ask the SME for their preferred social handles so your company can recognize and promote their involvement on social media.
Write and review
Use the SME’s best answers in your article, video, or audio content – you don’t have to include everything. People don’t want to sit through the entire interview. They want the most pertinent elements that came from it.
If you’ve agreed to let the SME review the content before it’s published, send it in an email (so you’ll have a record of the outreach) that includes the deadline for comments: “Thanks again for sharing your great insight. We are publishing the blog post on July 1. If you have any suggested changes, please send them to me by June 28.” In this case, you’re not asking the SME to approve the content – you’re merely giving them the option to suggest changes.
If you don’t receive a response, send a reminder a day or two before the SME’s input deadline.
In some cases, you may not accept their suggested changes. If it’s just a styling or other minor change, you probably don’t need to follow up with them. However, if they suggest a more significant change that you don’t plan to make, follow up to let them know and explain why you didn’t make the change.
Remember to thank them
After publication, send a thank-you note with a link to the content. If this SME partnership worked well, let them know you’d like to keep in touch (and follow up in the next few months).
Become the expert in SMEs
Develop an organized approach to working with SMEs, from identification to outreach to content creation. The more you do it, the better you can refine the process to work better (and easier) for you and your brand. And that’s when you’ll be the expert in SMEs.
All tools mentioned in the article are identified by the author. If you have a tool to suggest, please feel free to add it in the comments.
Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute