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I’ve collaborated with 100+ subject matter experts (SMEs) for content and I can tell you one thing for certain:

  • there’s such a thing as right and wrong ways to select SMEs to interview for content.

For example, you could interview an “SME” who has a job title that makes you think “Oh, they MUST know a ton about {insert topic}.” 

But in reality, your topic isn’t something they practice regularly. 

It’s probably just something other people in their role usually do, but not them. So you want to be sure.

There’s more than one thing that could go wrong when selecting SMEs to interview or collaborate with for content.

So for this article, Rennie (my co-founder) and I talk to seven content experts and they all share their best practices for selecting the right SMEs.

Best practices for selecting the right SMEs for content

Shout out to all the amazing content leaders who contributed their best tips for identifying and selecting SMEs to create content:

Ben Lempert (Director of Content and Web @ Heap), Zoe Hawkins (Principal Content Manager @ Sumo Logic), Robert Tucker (Director of Content and Creative Services @ Split), Amy Brennen (Senior Content Marketing Manager @ BigPanda), Kasey Steinbrinck (Senior Content Marketing Manager @ Mailgun), Levi Olmstead (Associate Director of Content Marketing @ Whatfix) and Sandra Durcevic (Global Head of Content and SEO @ Bitly).

1. Look for people who ‘walk the talk’

Opinions are a dime a dozen.

And if you work in marketing, you know this firsthand; marketers love to share opinions — no matter how unproven.

But even outside marketing, millions of opinions fly around by the hour.

So when looking for SMEs for your content, find people who don’t just preach but actually practice what they preach.

I like how Heap’s director of web and content put it:

Ben Lempert

Ben Lempert headshot

Ben Lempert

Director of Content and Web @ Heap

“The top tip is to find people who have a playbook for doing what they do. 

“There are endless people out there who will give you opinions on your topic. A much smaller percentage of them have actually done the thing. 

“Find someone who has the scars, and has seen in the wild what works and what doesn’t.”

Ben added that it’s also important to find SMEs who won’t just say things that support your products/services, but objectively share what works best for the topic you’re addressing:

“Too many content leaders approach SMEs with the goal of finding something positive to say about the product they’re selling. 

“A better approach (IMO) is to just ask SMEs about best practices in general. What is the best way to do the thing you’re discussing, regardless of the solution? 

“What has worked for you and what hasn’t? For the things that haven’t worked, why haven’t they worked? What are some lessons you’ve learned? And so on.

“That’s the most valuable information for your audience. And it has the advantage of being information your SME (ideally) truly knows something about.”

2. Pick SMEs who are open to sharing

Sometimes, you have very knowledgeable SMEs in your organization.

But they’re not open to sharing — usually because they don’t have the time.

And then you find that you have to chase them around to share their expertise.

Happens all the time. But a simple solution is to not waste time going after SMEs who aren’t open to sharing.

Just reach out to the ones that, regardless of their busyness, are open to sharing.

Sumo Logic’s Principal Content Manager put it like this: 

Zoe Hawkins headshot

Zoe Hawkins

Principal Content Manager @ Sumo Logic

“Pick your SME based on unique insight and openness to sharing ideas. 

“While other SMEs might have more expertise, if they aren’t committed to a thought leadership program, don’t enjoy communicating, or are otherwise difficult to work with, your thought leadership program will be less successful.

“We’ve all worked with difficult SMEs. 

“Sadly, too often, their thought leadership content is neither thoughtful nor leading. 

“Subject matter expertise is about more than knowing your stuff, it’s about a willingness and ability to share with the broader community and provide a unique insight or perspective.”

Zoe further added a point about anticipating and removing barriers that may hinder SMEs from responding with their insights:

“Some SMEs might avoid contributing because they don’t believe they can write well enough —  having guidelines that include an option to interview your SME and write for them can remove that barrier. 

“Other guidelines might be word count limits — if you have a particularly verbose writer, this can help them be open to edits or suggestions to help them meet those guidelines.”

3. Avoid “echo chamber thought leadership”

“Echo chamber thought leadership” happens when all the SMEs you’re collaborating with share all too similar views.

And this would often happen when all your SMEs come from a close-knit team, where they all share the same or similar ideologies.

The danger here is you as the content leader will keep encountering information and opinions that confirm their existing views while dismissing or ignoring dissenting opinions in the market.

One effective solution to this is to diversify your SME sources. That’s what’s Director of Content and Creative Services advised when we asked for his opinion:

Robert Tucker headshot

Robert Tucker

Director of Content and Creative Services @ Split

“I think a lot of what’s wrong with the way content leaders select SMEs is that they’re looking [only] within their networks and their resources. 

“From my personal experience running kind of a scrappier content marketing team, we typically only know what is or have access to the people who are available to us outside of a lot of legwork and outreach. 

“So we start internally when we work through networks, which creates a bit of an echo chamber both in insight and the thought leadership that you bring to the table. It can feel very circular.

“This happens as well when we only leverage our customers for thought leadership and our content development.

“We’re in an emerging category so even down to the language that we use within our thought leadership content can be very circular and echo chamber-based because our customers are using the language that we provide them. 

“So I think approaching thought leadership and subject matter expert outreach based on them being an expert versus the limitations of your budget or your resources is what’s the ideal.”

BigPanda’s senior content marketing manager shared the same perspective:

Amy Brennen headshot

Amy Brennen

Senior Content Marketing Manager @ BigPanda

“The biggest mistakes I see when content leaders select SMEs are choosing internal SMEs for convenience or selecting established SMEs too invested in their industry or company POV to examine their topic from a different perspective.

“I would encourage content leaders to build a roster of external SMEs that they can partner with to produce unique, passionate, expert-led content. 

“These credible external voices can also become our biggest allies for content promotion and helping us reach our target audience.”

Robert further added a point about the importance of inviting both academic and professional SMEs to content creation:

“One thing that is important to consider is academic versus business thought leaders and the importance of both. 

“I think many times you can work within the world of academia to get emerging thought leadership or emerging categories, emerging tech, etc. 

“And that gives you more of a theoretical expertise and validity versus a business thought leader who can apply either in a more established category and or apply their expertise from a business perspective. 

“And I think both are valid and important and serve different roles depending on the type of content or thought leadership that you’re trying to create.”

4. Select SMEs who match your ICP

You’ve probably heard this before, but take this as a reminder:

Creating content for a business is not the same as doing it for a publication.

At the end of the day, as a business, you want potential buyers to see your content and get familiar with your brand.

And one way to do that is to identify thought leaders and SMEs among them and create content with them.

You’ll get to ask them about their everyday life, see what they care about, and use your learnings to inform your content production.

Whatfix’s Director of Content put it like this:

Levi Olmstead headshot

Levi Olmstead

Associate Director of Content Marketing @ Whatfix

“I reach out to professionals who fit our ideal ICP (both customers and non-customers) to chat with them about their day-to-day, the biggest challenges they’re facing in 2024, metrics they’re tracking, etc. 

“I prepare my conversations with 5-10 questions, but I take different conversation paths depending on what the person’s biggest challenges are.

“This allows conversations to be more natural than simply reading off a list of questions and helps collect really interesting quotes and topics that help teams create better content that resonates more with ICPs.”

5. Identify SMEs who can challenge the status quo

Expertise is everywhere — internal, external, everywhere. 

Anyone can share expertise, but not everyone can challenge the status quo.

And if you’re not challenging the status quo, your thought leadership program will likely struggle to gain significant traction.

No wonder BigPanda’s senior content marketing manager shared that it’s a requirement for her when selecting SMEs for thought leadership content.

Amy Brennen headshot

Amy Brennen

Senior Content Marketing Manager @ BigPanda

“For thought leadership, I need an SME who’s thoughtful and willing to challenge the status quo.

“That’s why I try to select SMEs with first-hand experience with the topic, a unique background, or a fresh POV to ensure our thought leadership makes a splash.

“Organizations often fall into the trap of selecting SMEs based on their titles, degrees, or years of experience, believing that these factors automatically lead to compelling thought leadership. 

“Yet in my experience, it’s far more critical to have an SME with a unique perspective, passion, and authenticity. These factors are much more important for audiences and inspire real engagement and trust.”

Mailgun’s senior content marketing manager shared the same perspective. 

Kasey Steinbrinck headshot

Kasey Steinbrinck

Senior Content Marketing Manager @ Mailgun

“Seniority and impressive job titles may not be the right way to choose a subject matter expert. It all depends on who you want to reach. 

“Finding an SME who reflects your target persona makes them more relatable, empathetic, and trustworthy. 

“People want to hear from others who’ve been in their shoes, or who are doing what they aspire to do. 

“A thought leader isn’t defined by years of experience. 

“True thought leaders have strong opinions, are passionate about what they do, and often have a story to tell. That doesn’t have to be someone from the C-suite. 

“Find people with big personalities and big ideas of their own. 

“Thought leaders should bring something unique to the table. It’s so much better when they actually care about what’s being created because they’ve got some skin in the game. 

“When they do, they’re more likely to share the content they’re featured in and engage with the community on the topic.”

6. Identify SMEs with a track record

I’ve touched earlier on the importance of selecting SMEs who practice what they preach.

But beyond that, and where possible, look for those with results.

In other words, experts who aren’t just walking their talk, but also driving results with it.

It might take a bit more research and legwork to find such SMEs, but if you do, they can share insights that will strike a chord with your audience.

Bitly’s global head of content and SEO mirrored a similar perspective when we asked for her thoughts for this article:

Sandra Durcevic headshot 1

Sandra Durcevic

Global Head of Content and SEO @ Bitly

“One common mistake I’ve observed is that many content leaders often prioritize subject matter experts (SMEs) solely based on their seniority or tenure within the organization, rather than considering their actual expertise or thought leadership potential. 

“I think content leaders should approach selecting SMEs with a more strategic mindset. 

“For example, consider the SME’s track record and credibility within their field. 

“Have they been recognized by peers or industry publications? Do they have a history of delivering valuable insights or thought leadership content? 

“Look for individuals who have a track record of innovation or significant contributions within their field. 

“By focusing on expertise and relevance, you can ensure that your thought leadership content is credible, insightful, and resonates with your audience.”

We asked Sandra why content leaders should follow her tip/method, and here’s what she shared:

“In short, because it directly impacts the quality and effectiveness of the content produced. 

“With the recent developments in Google Search Rater Guidelines and the development of AI, expertise became one of the pillars that even Google recognizes as an important element of quality. “

Sandra added a best practice about also going after SMEs who they know often stay up-to-date with the latest developments in their industry:

“I would suggest selecting SMEs who stay up-to-date with the latest industry trends, developments, and research. 

“Thought leadership content should offer fresh perspectives and insights that add value to the conversation, so it’s important to choose experts who are well-informed and forward-thinking. 

“This can be someone within your organization, there are usually people who fit the profile and already have enough expertise to be included in content creation.” 

Be strategic about selecting SMEs

Being strategic means having a reason behind every SME you select.

Your reason could be that you’ve identified a track record an SME has, their specialty, enthusiasm, etc. before you reach out to them.

This will help you pick SMEs who:

  • know a ton about your topic, 
  • are open to making time to share expertise, and
  • will share content that challenges the status quo

In the end, your SMEs will usually determine the direction your content will take. So it’s best to select them with care.

Victor Ijidola
Co-founder at Leaps | Website

Hi, I’m Victor 👋🏽 — co-founder @ Leaps, a tool that makes it super easy to get insights from multiple SMEs & execs at the same time — without calls & meetings.