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We asked 175 content and marketing leaders:

“What’s your biggest challenge in collaborating with internal Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) to create content?”

About 90% of them answered with different variations of “they’re too busy.”

We asked this question because we wanted to understand the #1 challenge content leaders had with SME interviews before building Leaps for it.

Turned out they had the same challenges we had when we ran a content agency: SMEs often don’t have time for content.

But there are ways to make it work.

In this article, I’ll share how we did SME interviews for this article you’re reading, and also share how other content leaders are doing it today.

Let’s get into it.

Best practices for SME interviews (insights from experience)

Big shoutout to the amazing content leaders contributing to this piece: Jane Haynie (Content Operations Lead @ Full Funnel Content, Maeva Cifuentes (Founder @ Flying Cat Marketing), Niels van Melick (Founder & Head of Content @ Leadwave.io), and Morgan Short (Director of Content & Web Strategy @ Vendavo).

In all, these content leaders (and yours truly) shared five super effective ways to do SME interviews successfully:

1) My approach: get SME insights without calls

Scheduling calls with SMEs is often problematic (from my experience and other leaders I’ve spoken to)

It’s usually a huge time commitment and high-effort task for them.

They have their day jobs to do, so “jump on a call” requests aren’t so easy for them.

So I bypass those calls using Leaps. (Yep, that’s us)

How it works:

Take this article as an example. It’s got five SMEs in it (including yours truly).

I asked each of them if they’d like to be a part of this piece, and they all said yes.

Once I got their consent, I entered their information into Leaps, added my questions, and the tool took it from there.

First, it sends them an email with a link to answer questions (no sign-up required from SMEs).

What the email looks like:

Once they click “Answer the questions,” they land on a questionnaire where they can share insights with either voice notes or texts.

Here’s an example of the questionnaire page:

If they don’t respond immediately, Leaps automatically sends them follow-up emails based on the intervals you set, reminding them to respond to your questions.

It’s like a virtual assistant for SME interviews. 

Once you’ve set it up with instructions, it goes to work and comes back with insights from SMEs.

The biggest benefit I get from Leaps is that I don’t have to follow up with several SMEs I’m partnering with per time. It does most of the work and alerts me when SME insights arrive. Huge time saver!

2) Embrace fluidity for live SME interviews

If you need to get on calls with SMEs, prepare to be brutally fluid.

And that means being fluid with your questions, topic, and flow of the interview. 

Your SMEs can introduce different angles that totally alter your preconceived notions about the topic under discussion.

So be ready for when that happens.

Jane puts it like this:

“I think the best approach is to walk in with a plan, but with no intention of sticking to it. 

“Your interview questions are just a starting point — you should be ready to follow their experience and intelligence down the paths that are most unique and most valuable for the content you’re writing.”

How Jane runs a typical interview with SMEs:

“First, I generate a list of questions I want to ask/topics to cover ahead of time and send it to them to review at least a day before the interview takes place. 

“I start with broad questions to see what insights I can tease out and include more specific questions, where applicable. 

“It’s important to avoid leading them too much — their experience is where their greatest value lies so I want them to feel comfortable sharing anything that comes to mind, even if they’re not sure it’s applicable.

“That’s how you get the best “aha” moments.”

3) Hang where SMEs hang and ask for collabs

One of the most common forms of SME collaborations is openly asking in niche communities for SMEs to contribute to your content.

This could be on LinkedIn or any other community that has your target customers.

But there’s a caveat here.

Jumping into a community and just expecting people to respond to questions can sometimes be a recipe for getting ignored.

A better approach is to join in and be a part of conversations long before you need SME collaborations for your content.

I like how Maeva from Flying Cat Marketing put it:

“Building long-term SME relationships is going to be an irreplaceable quality that content marketers have in 2024. 

“Networking, being an active member of online communities where these people are long before you need the SMEs is key. 

“What people do is never engage, and then randomly post on LinkedIn that they are looking for experts to speak to for 15-20 minutes, and then they wonder why nobody responds. 

“They should already have relationships with people they are looking to speak to.”

But in the absence of such relationships, all hope isn’t lost.

You can always go into communities and ask openly to see who responds.

Here’s how Maeva advises you do it:

“Another thing they could do is ask openly on these communities for the question they want answered, and when somebody engages actively with them they can ask them publicly if it’s okay to DM them rather than just asking for people’s time directly.”

It’s less effective than building a solid relationship with an SME before making an ask. But it works.

How Maeva runs a typical interview with SMEs:

“I already have a network of SMEs.

“If I didn’t, I would find out where they spend time and start by asking a question openly there. 

“See who responds and who is actively responding (more than 1 comment or response to follow-up questions). 

“Then I’d ask if they are open to me DMing them for a bit more info, and ask for the interview there, being sure to explain “what’s in it for them” (most of the time a mention & backlink)

“[But] come prepared. Know what they do in advance. Think in advance: what’s the no. 1 thing you want to learn from the interview? Do prior research so you have some context awareness and don’t just ask them for basics. 

4) Know as little as possible before SME interviews

It’s common practice to come into interviews knowing all you can about the subject.

But it’s often more effective to leave room for questions that’ll get your SMEs talking in the right direction.

Niels put it like this:

“Writers typically prepare for an interview by trying to understand as much about the subject as possible.

“The thinking here is that being well-versed on the topic lets you ask more biting questions that cut to the heart of the issue, rather than wasting time with basic questions that draw out answers readers could find anywhere.

“And that’s right – to a point. But it’s a balancing act. 

“If you know too much about a topic and ask too many leading questions, you forget to think like a reader, who may know very little about the topic. 

Stepping back from what you already know and planning the interview from the reader’s perspective will help you to:

– Ask the type of questions a reader would ask if they were here instead of you.

– Structure the interview in a way that’s easy for readers to follow and understand.

– Extract practical advice from your subject expert that genuinely helps your reader.

How Niels executes SME interviews

“1. Identify the right SME for each topic. This step shouldn’t be taken lightly: you want to make the best use of everyone’s time, so you have to make sure that your SME is the right person for the topic.

“2. Prepare the content brief. This is typically done in collaboration with the client’s marketing team.

“3. Prepare the interview: Which angles are we going to focus on? Which questions am I going to ask? What might follow-up questions look like?

“4. Share the questions with the interviewee so he/she can prepare accordingly. Ideally, an interviewee comes prepared.

“5. Conduct the interview and approach it as a relaxed conversation (not a formal interview).

Bonus: one of Niels’ favorite questions to ask SMEs:

”If you were to explain this concept to my grandma, how would you explain it?”

“It’s a great question because it forces the SME to explain any concepts in simple, jargon-free language that is easy to follow for readers.”

5) Study the human, not just the topic

Especially when looking to establish a long-term relationship with an SME, you want to know as much as possible about what makes them tick.

The more you know that, the better your chances of getting deep insights from them.

How Vendavo’s content director Morgan Short starts her SME interviews by studying the human and the topic under consideration

“1. Every SME interview should ALWAYS start with research. 

“And research not just on the topic, but also on the person you are interviewing. Become a student on the topic and the human. Get on Google, get on their LinkedIn”

“2. Structure and outline with flexibility. Outline your questions and have an idea of what you want to get out of the conversation but leave room for that organic development. 

“That way your conversation is guided but not constrained. I think the best content truly comes out of the people who are asking the best questions and getting genuinely and relentlessly curious.

“3. Keep it comfortable and easy for the SMEs as well. Remember SMEs are typically really busy people and probably don’t necessarily see content creation as part of their job. 

“Make it really easy for them. Make it clear that this interview that you’re setting up is collaborative. And keep in mind these experts are giving you their time. Set up a vibe that implies that this is going to be straightforward and worth their while.

“4. Ask good questions and make the most out of your time. If you’re booked for 30 minutes take full advantage of that time. If you finish early, add more questions. 

“Or go back and ask the question in a different way. Ask questions that stimulate conversation. Circle back for clarity on complex answers. If you hear jargon, distill that into clear language. 

“Ultimately the goal is to transform the interview into something that’s vibrant and insightful. Good content and good storytelling start with compelling and thought-provoking questions.

“I’ve been working alongside SMEs for the last decade of my career. I’ve certainly made some of these mistakes earlier in my career myself. 

“Viewing an SME interview as a check the box instead of arguably, the most crucial part of the content development process is not beneficial for anyone involved. 

“I think following the process can help other content leaders create more engaging, relevant, and impactful content and far stronger storytelling. 

“Also, I have seen SMEs light up, get really excited, and bring so much more to the table when I frame the interview as a collaborative, easy, and open dialogue with room for expansion. They can feel it and sense it when you’re just “checking a box” 

Pick the approach that works best for you

For some, asynchronous SME interviews, where you simply ask the right questions, send them off to SMEs, and let them answer in their own time before your deadline.

Personally, I prefer this approach to live interviews because of the ease of the process.

SMEs don’t have to sit through a 30-minute to 1-hour interview.

They get the questions and can answer them without issues. 

Plus, SMEs are often super busy.

So they’ll often reschedule calls. I don’t have to deal with that.

And I’ve found if you ask the right questions, it often eliminates the need for follow-up questions.

For some others, live interviews could work better.

But the key here is to pick the approach that works best for your processes.

Co-founder at Leaps | Website | Articles

Hi, I’m Victor 👋🏽 — co-founder @ Leaps — a tool that makes it super easy to run SME interviews for content at scale without calls & meetings.

This way, you're better able to create content that:

- truly connects with decision-makers
- shows thought leadership and builds brand
- moves deals forward, drives pipeline, and so on