SME Outreach ft img

My #1 approach to reaching out to SMEs for content is:

  • Find them in an industry community (e.g LinkedIn, Slack)
  • Send a connection request with a note 
  • Include my topic in the note to give context
  • Ask if they’d like to share insights on the topic

This approach has helped us get over 100 positive responses from SMEs.

But this isn’t the only approach that works.

So we turned to other content and customer education leaders to see how they reach out to SMEs.

Best practices for reaching out to SMEs (tips from experts)

Big shoutout to all the experts who shared their thoughts and insights in this piece:

Brett Powell (Vice President of Education Services @ Coupa), Sandra Elliott (Director of Training and Development @ Adswerve), Julien Clement (Director of Certification and Education @ Workato), Kylie Flinker-Jarrett (Education Manager @ Johnson & Johnson MedTech), and Dakota Quibell (Customer Education Manager @ Workstream).

1) Where possible, start with a personal relationship

We all have priorities, but we make time for people we have relationships with.

So if you take the time to build relationships with your SMEs, chances are they’ll add your requests to one of their must- (or at least) to-do activities.

And the deeper your relationship with them, the higher your chances.

The VP of education services at Coupa Software puts it like this:

Brett J. Powell headshot

Brett J. Powell

Vice President of Education Services @ Coupa

“If there is a wrong way [to reach out to SMEs], it would be reaching out to SMEs without first establishing a collaborative, or in some cases, a personal relationship that includes an understanding of your educational processes and their working environment. 

“Additionally, I have a fast and steady rule that you should work with the willing, not force people into participating in the learning [or content creation] journey… in other words, you need to find people who want to share their subject matter expertise.

“The first step is to simply find 30 minutes of their time to meet and get to know each other and establish a relationship. 

“From there, you can ascertain their interest in sharing knowledge, willingness to assist, and availability to help. 

“It also helps to have some idea of the level of effort required for the learning project that will determine the level of support you can expect (i.e., how many hours of their time will be required).

“Once you get to know them, and confirm they are available, it’s ultimately your job to get them excited about the project and its impact on learners, how their contributions will enhance the learning experience, and perhaps even play somewhat to their role (and ego) as an expert.”

We further asked Brett how he overcomes objections SMEs bring up like, “I don’t have time.” 

He shared he tends to work with what he calls a “coalition of the willing.”

“This can be a tough one. I have a tendency to work with what I call a “coalition of the willing,” meaning the SME has to want to participate. 

“If they say they do not have the time or begin to put up roadblocks, I may simply go look for another SME. 

“Better to spend time finding the right person than fighting the wrong person. 

“If it is the only SME I can work with, I will try to do everything I can to accommodate their schedule, and appeal to their sense of purpose and why this project is so important for them, the company, and in many cases the customer. 

“As a side note, I do find more often than not that whatever training we are developing often helps scale the knowledge trapped within the SME. 

“In other words, they may be repeating themselves over and over again with employees or customers and the training will help alleviate some of their workload to focus on bigger and better initiatives.”

2) Focus on “gaps in knowledge”

When you ask an SME a question and they feel, “You could’ve researched that,” you’re automatically wasting their very valuable and limited time.

Instead of asking obvious questions, save their time by focusing on questions you can’t answer through personal research.

For example, we provide a template of questions to ask SMEs in Leaps.

And one of them is:

A screenshot of a questionnaire in Leaps.

We ask this question to get the SMEs to think and talk about insights that aren’t accessible anywhere else. And it works; they tend to start uncovering information we weren’t even thinking about.

The director of training and development at Adswerve calls it focusing on “gaps in knowledge.”

Sandra Elliott headshot

Sandra Elliott

Director of Training and Development @ Adswerve

“I think most SMEs — simply because they are experts — have limited time to assist. 

“Where people go wrong is in expecting SMEs to educate them about their subject from the ground up — something that takes a lot of time and doesn’t really provide value to the SME. 

“I’ve found that it’s best to do your homework before reaching out to an SME, be aware of your gaps in knowledge, and be careful to take up the smallest amount of time possible. 

“Show respect for their time and expertise, and they’ll respect you right back.

Sandra further shares the steps she typically takes to reach out to SMEs to get a ‘yes:’:

“1. I reach out to the SME, briefly explain my project, and let them know others pointed me to them as an SME.

“2. I explain that I’d like to meet with them for a short time (in my field, usually half an hour) with specific questions regarding their area of expertise.

“3. I schedule the time if/when they agree.

“4. I thank them at the beginning of that time, make sure to record the interaction as best I can, and try to get all my answers handled in that short time.

“5. I thank them again at the end and let them know what the next steps will be, making sure to ask if they are willing to help me along the way.

“This process works for me because it’s respectful of the SME’s time, recognizes their expertise, and checks along the way to ensure that the SME is still willing and able to participate. 

“In one real-world scenario, I’d set up time with an SME, but at that meeting was informed that the SME had been put on a new project, and her time would be limited. 

“Rather than try and push forward with my questions, I asked if she’d prefer I work with another SME, then asked her for recommendations. I was able to return to this SME in the future and get her help because I’d respected her time and need to shift focus.

3) Make it easy to get the output you need

Most SMEs already consider collaborating with you an extra layer of work.

So they’ll appreciate anything you can do to make things easy for them.

Workato’s director of certification and education — who’s worked with SMEs to create product-specific and product-agnostic courses and certifications for HubSpot Academy and Workato’s Automation Institute — suggests giving them guardrails, getting buy-in from their manager, and so on:

Julien Clement headshot

Julien Clement

Director of Certification and Education @ Workato

“You have to make it as easy as possible for them to get you the output you need. 

“Give clear guardrails, provide help, find out what other projects they have going on so you can plan accordingly, and maybe most importantly, make sure you have the right buy-in from their manager.

Clement further shared the steps he typically takes to reach out to SMEs and get a ‘yes’:

“1. Identify the topic

2. Identify possible SMEs

3. Book a meeting to gauge the SMEs’ interest

4. Get feedback from SMEs (this is key to get them to feel like part of the larger vision)

5. If interested, meet with their manager to get buy-in

6. Set up a kickoff to go over the guardrails 

“[Also,] make sure that you are aligned with their manager. Ideally, you want to build it into their MBOs (Management by Objectives) so that the SMEs have an incentive to do the work. 

“If incentives and top-level alignment don’t work, try to understand what else is taking up their time. Is there something else that you can help them with? Are there ways you can make the content creation easier for them or put together a mutual plan of action?”

4) Assign ownership and work with a strategy

A task assigned to everyone is assigned to no one.

For example, if you enter a Slack group with SMEs inside, drop a bunch of questions and say “Hey everyone, please share your insights!”

They could respond. Or they can just ignore it — and that’ll happen because there’s:

  • No deadlines 
  • No specific SMEs assigned to answer questions
  • No context about why their response is important

To save yourself from all that headache, it’s best to form a dedicated strategy, assign work to specific SMEs, and let them know what to expect.

I like how the education manager at Johnson & Johnson MedTech puts it:

Kylie Flinker-Jarrett headshot

Kylie Flinker-Jarrett

Education Manager @ Johnson & Johnson MedTech

“Some of the ways I believe to manage SMEs and content:

– Establish a dedicated strategy and ownership: Assigning ownership to a team or individual creates a cohesive strategy, ensures consistency, avoids duplications and streamlines efforts.

– Early engagement: Involving SMEs early in the planning process rather than as an afterthought. Their insights can help develop and shape the content and the customer journey, making it more relevant and effective

“Everyone has different approaches so I’m not suggesting my way is the only way. 

“I have, however, been involved in teams where my counterparts haven’t followed even the basics of my steps and this led to breakdowns in the relationships with SMEs and ineffective education programs.

“Because over the years I have built great connections, I have been able to resurrect those broken relationships and restructure some of our education strategies with them.”

5) Consider moving away from Slack

Slack has been a powerful communication tool for teams — especially since the pandemic.

But when it comes to getting the granular details you need from SMEs, it’s usually not the best platform for that use case.

Workstream’s Dakota Quibell advises: 

Dakota Quibell headshot

Dakota Quibell

Customer Education Manager @ Workstream

“One of the things I’ve noticed when reaching out to our subject matter experts to gather information for content creation is that if it comes via Slack, I’m definitely not going to get all of the context. 

“Occasionally, I’ve also found that SMEs will send me a link to Figma or mock-ups, a PRD (product requirements document), and then I’m left deciphering and navigating things that may be a little too technical to really break down into what I would like to share with the customer base. 

“So ideally, the best way to gather content is to have a template in place, send that template over, and have them give us the information that way, or we hop on a call and talk through it. 

“Ideally, it’s best to have open communication and know that they’re going to respond in a timely manner and give us answers to questions.”

We further asked Dakota to share a recent story of how her approach has helped to get buy-in from an SME; here’s what she shared:

“I have found that building camaraderie and doing your due diligence sets you up for success. For example, we recently rolled out a pretty technical feature and they sent over a PRD for my team to decipher, and it was so technical. 

“How do you want us to do this? Persistence. I reached out to the PM (product manager) overseeing the new feature and let him know that I didn’t feel comfortable deciphering the PRD and  wasn’t confident in what we had built for our customers. 

“He finally took the time to sit down on a call with us and walk us through the key functionality of that feature and exactly how it will be used, which cleared up any errors and confusion that my team and I were experiencing.

Dakota further shares how she overcomes objections SMEs bring up like, “I don’t have time.”

“In my experience, we have PMs and I work with the PMs more than I work with SMEs. It’s all about persistence. 

“If you would like my team to do something for you and put this in copy, then I need your help. So framing that, if they want something done by my team or myself, we have to have a conversation if things aren’t straightforward. 

“Everybody has the time. Everybody should make the time. PMs and SMEs are essentially the key stakeholders and the liaisons between engineering and go to market or in this case, engineering and our customer base.”

Get insights from SMEs with Leaps

From first-hand experience as a previous content agency owner, I know getting SMEs to say “yes” to a collaboration is easy.

The hard part is getting them to fulfill their promise to share insights.

This is where Leaps comes in real handy.

Once SMEs agree to share insights, all you have to do is plug their name and email into Leaps, and the tool takes it from there.

It’s like your virtual assistant for SME interviews/collaboration.

Leaps will send your questions, make it easy for them to answer with text and voice notes, communicate your deadlines, and follow up with SMEs if they don’t respond.

Sounds interesting? Learn more about Leaps here.

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