SME relationships _ featured image

Since 2024 kicked off, I’ve collaborated with about 70 SMEs for content.

And I’ll tell you this for free:

Getting access to subject matter experts (SMEs) for content is no small task.

And that’s not just my opinion:

Almost 40% of ~900 marketers in a recent survey experienced this same challenge:

Shoutout to Vera Agiang for sharing this CMI report with me 😀

And I’ve found the more senior SMEs are, the harder it gets to partner with them for content.

Unfortunately, those seniors often have the deepest experience and expertise.

So you’ll often have to contend with their tight schedules if you’re looking for the most experienced SMEs for any content project.

But senior or not, there are best practices that often help to enhance SME relationships and ease up the process of getting their insights. We’ll share some of them in this article.

Let’s get into it.

Author’s note: If you want an easier way to collect insights from your SMEs and manage your collaborations with them, try Leaps.

Best practices for building great relationships with subject matter experts

Big shoutout to the amazing content leaders who shared their insights and experience on this topic: Tawni Sattler (Content Marketing Team Lead, Editorial @ Hotjar), Seanna Tucker (Senior Brand & Content Strategist @ Osano), Rocco Brudno (Director of Content, Technology @ Black & White Zebra), Jane Leung (Product Marketing Manager @ UXCam), Sofia Inga Tyson (SEO Content Editor @ Juro), Maryam Awadh (Medical and Scientific Writer), Maggie Aime (Freelance Health Writer), Cynthia Vanzella (Senior Global Brand and Content Manager @ Dext).

1) Prioritize relationships over outreach

Prioritizing relationships is way more important than just getting insights from SMEs — especially when dealing with internal SMEs.

Their relationship with you determines how much effort they put into sharing insights for your content and HOW QUICKLY they do it.

My advice: treat your collaboration with them more as a relationship than a transaction.

The editorial content team lead at Hotjar put it this way:

Tawni Sattler

Tawni Sattler

Content Marketing Team Lead, Editorial @ Hotjar

“I have years of experience sourcing and building relationships with SMEs for SaaS companies. Especially for product-led companies, I’ve seen that the opportunity to forge relationships with internal and external experts is crucial to creating expert, product-led content.

“Content leaders often engage with SMEs only when they need specific information, and treat them merely as a resource.

“A transactional approach like this can lead to a lack of engagement and cooperation from the SMEs. Instead, we should build ongoing, collaborative relationships with our SMEs, for example by showing interest in their work and expertise beyond immediate content needs.

Tawni shared a second point about a common mistake: content leaders overlook the importance of respecting SMEs’ time, often expecting them to be constantly available or provide information without sufficient context or preparation:

“When we reach out to an SME, we must respect their time by being prepared with specific questions and a clear understanding of what we need from them, and when we need it. 

“Offer context on how their input will be used and the impact it will have.

“Finally, once you’ve gotten SME input, you should always acknowledge their contributions to the content itself and any related discussions. Give them a backlink, for example, and properly attribute direct quotes.

“In short: building a relationship based on mutual respect, clear communication, and acknowledgement is key to ensuring accurate and high-quality content, while at the same time cultivating a pool of engaged and willing SMEs for future projects.

“Keep in touch with your SMEs even when you don’t have an immediate need for their expertise. Sharing relevant content, congratulating them on their achievements, or simply checking in on LinkedIn can have a big impact.”

2) Get buy-in for SME collabs from leadership

Besides working with 70 SMEs this year, I’ve been in content marketing for 10 years. 

And I can tell you one thing from experience: 

When it comes to getting internal SMEs involved in content creation, nothing beats getting buy-in from execs (aka CEO, CMO, VPs, and — sometimes — Senior Managers).

If they present the need for SMEs across the org to contribute to content, creating expert-led content will be smooth sailing for you.

Osano’s content strategist found this to be true from her experience:

Seanna Tucker

Seanna Tucker

Senior Brand & Content Strategist @ Osano

“If there’s anything wrong with the way content leaders approach SME relationships, it’s in positioning the commitment both within the company itself and with the SME.”

“Time should be carved out for SMEs to be able to work with content leaders. 

“A portion of their time should be dedicated to content to help the organization present itself and its expertise in the best light. 

“Without this commitment, content leaders and writers are forced to turn to other sources to gather as much information as they can from the internet (which could mean competitors) or AI (which doesn’t always have the best information to back it up). 

If you’re thinking about bringing this up with your leadership, one way to do it is to communicate the impact it will have on larger business objectives.

You can try sharing stories with them like this one Seanna shared:

“I started my career working at a content marketing agency focused on earned media and then headed up content strategy and writing for a few business units at a consulting firm. 

“The content that made it to Fast Company and HBR, the strategies [shared by SMEs] that were the most educational and consistent, were those with leaders and SMEs who dedicated time to interviews, reading and reviewing content, and sharing that content when it was published.”

3) Clearly communicate rewards or incentives

When I reach out to SMEs, my approach looks something like this:

  • First message: {a pitch to come share their insights on a specific topic}
  • Second message if there’s no reply after a few hours: {send another message showing them how they’ll be featured and that a few other guests would often share the content with their audience}

Many would reply after the second message. 

Some still won’t respond, and that’s fine; you get to build relationships with those who do.

But the point here is that building relationships with SMEs gets a lot easier when you show what’s in it for them.

I like how Black & White Zebra’s technology content director puts it:

Rocco Brudno

Rocco Brudno

Director of Content, Technology @ Black & White Zebra

“The number one thing I see happening all the time that shouldn’t is asking SMEs to work with you for free. People love to build personal and organizational brands, but time isn’t an infinite resource. 

“So when content leaders roll out initiatives to work with SMEs, expect the SME to contribute their time and knowledge for free, they shouldn’t be surprised to hear crickets and see the initiative not deliver on expectations.

“When I launched a podcast for a SaaS organization I used to work for, I struggled to get face time with guests interested in joining. I came with nothing to offer and asked everything of them—the expectation wasn’t based on reality.

“I took a step back and assessed how best to connect with guests (find a mutual connection), offer value first (exposure to our audience, cross-marketing support, a chance to tell their story), and invited them to join with the lowest lift possible (40mins of their time spent discussing meaningful questions about their problems and how they leveraged our solution to solve them specifically). 

“It worked like a charm, we booked 10 guests, produced the episodes, and were met with immediate success going from 0 to hundreds of listeners in the first six months. And I still maintain those relationships years later, working with those experts and providing support where I can as much as they do for me.

Rocco also shared a few best practices for kickstarting reaching out to SMEs:

“I always start with a video message that’s personalized for that SME. 

“An invitation for a virtual coffee chat on me, tickets to a local show or sports game (baseball is perfect in the spring/summer), a donation to an organization they support, anything that’s a low-lift way to connect and get to know each other.”

Even if you’re using a tool like Leaps to extract their insights, you still need manual, organic tactics like these to kickstart the relationship.

Like any other technology, the tool only comes in to help remove some of the repetitive tasks you have to do like sending follow-up emails, creating outlines from the SME’s answers, managing multiple SME collabs, etc. But it’s not meant to replace organic SME relationships.

4) Select SMEs based on specific (not umbrella) specialties

It’s easy to think an industry expert with, say, 10 years of experience has expertise on all topics in their industry.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

For instance, sales is an umbrella topic for a lot of other specialties and niches like enterprise sales, B2B sales, SaaS sales, ecommerce sales, car sales, etc.

There are a lot of nuances in each of these niches that only those who specialize in them know.

Your best SMEs are people who have the specific expertise you need to make your content speak the specific language of your intended audience.

Expert medical writer Maryam Awadh put it like this:

Maryam Awadh

Maryam Awadh

Medical and Scientific Writer

“[Content leaders] should approach the right SMEs to begin with.

“We should be 100% sure that this SME is working in the target topic.

“Things can get tricky as sometimes companies would approach SMEs based on their umbrella specialty not knowing that the area is very extensive and that SME may be specialized in another subset.”

The director of content at UXCam shared a similar perspective:

Jane Leung

Jane Leung

Director of Content @ UXCam

“Interview at least 100 of your potential customers, segment them, and tailor (questions and) content to their needs. 

“Listen to their pain points and create practical content they can use (e.g. checklists, benchmark reports, templates).”

5) Make SMEs feel understood

We’ve established this already: SMEs are busy people.

The last thing you want to do is ask questions that make them feel you don’t care much about their field or respect their time.

Of course, you don’t have to know everything they know, which is why you’re collaborating with them in the first place.

But there’s a level of research you should do so you can ask questions that show you care.

The SEO content editor at Juro mirrors the same idea:

Sofia Inga Tyson

SEO Content Editor @ Juro

“One of the biggest mistakes content leaders make when approaching SMEs is that they go in completely blind to the conversations. 

“This could mean that they don’t fully understand the background and experience of that particular expert, or that they haven’t researched the subject matter themselves ahead of time. 

“Failing to prepare enough means that content teams end up spending a lot of the time allocated covering basic ground, rather than digging deeper to find those niche, specific and actionable insights that distinguish one piece of content from another. 

“This can also frustrate subject matter experts, as it means they don’t feel understood, or that their time and expertise are being respected. The best way to build rapport with SMEs is to try to better understand them. 

“This means doing your research and making sure the questions you ask engage, fuel, and challenge them. They want to feel like they’re adding value in a conversation, and they won’t be able to do this without the right guidance on what you need from them, and why you’ve asked them in particular.”

Health writer Maggie Aime shared a similar perspective:

“Track down your questions as best as possible beforehand through self-directed learning. 

“You want your SMEs addressing critical questions only an insider can adequately tackle rather than recapping what’s readily Googleable. 

“Do the legwork so your dialogue illuminates rather than redundantly reviews. The payoff is more valuable SME perspective to drive content authority.”

6) Listen more than you speak

Maggie added it’s important to do more listening than anything else:

Maggie Aime

Freelance Health Writer

“SMEs have extensive knowledge in their field that you lack, so make sure you spend more time asking thoughtful questions and listening to their expertise.
 
“Even if I, as a nurse, have knowledge about the topic, I encourage them to explain it in their terms. They may do so better than I can or use an analogy that I hadn’t thought of. Be humble and genuinely interested in learning from them.

“SMEs have hard-won expertise you need to tap for quality content. 
“Letting them share this insight through active listening shows respect and enables truly capturing this scarce knowledge.

“When you listen intently without interrupting the SME,” Maggie added, “it strengthens your working relationship. People open up more to patient, engaged audiences.”

“This rapport pays dividends now and later.

“Listening allows you to identify gaps during SME discussions. Careful listening highlights areas warranting more exploration or clarity.”

7) Listen and give credit where it’s due

The Senior Global Brand and Content Manager at Dext shared the same idea as Maggie’s about listening.

And I’m putting it here because it’s worth repeating — almost nothing works without it:

Cynthia Vanzella

Senior Global Brand and Content Manager @ Dext

“Listen. SMEs have expertise and insights that are incredibly valuable for content managers when researching and creating strategies and plans — and, most of the time, they want to help. 

“Make sure you really listen to what they say, their suggestions and ideas, and incorporate what you can into your projects. 

“Not only will you start with a strong foundation, but the SMEs you talked to will be happy to see you listened to them and acted on it — and that will ultimately make your relationship with them stronger. It’s a win-win.

She also added how important it is to give SMEs credit where possible so they can use that to build their personal brands:

“Giving credit where credit is due is also important. 

“If the piece you’re creating allows (and the SMEs agree), mentioning them as a source or quote in your content is a great tactic because you help build the SME’s reputation even further and, at the same time, benefit from the weight of their name supporting your content. Another win-win, I guess!”

Practice makes perfect

Yes, SME collaborations aren’t always easy.

But as with anything, the more you do it, the better you get.

And as content leaders, it’s not something we can run away from.

Our audiences are now demanding content from SMEs more than ever. They don’t want content from people without experience.

Your best bet as a content leader is to master the art of building these SME relationships — so you can give your audience what they want.

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