Interviewing Subject Matter Experts: 3 Tips for Content Marketers

5 minute read

Upland Admin

I have a confession to make. For years, I’ve been creating highly technical content on subjects I knew almost nothing about; things like small cells, server blades, and spindle machining.

The operative word in that last sentence was “knew.” Emphasis on the past tense.

Today, I know enough about these subjects to easily write about them on my own (seriously, ask me about spindle machining some time). How did I manage to create content in areas where I lacked even the most basic knowledge of the subject?

Easy. I interviewed subject matter experts (SMEs), and I highly recommend that you do the same.

Before I offer some interviewing tips that have worked for me, I want to quickly point out why this is such an essential task—and skill—for a content marketer to have.

Here’s how I like to think about it. If a company only wanted to hire content creators with specific technical expertise, the positions would never be filled. You’re looking for a content marketer with five years of experience in spindle machining technology? Yeah, good luck with that!

Instead, brands have no choice but to hire experts in content marketing and train them on the intricacies of the industry or technology. That’s where the SME interview comes into play.

So regardless of whether you’re interviewing an internal employee or an outside expert—or whether you’re interviewing for a specific piece of content or just basic knowledge gathering—here are a few essential tips to keep in mind.

Tip #1: Do the 101 Research Yourself

Despite what your grade school teachers might have told you, there are dumb questions, and it’s important that you don’t waste time asking them.

While it’s unreasonable for you to learn the ins and outs of an entire industry on your own, you must do enough research yourself so that you can ask intelligent questions. For example:

  • Instead of asking the SME what spindle machining is, ask how it has changed over the years. You can find out what it is on your own
  • Instead of asking the SME about who uses spindle machining technology, ask how other industries might use it in the future. You can find the list of customers on your own
  • Instead of asking the SME for every single detail, ask them where you can go to learn more on your own. You can’t get them to explain years of experience in one interview session

In short, ask them questions that are not easily findable via a basic Google search. Get their unique insights into the subject, and do the 101 research yourself.

Tip #2: Have a (Long) List of Questions Prepared

In my experience, an SME interview usually goes one of two ways:

  1. I ask one question that takes the SME an hour to answer
  2. I ask 35 questions that the SME answers by saying “yes,” “no,” or “it depends”

If you get SME #1, consider yourself lucky. They will inundate you with a wealth of information—things you would have never even thought to ask—and their enthusiasm for the subject will infect you.

If you get SME #2, you’ll find it to be more like a CIA interrogation than a friendly interview. Subject matter experts are (how shall I say this?) not always the most verbally articulate people.

The point is that not only do you have to do your research beforehand, you also need to have a long list of questions prepared. Otherwise, the interview will be aimless and unproductive.

Tip #3: Record and Recap

You’ll nod your head in the affirmative when the SME asks if you understand, but truthfully, you’ll still be way out of your element at first. So instead of relying on your memory or your handwritten notes, you should record the conversation.

This is such a simple tactic, but it’s commonly ignored. This practice will be most useful for interviews conducted for purposes of content generation (a whitepaper or case study, for example), as you’ll be able revisit the recording and ensure that you didn’t skip over any key details.

Based on the recording, you’ll also want to recap the session for the SME to review. This will allow them to make sure their ideas were properly articulated, or that they weren’t misquoted.

However, the most significant benefit of this practice relates to future content creators. Instead of having the marketing team constantly interview the same person on the same subject, they can simply reference a library of recorded sessions.

Without subject matter experts, the content created by the marketing department would be superficial and largely ineffective. It’s therefore critical that you extract and leverage the knowledge of true industry experts wherever possible. These experts are all around you, but it’s up to you to find the best way to engage them. I hope this post pointed you in the right direction.

What tips do you have for interviewing SMEs? Let me know in the comments.

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