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10 Expert Tips for Conducting a Remarkable SME Interview

Vicki Woschnick
Posted by Vicki Woschnick on March 18, 2021

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Content marketing is fueled by expertise, and interviewing a Subject Matter Expert (SME) is a great way to lend solid credibility to your work. Leveraging their considered experience in a given area is invaluable, but there’s also the added benefit of having that expert well-versed in your brand, products, and customer pain points.

Capturing the depth of knowledge an SME offers requires an interviewing approach that is purposeful, efficient, and also artful enough to put the interviewee at ease. Some writers have a knack for landing the perfect SME interview, while others need to practice. Either way, these tips will help you become an expert at expert interviews that fuel helpful content.

Add some polish to your interviewing strategy and some valuable SME points of view to your content when you:

  1. Define a Topic and Time Limit
  2. Set Expectations
  3. Prepare Yourself
  4. Question Your Questions
  5. Prepare Your SME
  6. Get On With It
  7. Summarize and Clarify
  8. Ask for Parting Thoughts
  9. Know Your Limits
  10. Reiterate Next Steps

1. Define a Topic and Time Limit

Your SME likely has more than one area of expertise. Clearly define the topic you want to explore with him or her during the subject matter expert interview.

This focus will help your SME stay on track, plus you’ll be able to better manage the time required to cover the subject matter. Shoot for 30 minutes—anything under may leave you with information gaps, and anything over could mean sifting through extraneous information when you’re ready to write.

2. Set Expectations

Once you decide on the topic and time needed, convey the information to your SME. Explain your content goal, the topic and your needs, and assess their willingness to participate in an interview. To nudge fence-sitters, you may want to reiterate why buyers value SME input and how their contributions improve content value. Be authentic with the SME and make the ask. 

3. Prepare Yourself

Your level of expertise will not match that of the SME. That’s reality and that’s okay, but it doesn’t mean you should be passive.

Be an interview expert. Familiarize yourself with the topic enough so you can engage with the SME in meaningful ways and extract on-point information. A little due diligence will also build your interviewing confidence so you can seamlessly pivot directions and be prepared to answer unanticipated questions.

4. Question Your Questions

Good SME interview questions go well beyond eliciting simple “yes” or “no” answers. Build your qualitative research strategy to include open-ended questions that require an SME to explain answers in-depth, such as:

  • What prompted your company/organization/department to pursue this [TOPIC]?
  • What process did you go through to determine needs and expectations?
  • Can you help me understand the goals behind [TOPIC] a little better?
  • What challenges did you face in accomplishing the goals? Any pleasant surprises?
  • How do you measure success with regards to [TOPIC]?

A word of caution: leaving your questions too wide open (“Tell me about X”) increases the odds for interview derailment. Compose pointed questions that guide the SME from broad discussion to providing targeted, topic-centric information.

5. Prepare Your SME

Send the SME your questions prior to the interview. It’s a matter of courtesy since their time is at a premium. Having questions in-hand provides an opportunity for the expert to think through their responses, gather resources if necessary, and generally attain a comfort level. 

6. Get On With It

Interviewing experts for research can be a little intimidating, but overthinking it may cause writer vapor lock. Dive in! Trust your preparation, and remind yourself that SMEs don’t expect you to know everything about their area of expertise or industry. Your willingness to remain open to learning will make your content just that much better.

7. Summarize and Clarify

At the end of the interview, you’ll have a lot of notes. Scan them for any areas that require some clarification and ask for it. Doing a quick recap while the topic is fresh in your mind can prevent you from having to schedule more time with the SME later, and spare them from having to rack their brains as to context after the fact.

Better still, record the interview with easy-to-use teleconferencing technologies. That way, you have access to all of the information without having to return to the SME for assistance. 

8. Ask for Parting Thoughts

The last question on your list shouldn’t be the last question you ask. Let the SME weigh in on any points you may have missed or answers they may want to expand on to further develop the topic in relevant ways. If new ground is covered, it’s a good idea to do a quick repeat of the summarize-and-clarify step to verify you accurately understand what was conveyed.

9. Know Your Limits

Respect the SME’s schedule and contributions. Stay on topic and on time. In short, follow through on the agreed-to interview expectations.

But there are exceptions to the rule. Occasionally, interviews will run over the allotted time. Do not assume that this is okay with the SME.

Before proceeding with the interview, ask if they can commit to additional time. If so, great. If not, follow up with another interview or maybe an email request if a written response from the SME would suffice.  

10. Reiterate Next Steps

Build in a few minutes at the end of the interview to discuss what happens next with the content, including possible formats such as turning the interview into a high-performing blog  post or case study. Inform the SME that they will be part of the review and final approval process unless they expressly opt out. Some will accept, some won’t. Give them the option.

The quality of your content partially dictates the quality of your inbound marketing results. Don’t be afraid to reach out to SMEs in your existing customer base or target industries, and rock your content with the templates and checklists you’ll find in The Ultimate Content Creation Guide. Click the button to download your copy.

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Topics: Content Marketing

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