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Working with a Subject Matter Expert? These 9 Tips Will Help

If you have an upcoming SME interview, these suggestions will help you get straight to the information necessary to tell your best story.

When developing a B2B content marketing strategy, you’ll need to get up to speed with the client’s technology and its selling points. This means you’ll probably be working with subject matter experts (SMEs). Anyone who’s conducted SME interviews knows that it can go sideways fast if you’re not prepared.

The challenge usually comes down to time. You typically have no more than an hour—and probably less—to extract as much usable information as possible. So having a plan to move the conversation toward messaging gold is critical. 

While every SME interview is different, these suggestions will help you get the info you need, keep your discussion on track and lay the groundwork for a good working relationship.

1. Do as much homework as possible before the SME interview

As with any interview you conduct, you should have a baseline level of knowledge about the topic before the meeting. It’s important to make sure the SME doesn’t speak from a too simple or too complex perspective for the audience you’ll be targeting. Granted, you’ll sometimes discover a topic is so new, niche or proprietary that you won’t be able to build much knowledge in advance—but that’s also worth knowing.  

2. Prepare the SME

As mentioned, time is of the essence in SME interviews, so it’s a good idea to prepare a briefing sheet that they can review before the meeting and formulate thoughts. Even if they don’t have time to look at it ahead of time, it will give them a guide during the conversation. Sharing a prep sheet can often eliminate several valuable minutes of explaining the nature of the meeting and what you’d like to go over. 

3. Ask questions your research didn’t answer 

If you prepare for your interview, you’ll often pin down the kind of information you need to learn, separate from the knowledge itself. From here, you can build an outline that you can fill in during the course of the interview. 

4. Don’t be afraid to request clarification

An easy mistake to fall into is letting the SME assume you have some background knowledge you don’t really have. If this happens, let the SME know! Since you’ve already done your preliminary research, you know that you can’t easily close the knowledge gap yourself. Plus, the client’s targeted audience will likely appreciate the explanation too. 

5. Pause to summarize the conversation

Feel free to give a high-level summary at several points during your conversation. The feedback you get can help you ensure that your subsequent questions are accurate. There’s nothing worse than realizing after the fact that you misinterpreted a critical point and your misunderstanding snowballed from there.

6. Direct the conversation back to the original question

Even if the expert’s answer doesn’t align with what you asked, it’s possible that it’s still essential information. Some topics benefit from context, and an apparent non sequitur may be the only way that the SME can bring up that context. If you don’t see the connection but think one may exist, it’s best to ask. As long as you’re cordial, you have every right to refocus a conversation. 

7. Make problem-solving and market differentiation a priority

Assuming that a list of product features will impress potential leads is a classic B2B marketing mistake. Rather than trumpeting products, marketers need to focus on the problems those products will solve. You need to make sure that you understand why and how a customer wants to implement a particular product and identify the problem it’s supposed to solve. Don’t be afraid to push for clarity on these problems and how the product solves them. 

8. Create space for SMEs to ask questions

If you chat with an SME once, you’ll likely work with them again in some capacity. In the short term, you’ll probably send follow-up emails, and in the long term, you’ll need their input whenever the client’s product evolves. Be cordial and address any concerns the expert brings up. It will help to build a successful long-term partnership.

9. Offer an ‘anything else?’ opportunity

If you aren’t getting compelling answers, the SME might be waiting for an opportunity to discuss something specific. The best way to figure this out is to ask outright. It’s a classic interview tactic that often yields compelling information you wouldn’t have thought to request.

Getting key information from SME interviews is essential for B2B marketing, where a factually accurate, finely crafted message can elevate companies over their competitors. As you learn to balance the expert’s perspective with your content creation objectives, you’ll master the interview process and be equipped to put out great content.

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