If you’ve ever been part of a thought leadership content development effort, you’re likely familiar with the subject matter expert (SME) interview. It’s the session during which a writer helping to develop a piece of content (e.g., a white paper or byline article) meets with the SME who will be the published author of the piece. Generally facilitated by the company’s marketing professional, the session is a forum for discussing the nature and goals of the project and, more importantly, the ideas and material on which the piece will be based.
The SME interview is one of the most critical steps in the thought leadership content generation process, providing one of the few opportunities for substantive, direct interaction among the main parties in the effort. For SMEs, it’s their chance to communicate what they want to say in the piece so it ultimately reflects their best thinking and positions them well in the marketplace. For writers, it’s the prime venue for gathering the key ingredients they need to shape the SME’s thinking into a strong, compelling piece of content. And for marketers, it’s an opportunity to ensure the project stays on time and results in a document they can effectively pump through the company’s marketing channels.
How can marketers, SMEs and writers make SME interviews most efficient and effective—and the best use of everyone’s precious time? A good place to start is understanding and upholding their five most important individual responsibilities during these sessions.
- Set the goal for the meeting upfront so everyone understands what they must achieve in the time allotted. This is your chance to make sure all participants are aligned so they’re not working at cross-purposes or bringing in tangents that distract from the main purpose of the session. It’s especially important when there is a large team of SMEs involved, each one wanting to get his or her point of view across (which may or may not be relevant to the piece at hand).
- Get the right people on the call. In most companies, the practice leader or some other senior executive is the main author of the piece—and that’s certainly appropriate. But while these “top dogs” may see the big picture, they can’t always speak on a subject at the level of depth necessary to develop a substantive piece. That’s why someone who’s closer to the issue on a day-to-day basis should also be involved, to complement the senior SME and provide depth and examples when necessary.
- Make sure the SME is fully briefed in advance on what the call is about, the goal of the piece being developed, and how it will be used. This will help the SME understand what’s being covered in the meeting and what will be expected from him—and prepare accordingly.
- Know up front and communicate the timeline for the piece, next steps, and responsibilities of the various parties involved so everyone knows their marching orders after the call. Even if the discussion between the writer and SME is rich and fruitful, subsequent momentum can be killed if the SME isn’t available to review the writer’s outline or the writer takes longer than expected to produce it.
- Monitor the conversation between the writer and SME to ensure it’s on the right track and be able to step in and redirect it if necessary. It’s not uncommon for SMEs to use such interview sessions to help formulate their thinking on a topic, particularly if the writers are asking them questions they perhaps hadn’t really considered before. Brainstorming can be valuable, but marketers need to make sure it stays focused on the topic at hand.
- Be prepared for the call. To be sure, SMEs are very busy and client work, not marketing, is their “real” job. But if the piece being developed will represent the SME and the company in the marketplace, then the interview session is important, too. Before the call, be sure to read the materials distributed to participants and give some thought about what you want to say about them.
- Be able to talk at some level of depth on the topic. This goes hand-in-hand with the point above. It’s not enough to have read the materials prior to the call. An SME needs to be able to really talk through the topic deeply enough to give the writer something to work with. For many thought leadership pieces, that means discussing at a detailed level the business problem (or case for action), the company’s solution to it, examples of how the solution was used in a client setting, and how the client ultimately benefited.
- Know what other relevant materials the company has produced that are available to the writer. In large companies especially, myriad other documents may have already been published on a similar or related topic that contain information the writer can incorporate into the new piece.
- Be able to articulate the unique angle the new piece should take. Because no SME or company wants to play the “me too” game, SMEs must be able to tell the writer what’s new and different about the message the piece is trying to get across.
- Respect and answer the writers’ questions. Inherent in the acronym “SME” is that these individuals are experts: They know a lot about their particular area of focus. But that doesn’t mean they know everything, nor does it mean they have fully thought through a topic in a way that’s necessary to create a strong narrative about it. SMEs should recognize that good writers know the right questions to ask, and how to ask them, to elicit what’s needed to craft a story that transcends talking points in a PowerPoint deck. Trust them.
- Do your homework. Nothing destroys credibility more than coming into an SME interview with minimal knowledge about the topic at hand. It’s critical for writers to have done pre-reading to prime themselves—not just of background or source materials provided by the client, but also of other relevant publications to understand the context and what else has been written on the topic. And if the piece in question is a byline article, it’s important to have read the target publication to understand its editorial policy, audience, style and tone.
- Think about what you might ultimately want to say in the completed piece. It’s extremely helpful for writers to have an initial storyline or flow for the piece in mind, however sketchy and high level, when coming to the interview. Often SMEs need that kind of structure. It helps them frame and focus their thoughts and get them thinking in the way writers need them to.
- Have in hand a full set of questions to ask, but be prepared to “go with the flow.” Some SMEs come into a session knowing exactly what they want to say and will essentially lead the discussion. More common are the SMEs (and marketers) who expect the writers to assume that duty. In those instances, writers should ask the questions designed to elicit the high-level story they have in mind. But be open to following unanticipated threads that may arise during the conversation and lead to an even more powerful perspective on the topic than what was originally considered.
- If you’re not getting what you need, don’t be afraid to probe and ask questions in a different way. As mentioned earlier, the SME interview is one of the few chances for writers to directly interact with the SMEs. If the interview ends and a writer has failed to extract what he needs to work with, he’s created a big problem for himself down the road. Often, simply changing the wording of the question can trigger a richer SME response.
- Respect the SME’s position and time constraints. SMEs, especially those in large enterprises, have risen to their position for good reason: They are extremely important to their company and to clients, and often are responsible for selling and managing millions of dollars in business. Remember this and be gracious (and patient) when an SME is not fully prepared or has to cancel a meeting at the last minute.
There’s no question the SME interview can be challenging to pull off effectively every time, especially when it involves multiple parties with their own time constraints, personal styles, and agendas. But if marketers, SMEs and writers can keep the above guidelines in mind, they’ll have a much better chance of making sure their sessions are content-rich, on target, and a good use of time. In turn, writers will find they spend far less time toiling on outline and draft development, SMEs will see their ideas expressed in the way they intended, and marketers will be confident they’ll have a strong document for their next marketing campaign.