You Talkin’ to SME? Top Tips for Working with Experts

Content is king, and SMEs are the kingmakers. They’re key to making content marketing magic.

I recently completed a six-month long collaboration with one of my company’s subject matter experts. The SME in question is a fountain of knowledge about a topic that most people would find inscrutable: the communications technologies that electric utilities can use for sending signals to and from customers’ homes. This is a subject that our customers, managers at electric utilities, care a lot about. To help our target audience learn more about their options and select the technology that will work best for them, my SME and I developed three in-depth articles, each offering a balanced look at one of the technology’s strengths and weaknesses. After three popular articles, which became the most trafficked posts on our corporate blog to date, we spun the content into a 22-page eBook, complete with more sections and plenty of statistics — and, of course, minimal mention of our company or its offerings.

I found the project to be one of the most enjoyable that I’ve ever worked on. I have great respect for mastery, and to have the chance to collaborate with someone who’s knowledgeable and excited about their subject is a true treat. To be in a position to amplify their knowledge and enthusiasm to others is a gift. (And is the reason why I’m a freelance journalist in addition to a B2B marketer — it’s the same dynamic, with ever-changing topics.)

I’m looking forward to diving in to the next piece of expert content. I’ll be carrying forward some important lessons learned for working with SMEs.

  • Gauge writers vs. talkers. Make sure that your preferred work style — getting something down on paper or talking it out — doesn’t bias your approach to your SME. Ask them directly whether they’d rather share their know-how with you by writing a rough draft of the content piece and letting you smooth it out, or simply having a few phone calls where you take notes as they verbalize the details.
  • Work with them one-on-one. Whether you end up collaborating mainly over email or on the phone, I’d recommend establishing a one-on-one relationship with your chosen SME. In my experience, it hasn’t worked as well to get others involved either on the writing side or the SME side. It tends to muddle responsibilities, water down conversations, and make work steps ambiguous.
  • Break a big project down. In retrospect, I’m happy that we approached our topic section by section. I think that if we had set out to create an eBook from scratch, both my SME and I would’ve found the project too daunting. But if you know a longer format, like an eBook, might have value for your topic at some point, consider envisioning a table of contents for the future eBook and using it to influence your plan of attack for the smaller projects.
  • Take advantage of momentum. Don’t let too much time pass between the completion of one project and the start of the next. Give your SME a short break and then ask them if you can start working together on the next piece. The positive feeling from getting the first one completed will lend some very useful momentum to the next one.
  • Get verbal commitments on deadlines. This is a tip from another article for working with SMEs, and it’s a good one. People are loath to break their commitments, wanting to avoid the associated cognitive dissonance and social awkwardness. It isn’t something I’ve tried yet, but next time I work with a SME who’s known to be hard to catch I think I’ll try saying, “I’ll have a draft to you by Wednesday. Can you come back with edits on Friday?”
  • Show gratitude. During the span of your collaboration, take a little time to reflect on what might mean the most to your SME in terms of thanks. Would they appreciate an email to their whole team calling out their contributions? Or would a quick thank-you email with just their boss CCd be preferred? Would they enjoy receiving a small gift? (I created the custom mug pictured above via Vistaprint for under $15.)

Experts have a lot to offer all content creators. Why not make a SME feel like a VIP?


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