By Marcia Riefer Johnston published October 13, 2016

How to Get More (and Better) Content From Your Subject Matter Experts

get-more-better-content-experts

E pluribus unum. Out of many, one. Flip the words around, and you’ve got E unum pluribus. Or maybe E unibus plurum. At any rate, you’ve got the savvy marketer’s motto: Out of one, many.

Out of one piece of content, many pieces.

Or how about this twist: Out of one subject-matter-expert interview, many pieces of content.

That insight comes to us from Vishal Khanna, CMI’s 2015 Content Marketer of the Year and director of digital marketing at Wake Forest Innovations, the commercialization arm for Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. Vishal shared his approach to subject matter expert (SME) interviews in his talk at this year’s Intelligent Content Conference. (His ICC talk had the same title as an article Ardath Albee wrote about him: How to Deliver Quantifiable Content Marketing Success With a Small Team.)

To make the most of every minute you get with your SMEs — you know how precious those minutes are — Vishal suggests that you prepare for and conduct each interview in a way that enables you to create multiple pieces of uniquely valuable content.

All ideas, quotations, and images in this article, unless otherwise attributed, come from Vishal’s ICC talk.

Atomized content: A quick overview

Before we dig in to Vishal’s tips, here’s a quick review of the way marketers talk about this out-of-one-many mindset. You’re probably familiar with these metaphors:

All these terms touch on the idea of creating a large piece of content and spinning off small pieces from it — as illustrated in this image, which I saw last year at Content Marketing World in a talk by Jay Baer, Jani Byrne, and Brad Walters.

content-marketing-strategy-checklist

Image source: Velocity Partners’ Content Marketing Strategy Checklist

Chances are, even if you’re new to content marketing, you’ve run into this concept. But have you considered it as a tool for helping you get maximum benefit from your interviews with subject-matter experts? That’s where Vishal comes in.

What to do before your SME interview

If you want to gather enough material for multiple pieces of content during a single SME interview, Vishal suggests doing a number of things before the interview:

  • Scout for passionate SMEs.
  • Build your knowledge.
  • Build your SME relationships.
  • Build a plan for each SME interview.

Scout for passionate SMEs

Pick SMEs who care about their work. To find them, Vishal says, seek people beyond your organization. Here are a couple of his suggestions:

  • Search LinkedIn, Twitter, or other networks for people who have published, who are regularly quoted in business media, or who are renowned in their space. (Learn how to find influencers in your industry.)
  • Look to your customers. Find your super users. Their understanding of your product in day-to-day usage can help prospects who share their business concerns.

Build your knowledge

Do enough research so you can ask good questions and avoid asking SMEs to explain simple concepts that you could have learned on your own.

“You don’t have to learn as much as they know. You’re not going to get a Ph.D. But you have to do your homework,” Vishal says. Read the trade magazines and association websites that your SMEs read, and read what they write: their slide presentations, research articles, blog posts, tweets, and so on.

Also, understand what your SME’s peers are reading and writing. LinkedIn can help.

Search LinkedIn for people with the same job description as your SME. Get a feel for their perspectives, the content they share, and the posts they like. The better you understand the interests of your SME’s peer network, the better you understand your SME.

Build your SME relationships

Get to know your SMEs. You might think that this advice goes without saying, but Vishal says he sees marketers often fail to build relationships with their SMEs.

How do you build those relationships? Vishal gives this example: If he’s on his way to a meeting that takes five minutes to walk to, he might give himself an extra 30 minutes so that if he runs into someone he relies on for information, he can stop and talk to that person.

“Marketers think that subject-matter experts are required to work with us,” Vishal says. “They’re not.”

You might build SME relationships in any number of ways. The point is to connect with SMEs before you need to ask for something.

Build a plan for each SME interview

Consider various kinds of content you might create from each interview. “Traditionally, you’re going to pull out one narrative, one story, one piece. Find a way to get more than just one,” Vishal says.

When you interview SMEs, seek multiple stories, says @bediscontent. #contentstrategy Click To Tweet

How do you plan to gather multiple stories from a single interview? Vishal illustrates his approach with this napkin sketch:

multiple-stories-single-interview

The circle is the whole topic area. The arrow labeled “your story” is the main narrative you’re after. Prepare to listen for more than just that narrative. Consider other arrows (stories) that you might look for.

For example, when Vishal’s team was preparing for a one-hour interview with Wake Forest neurosurgeon Charles Branch, it built a plan to “squeeze out three pieces”:

  • A long-form piece for external audiences
  • A short biography
  • A piece capturing advice to young faculty inventors

wake-forest-interview

Ask yourself: Which of the following do you and your team need to do to better prepare for SME interviews?

  • Put more energy into finding passionate experts.
  • Learn to speak the SME’s language better.
  • Build stronger relationships with SMEs.
  • Plan for a wider variety of pieces from each interview.

What to do during your SME interview

Vishal structures his SME interviews around five talking points based on his research into the subject matter — but he doesn’t limit himself to those talking points. “Be brave enough to change topics if you find your original topic isn’t working,” he says.

Be ready to shed your talking points and let your SME be exactly who she is — the expert. Be open to discovery and ready to follow the threads of the topics that interest you. Chances are, [the expert] will interest your prospects as well.

Even as you stay flexible to follow threads that come up in conversation, you need to stay focused on your content marketing mission and shape the conversation accordingly. Vishal gives this example from his days as head of marketing at an immigration-software company. His team created content to support one of two company “truths”:

  • We are experts in software development and technical pioneers in our industry.
  • Because we understand the immigration-business lifecycle, we are the ideal technology partner for the immigration industry.

When his team’s content developers interviewed their SMEs — the company’s heads of technology — they sought answers “framed in one of these truths.”

He now encourages content developers to build interviewing instincts, saying, “Get out there and practice!” Based on Vishal’s experience, first as a journalist and then as a B2B marketer, here are some interviewing tips:

  • Start with easy, general questions. Get comfortable with your SMEs, and give them time to get comfortable with you.
  • Let them give you their background story even if it’s not needed. Your attention shows that you care about the expert’s point of view, and you may learn things that you wouldn’t have thought to ask about.
  • Use your five talking points as a frame only when you get to the heart of your interview. Use your questions not just to seek answers but to open a conversation.
  • Probe until you learn something you didn’t know. Otherwise, your final product will just be a rehash of what’s been published.
  • Ask for clarification. If you don’t understand something, chances are your audience won’t either.
  • Table subtopic discussions that could lead to bonus content until the end of your main interview.
  • End interviews by asking what other details people need to know.

Since none of us listens or takes notes perfectly, record your interviews. Vishal uses the Voice Memos app on his iPhone and uploads the recordings to Dropbox. He suggests placing your recorder close to the interviewee and then forgetting that it’s there.

“Keep your recording digital so you can move it from phone to laptop or can outsource it to a transcription company with ease,” he says.

Ask yourself: How can you and your team get more from your interviews themselves?

  • Be willing (and “brave”) to veer from your prepared questions.
  • Know which “truths” about your organization need to frame your conversations with SMEs.
  • Develop your interviewing instincts.

What to do after your SME interview

After your interview, flesh out those narrative threads that support your marketing goals. Vishal’s team cherry-picks the details that support the business goals, editing quotations with approval from the SME.

When you’ve identified the relevant narrative threads, consider ways to weave them into multiple deliverables. For example, as Ardath describes in her earliest post on Vishal’s team, a typical yield from a 90-minute interview with a Wake Forest scientist includes:

  • At least three content assets that illuminate the scientist’s research — assets that might be published on three campus websites, might show up as feature articles on LinkedIn, and might lead to an article for the internal audience to broaden awareness across the faculty of the work being done
  • A video showing the scientist discussing the research or demonstrating the work
  • Photos of the scientist for use in various places that highlight the scientist’s area of expertise
  • A bio of the scientist to help prospective customers learn more about the expertise that Wake Forest can bring to their projects

Taking a cue from Velocity Partner’s illustration of atomized content near the beginning of this article, here’s how I picture Vishal’s approach to pulling multiple pieces — and multiple types — of content from one SME interview:

sme-interview

Vishal’s team develops content following Rand Fishkin’s 10x model. It finds the top-ranking content for the topic the SME addresses, and the team creates new content that’s 10 times better. “Don’t settle for good work,” Vishal says. “Present something uniquely valuable to your prospects.”

Ask yourself: How can you and your team better use the material you collect in your SME interviews?

  • Quantify the narrative threads to pull from interview notes.
  • Identify new types of content to derive from interviews.
  • Determine how to more consistently craft content that’s 10 times as good as the top-ranking content on the same topics.
  • Evaluate the frequency at which your interviews yield content that’s uniquely valuable.

Conclusion

Vishal inspires me to approach interviews with bigger goals and to get more value from every minute I get to spend with an SME. I hope that you’ve found some inspiration from his examples, too.

What do you do to make the most of your SME time?

Want more on content strategy for marketers? Sign up for our Content Strategy for Marketers weekly email newsletter, which features exclusive insights from CMI Chief Content Adviser Robert Rose. If you’re like many other marketers we meet, you’ll come to look forward to his thoughts every Saturday.

Cover image by Viktor Hanacek, picjumbo, via pixabay.com

Author: Marcia Riefer Johnston

Marcia Riefer Johnston is the author of Word Up! How to Write Powerful Sentences and Paragraphs (And Everything You Build from Them) and You Can Say That Again: 750 Redundant Phrases to Think Twice About. As a member of the CMI team, she serves as Managing Editor of Content Strategy. She has run a technical-writing business for … a long time. She taught technical writing in the Engineering School at Cornell University and studied literature and creative writing in the Syracuse University Masters program under Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff. She lives in Portland, Oregon. Follow her on Twitter @MarciaRJohnston. For more, see Writing.Rocks.

Other posts by Marcia Riefer Johnston

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  • http://www.brianhonigman.com/ Brian Honigman

    Thanks for this Marcia, well-written and drives home the fact that every business needs to do less with more when it comes to content. Especially, when interviewing SMEs, who have limited time and bandwidth, you want to do your best to get the most important information from them to drive the most visibility to the business.

    When it comes to repurposing, what types of content have you found the best to start with and the convert into other formats? I typically start with a blog post and then repurpose from there. Love to hear your experience.

    • Courtnie Ridgway

      Not sure if this would work for your industry, but we have found it really useful to pull quotes from News Releases or Social Media and use them for Testimonials. We then turn those testimonials into interest pieces on Alumni, Faculty or Staff. From there they host a Q&A or presentation either digitally or on campus. The latter we can use for Facebook live or a YouTube video and continue from there. Just one of the ways we are up-cycling content! We try to archive these and do a follow-up with individuals who later win an award or are otherwise doing noteable things that reflect well. I feel like the term Reduce (weed out the irrelevant or inappropriate), Reuse, Recycle could be my new content mantra!

      • http://howtowriteeverything.com/ Marcia Riefer Johnston

        I like that mantra, Courtnie.

      • http://www.brianhonigman.com/ Brian Honigman

        I couldn’t agree more. Up-cycling content like that is smart, keep it up!

    • http://howtowriteeverything.com/ Marcia Riefer Johnston

      Brian,

      I’m glad you found this article helpful. Thanks for the comment.

      To your question, if you have a substantial story with lots of data, processes, or concepts to describe, a good content type to start with (and atomize from) might be a white paper.

      If the whole story lends itself to a blog post, that’s a logical content type to start with.

      A video could be a good starting-out content type, too, especially if the story involves moving parts or if the message is best conveyed through people talking (for example, if there’s a strong emotional component). You can then use snippets from the video as atoms, pointing to them in blog posts, tweets, Facebook posts, etc.

      I’d love to hear how others answer this question.

      • http://www.brianhonigman.com/ Brian Honigman

        Makes sense, thanks for the quick reply Marcia. I’ve seen the same as well, it depends. The white paper / eBook idea makes the most sense to me, as well as the blog post. Enjoy your weekend ahead!

  • Courtnie Ridgway

    This is awesome Marcia! We try to emphasize the importance of sharing content across departments. Content is not a one and done! There are unique ways to utilize information on one event on multiple platforms without being redundant. A little creativity and strategy will go a long way! Sharing this post.

    • http://howtowriteeverything.com/ Marcia Riefer Johnston

      Thanks, Courtnie.

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  • markarmstrong

    One of the most intriguing (and helpful) concepts in this post was the idea of creating content to support predefined company “truths.”

    Another way of saying: know your target audience and stay focused on creating content that tells that audience that you’re an expert who can help them solve their problems. Great post in its entirety, thanks for sharing.

    • http://howtowriteeverything.com/ Marcia Riefer Johnston

      Mark, You’re welcome. I agree about that concept. It seems obvious once Vishal says it, but content creators don’t always have clear company “truths” to convey or the mandate to do so.

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  • http://www.iacquire.com/ Joe Griffin

    Marcia, nice work. Wrangling the SMEs is tough business!

    • http://howtowriteeverything.com/ Marcia Riefer Johnston

      Thanks, Joe.

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  • EmmaLouiseSaltSpring

    Thanks Marcia! Inspired to interview some SMEs next year – and work it into many pieces of content.