By Manya Chylinski published February 11, 2011

How to Get the Best Content From Subject Matter Experts

There are times when you need information from experts for your content. Subject matter experts are critical when creating compelling content. These are the people writers and marketers rely on to provide the background information or technical details that give your content authenticity and credibility and help build a foundation for relevant and engaging content.

Here are some thoughts to keep in mind as you approach subject matter experts, whether they are inside or outside your organization.

Identifying experts

Find someone who knows the topic and can speak to it from a point of view appropriate for your audience. Make sure you understand what the expert brings to the table. Is this the engineer who designed the software and knows it inside out? Has he or she been in the industry for decades? Is this the company president who brings a business perspective to the issue?

If you need outside experts either to add credibility or because you simply do not have the expertise in-house, start looking in industry organizations, your networks and friends, or groups on social sites like LinkedIn. If you need other options, consider services designed to link experts with the people who need their expertise like ProfNet or Reporter Connection. A literature search in industry journals and a review of contributors to trade magazines can also reveal those who speak and write on the topic.

Setting expectations

This is key when asking for someone’s time, especially when you work with outside experts, as they do not have as much natural buy-in as in-house experts may have. You also need to ensure that anyone you interview understands the process and why you want to speak with him or her. Here are a few things to consider:

  • The purpose of the interview
  • How the information will fit in the final piece
  • What types of questions you will ask
  • How long the interview will take.
  • What kind of review or editing options he or she is allowed on the final piece
  • Who will conduct the interview—a staff person or an outside writer or consultant.

Failure to set expectations can result in pushback and a lot of wasted time. It is essential to set expectations when interviewing customers because they often have a very different idea about sharing information with you.  For example, customers usually expect to give short testimonials, and can get defensive if they think you are being invasive or taking too much time.

Preparing for the interview

Know why you are approaching this particular person.

  • Why was this person recommended or chosen?
  • What is this individual’s specific area of expertise?
  • How can you frame the conversation to ensure you keep your questions relevant and your interviewee engaged?

Do some basic research on this person and the topic, if necessary. You need to know enough about both to ask intelligent questions. But do not try to dazzle anyone with how much you know. Remember, the expert knows more than you do. It is okay to admit you do not know a lot about the topic. In fact, if the purpose of the final piece is to educate, you may very well want to start with the basics.

Conducting the interview

Remember that an interview is primarily a conversation. The more comfortable both of you are, the better information you will get.

Be respectful
Yet be ready to interrupt if the interviewee gets off topic. It is your job to make sure you stay on topic and use the time you have together to your best advantage.

Record the interview, if possible
And always (always!) take notes in case something goes wrong with the recording. If you conduct the interview in person, consider taking notes longhand. Opening up a laptop or focusing on a screen can put a physical or psychological barrier between you and the interviewee and threaten the success of the interview.

Follow the conversation
Be ready to follow an interesting or relevant line of thought, even if it is not on your list of questions. However, make sure you address the critical questions on your list.

Prepare an open-ended wrap-up question
This gives the interviewee a chance to add some final thoughts. This is often when you get the best information, the best quotes, or the best background material. The individual has relaxed a bit, discusses important information not previously addressed, or gives you what to them seems obvious or throwaway, but really gets to the significant point. No matter how much great information you get in the interview, do not forget this wrap-up question.

These strategies will help you get relevant information from subject matter experts.

Do you have any other strategies or techniques to find or utilize subject matter experts who have helped you create compelling content?

Author: Manya Chylinski

Manya Chylinski is a marketing consultant and writer helping B2B companies create compelling content and share thought leadership and success stories. Founder of Alley424 Communications, Manya has experience in a variety of industries including technology, higher education, financial services, government, and consulting.

Other posts by Manya Chylinski

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