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How Agencies Can Get Valuable Marketing Content From Subject Matter Experts

Marketing agency team members interview subject matter expert to create valuable contentThink back on the last time you read a blog post. What did you notice about it? Was it filled with knowledge and insight, bursting at the seams with useful information you could apply to your own life and work? Or did it sound like word vomit from a 20 year old ghost writer fresh out of creative writing class?

The fact is, it's easy to tell when the writer of a piece of content has leveraged subject matter expertise, and when she hasn't. And when you're trying to compete for viewership in a digital world over-saturated with subpar content, you should probably figure out a way to stand out. If your content does not give, readers will not take.

As a content marketer, you need a method to find subject matter experts (SMEs) and get the best possible material from them. Take it from me - this shit ain't easy. But it's possible. 

What is expert content, and why is it so critical?

Expert-level content is easy for readers to spot. Why does it work? Three reasons:

  1. It's authentic.
  2. It's trustworthy.
  3. It's useful.

Even if your in-house copywriters and freelance writers are gifted, they need all the help they can get from experts. 

"We work with terrific writers, and one of the ways in which they're terrific is their ability to very quickly become fluent in the vernacular of an industry." This is Andrew Siskind, Director of Content at LA-based creative agency Salted Stone. Somewhat ironically, he is an expert in leveraging the knowledge of experts. 

"What they can't always do," he continues, "is figure out some innovative and incredibly insightful thing to say about the future of an industry they don't work in." In a nutshell, this is one of the reasons subject matter expertise is so important when developing your content marketing strategy. Without proper knowledge of the industry at hand, without direct experience, you might not be able to effectively provide value to readers. Find a way to make your content authentic, trustworthy, and useful, and it will be far more likely to generate leads.

So where does this expert content come from?

Client = SME = Thought Leader

One of the benefits of working at an agency is that you don't need to quest arduously for experts - you're already working with them. In fact, they're basically paying your salary.

Every client our agency works with is a subject matter expert in their respective field (assuming they actually know what they're doing). Every client team has at least one person, hopefully a lot more, that knows the ins, outs, and in-betweens of their industry. Some of them might even be "thought leaders," the oh-so-elusive status that everybody wants but nobody knows how to attain. You're sitting on a gold mine, and you may not even know it. The client probably doesn't either.

"At the end of the day, thought leadership means something," says Andrew. "Believe me when I say you aren't going to be able to fake it in a way that's gonna 'delight' anyone. Try something else."

The catch? Coaxing the thoughts from the thought leaders and transforming it into something valuable.

Mining content gold from the source

Any agency that sells content marketing services needs to have a process for obtaining expert content from its clients. Based on our own experience and knowledge gleaned from the industry, there are a number of critical steps to take in this process. 

  1. Identify SMEs.
  2. Plan the content you want to develop.
  3. Interview SMEs.
  4. Evaluate and improve your content development plan.
  5. Keep SME involved through content creation process.

Let's take a closer look at each point.

Identify relevant SMEs

Knowing who to talk to is half the battle. When our team is first introduced to a client, it's not always apparent who does what - nor is it clear who's an actual SME. We need to be able to easily identify the SMEs on the client's team and, once we do, determine which of them are available to provide the information we need.

As an agency, we always lean on our point of contact (often a director-level employee) for help identifying and introduce us to SMEs within the organization. From there, stakeholder interviews help us to get buy-in and establish processes that work within these SMEs' schedules.

Plan your content

Ask yourself: what kind of content do you want to create? Build a game plan around different assets you may want to build based on the interview material. An excellent strategy here is to develop atomized content - in other words, use the interview material to develop one primary piece of content, then repurpose that primary piece into additional assets in different formats. 

For example, let's say I'm planning to interview the head engineer at a company that produces a new type of automated high-density shelving technology. What could I get from him? I could certainly obtain enough information to produce a long-form pillar page. I could easily parse and edit the pillar page into a number of blog posts. And what about the SME's wealth of technical knowledge? I could mine the expert content from his interview to help us make product videos, checklists, infographics, or animations. In these cases, it pays to know what deliverables you want to create beforehand.

Interview SMEs

Even if you have the best plan in the world, it doesn't matter if you don't know how to get what you need from the SME. When you're planning each interview, consider using a few of the techniques laid out in this article from the Content Marketing Institute:

  • Get the client comfortable with easy questions and background info. No matter who you are, being interviewed can be somewhat nerve-wracking - especially when you're being interviewed by a stranger. Do your best to keep it lighthearted and personable at the beginning. Ask the client simple questions at the start to get them in the flow.

  • Build out pre-set questions in advance. Make sure you have a large assortment of questions (larger than you might need) that you've come up with during your planning and research phase. This ensures you have plenty of interrogative material to work with. Some of these questions might come up as follow-ups or serve as great segues - making you seem like a smooth interviewer.

  • Ask deep, clarifying questions. Try to ask a relevant follow-up question after every answer the SME gives you. This demonstrates your involvement and interest in the topic, which can only help your relationship going forward. It will also help you fully understand the subject matter at hand, enhancing the quality of any content you create.

  • Hold off on sub-topics and avoid tangents. Keep the conversation on track. For some people (especially those who are deeply knowledgeable in a particular subject), getting sidetracked in conversation is easier than staying on the chosen path. As the interviewer, it's your job to keep the SME engaged and focused.

And, of course, don't forget to record your interview! 

Improve your original plan

Now that the interview is complete, it's time to go back and make improvements. Is there anything in your atomized content plan that's no longer relevant? Is there a specific piece of content you think you should add to it? Go over everything with a fine-toothed comb and find areas to make your strategy better.

Involve SME throughout content creation

If you've successfully built a new relationship with the SME, hey, guess what - now you have a great resource going forward! Leverage this resource by asking for feedback and advice when the time comes to create the content in your strategy. After all, nobody knows the subject matter better than the expert.


So, how do you feel about getting that expert content now? Still intimidated? That's okay, becoming a good interviewer takes practice. As a tried and true introvert, I can tell you without a doubt that I'm one of the least comfortable question-askers out there. But you get better. 

And don't forget: expert content does not mean complex content. Our job is to synthesize expert knowledge into content that readers can understand.

"My personal position on what makes good marketing content is extremely simple." That's Andrew again, back for more helpful content marketing advice. 

"Is it interesting? Does it tell a story? Is it written well? Then it'll probably get the job done."

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