My favorite questions to unlock subject matter experts and uncover content gold

My favorite questions to unlock subject matter experts and uncover content gold

Subject matter expert interviewWhen a marketer has a strong relationship with a subject matter expert, they can make content magic together. Subject matter experts (aka “SMEs”) are the folks who know an industry inside and out, who set the strategy for future product development and work closely with customers. Some have strong opinions about controversial issues, which can reveal fascinating topics for unique content.

Yet, I often hear marketers say they struggle to connect with SMEs. To be fair, there are several reasons for this.

  1. These experts might not be used to explaining complex subjects to laypeople.
  2. Others may have expert knowledge of technical details, but aren’t as fluent in communicating broader context.
  3. On top of those issues, they are often pressed for time.

The art of the subject matter interview

These steps to conducting successful subject matter interviews have helped me unlock reluctant experts and unleash a source of remarkable content in the process.

1. First, do your homework.

Before you interview SMEs, make sure you learn at least the basics about the type of work they do and their specific role. Have well-researched questions ready about trends and issues you believe are most important to your target audience.

2. Open the interview by setting the stage.

Let’s say you are going to be developing an eBook or blog from the conversation you have with the expert. Take the time to explain your goal, the expert’s role in the process and your timeframe. If you properly set expectations, you’ll be able to come back for any clarifications and approvals you need.

Most importantly, get your expert excited to be a part of your content development process. If experts are proud of their contribution, they’ll be more likely to influence others to participate in content creation, and they’ll also help share content among their own networks.

3. Ask open-ended questions.

Part of your job is getting your expert to open up. The other part is listening for nuggets of information that could be expanded into original, intriguing content. Asking open-ended questions opens the door to unexpected discovery.

Here are few of my favorite open-ended questions for experts:

  • How does your business/role/project help solve people’s problems?
  • What are the most important things your audience should know before buying?
  • What is your best advice?
  • What question do people ask you most often?
  • What question should people ask you – but don’t?
  • How would customers solve their problems without you? What’s the issue with that?
  • What question is no one in your industry willing to answer?
  • What does nearly everyone disagree with you about?
  • How have things changed since you first started doing this?
  • What are your predictions for the future of your industry?
4. Ask the follow up.

This one trips up many marketers. While you are conducting an interview, you are also thinking about the ticking clock. You may even be afraid of looking dumb in front of someone you respect. So you don’t dig.


If you let experts off the hook with a generic answer, you’ll go back to your notes later and find you don’t have enough to work with. If you don’t ask them to explain a term of concept you don’t understand, you are going to be even more confused when you hang up the phone.

Don’t sweat it. Asking follow up questions lets your expert know that you are listening and that you care about getting the information correct. Some examples of follow-up questions to help you get under the hood:

  • Can you elaborate on that?
  • What was the reason for that?
  • What are the repercussions of that?
  • Why did that happen?
5. Practice self-control.

Even the most experienced marketers can fall into these traps. It takes practice to avoid them.

  • Don’t ask more than one question at a time. Ever ask a question that goes something like this: “When did that issue occur…that was serious huh, I mean, how long did that take to resolve?” You confuse your interviewee if you pile one question on top of another. You also may miss opportunities to gather detail if the expert skips part of a question.
  • Don’t be afraid of silence. This can be tough. Most of us are conditioned to think silence can mean confusion, obstinacy or even anger. Particularly if you are conducting an interview over the phone, it can difficult to tell if your SME is unclear on your question or checking email. Most likely, they are simply taking time to think. Let them. What happens after a pause can be very revealing.
6. Keep practicing.

Practice interviewing all different types of people, whenever and however you can. Learning to craft meaningful questions, listening carefully and following up are essential skills for any marketer. I’ve found these techniques even yield some unexpected benefits beyond the workplace – with my friends, my spouse, and my kids.

Let me know how it goes!

By Margie Agin, Centerboard Marketing Chief Strategist