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How to get the content you need from subject matter experts

How to get the content you need from subject matter experts

7 minute read

How to get the content you need from subject matter experts

7 minute read

How to get the content you need from subject matter experts

Fi Shailes

Senior social media marketer and content writer

We’re living in an age of total content overload. Never-ending newsfeeds, mailers, and all manner of digital advertising… we’re bombarded. 

Running in parallel is that fact that we are living in cynical times. You only have to look at recent events in the world of politics, the widely publicised occurrences of cybercrime and misuse of data, and the existence of fake news/misinformation on social media to understand why finding trustworthy sources of information and news has never been more important.

Your in-house experts are trusted

Earlier this year, findings from Edelman’s annual report, the Edelman Trust Barometer, revealed that 57% of people admit to worrying about the media they use being “contaminated with untrustworthy information.” 

We also learned that, on Edelman’s scale of credible experts and peers, it’s an organisation’s technical experts who we trust most.  68% of those surveyed stated that they rated this source type to be ‘very credible’ or ‘extremely credible’ (note: this is also 3% higher than it was in 2019).

A graphic showing results of the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer about how credible people perceive different experts and peers to be.


Image above taken from the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer.

It’s clear then; your organisation’s subject matter experts (SMEs) are more valuable than ever. Not only because of the detail and depth they can bring to content through their inherent knowledge, but because of the trust and ‘gravitas’ content authored by an SME can command. 

These experts may be your senior directors, consultants, or even ‘hands-on’ specialists working behind the scenes. These people know their stuff, and they even know what all those pesky industry-specific acronyms stand for.

Not so simple perhaps, is the act of making this kind of content happen. For freelance and in-house content writers alike, the prospect of using an SME’s input to form a new article, paper or report can make a heart sink. I know from my own experience heading up content creation in a financial services consultancy that, done without a proper process, working with internal stakeholders like SMEs can be fraught with lots of stops and starts - as well as (some frankly frustrating) periods of silence.

Challenges content creators can face when working with SMEs

There are some possible hurdles that can arise when you first try to engage with an SME about creating content. Here are just a few scenarios:

  1. They may be unresponsive to having an initial meeting/phone call about it
  2. They may not express any interest in writing something, and are perhaps reluctant to have their name ‘in lights’
  3. They might show keenness to contribute, but they’re always up against it, workload-wise, so after that initial conversation, things go a little quiet…
  4. They’ve written a piece before but didn’t enjoy the internal process (in fact, they were quite frustrated by it)

If any of the above have been happening to you, don’t despair. There are some things you can try so the content creation process goes more smoothly next time. 

They key to efficient working: consider what SMEs need from you

Give them a reason to contribute

Whether or not you’ve worked with that chosen SME before, there’s no harm in reminding them about why it’d be so brilliant for them to put the time in on this. 

As well as supporting that current campaign and the business as a whole, it’s also a great way for them to raise their own professional profile. You can also tell them about any other colleagues who have already penned a piece; particularly mentioning any successes such as clinching a great new piece of business off the back of it, or achieving high levels of webpage traffic or engagement (this can sometimes ignite the willingness to take part, I’ve found!).

Give them a clear brief


SMEs are often caught up in oodles of detail and complexity, so if you can make what you want from them clear from the off, you’ll save time for both parties and also avoid any confusion. This could be provided using a content brief and you should also provide a hard deadline for the first draft (confirming this in writing).

Provide some existing examples to inspire them

Just because your SME is an expert in financial crime or mechanical engineering does not mean they know how to write a blog. Offer a few finished examples (ideally sourced from your own marketing department!) to help them visualise and understand how a finished piece might look.

Be transparent about how it’ll work

Right from the off, be clear and honest about the process. If the draft will be subject to editing by you or a colleague, make this clear to the SME. 

Not all SMEs will be super protective of their drafts, but by being upfront about what they can expect it will help avoid any awkward exchanges further down the line.

It might also be wise to give them an idea of roughly when you’d expect to publish their piece. Again, this sets expectations on the turnaround time and helps avoid the SME becoming frustrated or impatient (especially if you secretly know that it has to be approved by a ridiculous number of people before it has any hope of reaching your CMS).

Be flexible and offer extra support if needed

I’ve definitely worked with SMEs who have not had the confidence to write a full draft themselves. I’ve also worked with SMEs who quickly realise they don’t really like to write. 

Whatever the case, if you need to take the strain and assist with the writing process more heavily, there are a few ways you can help them.

One approach is simply to ask them for some detailed bullet points on what they’d include in the content.  Once you have extracted these nuggets of information from them, either via an email or perhaps by interviewing them on a video or phone call, you can go about drafting the piece independently (don’t forget to check in with them on any specific details you might need clarity on though!).

Alternatively, you could offer to dedicate some time to write with them in real-time - this is also known as pair writing

Keep communicating with them

Find out how they’d prefer to liaise with you – via email, phone call, video call? Tapping into their habits will help you slot in far better than trying to reach out to them in a way they wouldn’t usually opt for.

Beyond that, once you’ve received the draft from them, it’s just common courtesy to give them a little update every few days on how the piece is progressing.

Let them have a final say

I’ve known instances of a piece being drafted by an SME and then being radically changed and published without them giving their blessing on the changes (instances which were not within my control I might add). 

This is a terrible idea. Not only do you eradicate any chance of them helping you promote that just-published piece, but you instantly reduce the likelihood of them ever helping out with content again. 

It comes back to being transparent and honest in the process. If their draft has received some amends, let them see the amends. Be open to discussing any proposed changes and be prepared to reach a compromise (remember too that it’s easier to get amends agreed if you can explain the reasoning behind them).

SMEs can be a powerful secret weapon for your brand

Building great relationships with your organisation’s SMEs can stand you in really good stead for future content creation efforts. And, the best way to achieve this, is through being transparent, supportive and fair throughout the process. 

In time, you’ll create a reliable bank of subject specialists you can return to for input.

And what’s more, they trust you with their words. 

We’re living in an age of total content overload. Never-ending newsfeeds, mailers, and all manner of digital advertising… we’re bombarded. 

Running in parallel is that fact that we are living in cynical times. You only have to look at recent events in the world of politics, the widely publicised occurrences of cybercrime and misuse of data, and the existence of fake news/misinformation on social media to understand why finding trustworthy sources of information and news has never been more important.

Your in-house experts are trusted

Earlier this year, findings from Edelman’s annual report, the Edelman Trust Barometer, revealed that 57% of people admit to worrying about the media they use being “contaminated with untrustworthy information.” 

We also learned that, on Edelman’s scale of credible experts and peers, it’s an organisation’s technical experts who we trust most.  68% of those surveyed stated that they rated this source type to be ‘very credible’ or ‘extremely credible’ (note: this is also 3% higher than it was in 2019).

A graphic showing results of the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer about how credible people perceive different experts and peers to be.


Image above taken from the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer.

It’s clear then; your organisation’s subject matter experts (SMEs) are more valuable than ever. Not only because of the detail and depth they can bring to content through their inherent knowledge, but because of the trust and ‘gravitas’ content authored by an SME can command. 

These experts may be your senior directors, consultants, or even ‘hands-on’ specialists working behind the scenes. These people know their stuff, and they even know what all those pesky industry-specific acronyms stand for.

Not so simple perhaps, is the act of making this kind of content happen. For freelance and in-house content writers alike, the prospect of using an SME’s input to form a new article, paper or report can make a heart sink. I know from my own experience heading up content creation in a financial services consultancy that, done without a proper process, working with internal stakeholders like SMEs can be fraught with lots of stops and starts - as well as (some frankly frustrating) periods of silence.

Challenges content creators can face when working with SMEs

There are some possible hurdles that can arise when you first try to engage with an SME about creating content. Here are just a few scenarios:

  1. They may be unresponsive to having an initial meeting/phone call about it
  2. They may not express any interest in writing something, and are perhaps reluctant to have their name ‘in lights’
  3. They might show keenness to contribute, but they’re always up against it, workload-wise, so after that initial conversation, things go a little quiet…
  4. They’ve written a piece before but didn’t enjoy the internal process (in fact, they were quite frustrated by it)

If any of the above have been happening to you, don’t despair. There are some things you can try so the content creation process goes more smoothly next time. 

They key to efficient working: consider what SMEs need from you

Give them a reason to contribute

Whether or not you’ve worked with that chosen SME before, there’s no harm in reminding them about why it’d be so brilliant for them to put the time in on this. 

As well as supporting that current campaign and the business as a whole, it’s also a great way for them to raise their own professional profile. You can also tell them about any other colleagues who have already penned a piece; particularly mentioning any successes such as clinching a great new piece of business off the back of it, or achieving high levels of webpage traffic or engagement (this can sometimes ignite the willingness to take part, I’ve found!).

Give them a clear brief


SMEs are often caught up in oodles of detail and complexity, so if you can make what you want from them clear from the off, you’ll save time for both parties and also avoid any confusion. This could be provided using a content brief and you should also provide a hard deadline for the first draft (confirming this in writing).

Provide some existing examples to inspire them

Just because your SME is an expert in financial crime or mechanical engineering does not mean they know how to write a blog. Offer a few finished examples (ideally sourced from your own marketing department!) to help them visualise and understand how a finished piece might look.

Be transparent about how it’ll work

Right from the off, be clear and honest about the process. If the draft will be subject to editing by you or a colleague, make this clear to the SME. 

Not all SMEs will be super protective of their drafts, but by being upfront about what they can expect it will help avoid any awkward exchanges further down the line.

It might also be wise to give them an idea of roughly when you’d expect to publish their piece. Again, this sets expectations on the turnaround time and helps avoid the SME becoming frustrated or impatient (especially if you secretly know that it has to be approved by a ridiculous number of people before it has any hope of reaching your CMS).

Be flexible and offer extra support if needed

I’ve definitely worked with SMEs who have not had the confidence to write a full draft themselves. I’ve also worked with SMEs who quickly realise they don’t really like to write. 

Whatever the case, if you need to take the strain and assist with the writing process more heavily, there are a few ways you can help them.

One approach is simply to ask them for some detailed bullet points on what they’d include in the content.  Once you have extracted these nuggets of information from them, either via an email or perhaps by interviewing them on a video or phone call, you can go about drafting the piece independently (don’t forget to check in with them on any specific details you might need clarity on though!).

Alternatively, you could offer to dedicate some time to write with them in real-time - this is also known as pair writing

Keep communicating with them

Find out how they’d prefer to liaise with you – via email, phone call, video call? Tapping into their habits will help you slot in far better than trying to reach out to them in a way they wouldn’t usually opt for.

Beyond that, once you’ve received the draft from them, it’s just common courtesy to give them a little update every few days on how the piece is progressing.

Let them have a final say

I’ve known instances of a piece being drafted by an SME and then being radically changed and published without them giving their blessing on the changes (instances which were not within my control I might add). 

This is a terrible idea. Not only do you eradicate any chance of them helping you promote that just-published piece, but you instantly reduce the likelihood of them ever helping out with content again. 

It comes back to being transparent and honest in the process. If their draft has received some amends, let them see the amends. Be open to discussing any proposed changes and be prepared to reach a compromise (remember too that it’s easier to get amends agreed if you can explain the reasoning behind them).

SMEs can be a powerful secret weapon for your brand

Building great relationships with your organisation’s SMEs can stand you in really good stead for future content creation efforts. And, the best way to achieve this, is through being transparent, supportive and fair throughout the process. 

In time, you’ll create a reliable bank of subject specialists you can return to for input.

And what’s more, they trust you with their words. 

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About the author

Fi Shailes

Fi works at digital agency twogether as a Social Strategist. She specialises in all things social and content, and freelances part-time at Digital Drum.

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