Way back in 2008, Seth Godin said, “Content marketing is the only marketing left.” Well, in the ensuing decade we’ve just about killed content marketing with all of our clickbaity headlines and articles like What We Can Learn from Mr. Robot. We’re totally saturated in content that, well, just isn’t that good. And our audiences know it. 

If you clicked on that link, you know I’ve been there and done that, too. I wouldn’t throw you under the bus if I wasn’t planning to dive in right behind you. You have Bill-from-2016’s apologies for jumping on that bandwagon, but let’s all take a vow now as marketers to never do that again.

If you make a living creating strategies and content like we do here at Scribewise, you have to find a better way of producing work that actually has value. Creating content based on insights and interviews with your thought leaders and subject matter experts (SMEs) is one of the best ways to do it.

But it’s not always an easy lift, so here are a few tips that will help.

Look Beyond the C-Suite for Your Thought Leadership

Creating content featuring a CEO or anyone with “chief” in their title will provide instant credibility, but how often can you pin those people down for an in-depth interview on a particular topic? Never? Next-to-never? They’re also burdened by the market’s hyper-focus on every word that comes out of their mouths, so they’re more likely to be measured and guarded in their responses.

The more scalable approach is to tap into subject matter experts on the front lines who live and breathe the topics you’re writing about. These are the people who know the real story, and may be more likely to speak freely about a topic since they’re unfettered by being the face of the brand.

I’ve had great luck creating content with SMEs in the director-to-VP range, for a few reasons:

  • By necessity, they have a good understanding of both strategy and execution.
  • They’re typically eager to promote the work they and their teams are doing.
  • They’ll make time for a conversation.

If you do get an opportunity to create content at the top of the food chain, of course, you should take it. But don’t ignore other experts who exist at all levels of the organization.

Come to the Interview Table with Lots of Good Questions

This is not the time for vague questions like “tell me what you do in your job” or “what trends do you see on the horizon?” You may luck out and get an SME who likes to chat, but more often than not you won’t.

At Scribewise, we like to say, “We don’t have all the answers; we have all of the questions.” Adopt that mantra as your own and bring enough questions to the interview table so you can keep your SME talking – the more they talk, the more fodder you have for quality content.

We follow this process before meeting with an SME:

  • Research, and then research some more. You’ll never match your SME’s expertise, but they’ll appreciate that you understand their language.
  • Write down more questions than you think you’ll need in the time allotted.
  • Send the 5-10 best questions to your SME two days before the interview. This will help them prep and increase their comfort level.
  • Start your conversation with a few softball questions to help the SME warm up. Even industry veterans get nervous when asked to share their expertise.
  • Unless you’re a journalist, offer to allow them to review your content before it publishes and make this offer at the top of the conversation. It gives them permission to make mistakes while they’re talking without fearing that you’ll publish those missteps.

Go with the Flow and Ask this Question Before Wrapping Up

All of your prep work should plant a story idea in your head before you ever talk to the SME. However, rigidity is the enemy of a good story. Go with flow and follow your SME’s lead during the conversation, because it may help you uncover interesting nuggets or completely different angles that shape your final product into something better.

I’ve had SME interviews during which I’ve used less than 20% of my prepared questions. This can feel intimidating and like you’re working without a net, but you’ll gain flexibility and confidence each time this happens. The easiest way to approach these situations is to:

  • Listen. And I mean really listen, don’t just wait for your turn to ask your next question. Your research may have prepared you enough to ask the right first question or two, and the SME’s answers can serve as a jumping-off point for deeper and more meaningful insights.
  • Ask for clarification when you don’t understand. SMEs are so ensconced in the work they do that they may throw around acronyms or concepts you don’t know.
  • Take copious notes or record your interview. At Scribewise, we’ll typically have more than one person in an SME interview, which ensures that nothing gets missed and the backup person is always ready with another question.

 And finally, appreciate that you don’t know what you don’t know. An old consulting trick I picked up early in my career is to end each interview with “Is there anything I didn’t ask you that you think is important?” 

Most often, they’ll say no … but sometimes you get a little more insight that makes will turn a good piece of content into a great one.