By Lucy Merriman
Interviewing subject matter experts — or SMEs — can be lucrative for freelance writers. The career website Indeed posits that the average SME in the United States earns $114,000 per year for their expertise.
As a writer who creates content for private or Enterprise clients through the Constant Content platform, you can add the value of SME experience to your articles and bring their insights to your clients’ audiences.
To do that well, though, you’ll have to learn how to interview an SME. In this guide, learn how to conduct interviews for research with a subject matter expert.
What Is a Subject Matter Expert ?
A subject matter expert is a professional who’s cultivated a deep well of knowledge. They may be knowledgeable about a niche topic, a skill, a process, or a particular set of technologies, machinery, or materials.
Why Conduct Interviews for Research Before Creating Content?
It makes your content unique—and a potential primary resource.
Your interview with an SME should draw out insights the reader wants to learn. And it should cover a seemingly complex topic in language that’s accessible to your audience.
Hone your interviewing strategy by taking the following steps:
1. Find the Right Subject Matter Expert
To find relevant SMEs, read trade publications in the chosen field. These might be professional journals, blogs, or professional organization newsletters.
You can also find relevant subject matter experts at conventions where they may be invited to speak.
Reach out to SMEs via email or LinkedIn. If you can’t find their contact information easily, use an email finder like hunter.io.
When you reach out, keep your request friendly, specific, and short.
In your message, say why you respect their expertise on the subject and mention what you’d like to interview them about specifically. If you give an estimate of how long you think the interview will take, it shows them that you respect their time.
2. Do Enough Research to Grasp the Context—and Find Potential Hooks
Before you conduct the interview, do enough research to understand why your SME’s contribution to the field matters. Ask yourself:
- What insights do they have that other professionals don’t?
- What trends or events are your audience concerned about?
- What is your audience excited about?
For instance, consider the ad tech industry in 2021.Google had announced that it would block third-party cookies on Google Chrome. Digital marketers were freaked out.
Third-party cookies were the main tool digital advertisers used to gather user data. This data let them implement high-value marketing strategies—like targeted ads that follow users from site to site.
Many in the ad industry had an opinion about Google’s forthcoming ban. But when AdWeek commissioned its 14-page report, The Death of Cookies, it didn’t interview just any advertising executive with a hot take.
Instead, AdWeek writers chose to interview CEOs of ad tech startups like ID5—those with technology poised to evolve and thrive in this new environment.
To know which ad tech leaders were most likely to have those insights, AdWeek’s writers had to understand the landscape well enough to compare different developers’ tactics.
3. Consider Different Types of Interviews
Two types of interviews enhance great content most often.
The first is the traditional interview. A traditional interview speaks with an SME “on the record.” The SME offers commentary or an explanation of a technical subject in response to the interviewer’s questions. The explanations are relevant to a broader, contemporary discussion in the field.
The second type of interview is conducted through observational reporting. The writer meets the SME at a scene, like an expert’s demonstration of new technology. The writer transcribes what they observe then asks clarifying questions. An investigative report of this nature may incorporate quotes from several different SMEs to paint a comprehensive picture of the event.
4. Develop Your Thesis Questions
Your thesis questions let you develop a throughline in your interview. This throughline becomes the backbone of your outline as you write.
Most of these questions follow a “what/why/how” format. What’s the big idea? Why is it relevant to your audience? How can readers apply these insights?
The answers to these three questions give you a solid core you can shape the rest of your piece around.
5. Take the Feynman Approach to Follow-Up Questions
The Feynman technique is a great learning strategy. It’s also one of the best ways to conduct research interviews that delve deep into a subject.
The Feynman technique is a method of learning first developed by the physicist Richard Feynman. It empowers students—and reporters—to build an accurate mental model of information.
To use it, try to explain a concept the SME just explained back to them, in simple terms. If they correct you—or if you can’t hold the explanation in your mind—ask a clarifying question.
Be specific. Home in on the specific gaps in your knowledge so you can bridge them.
The SME’s answers to your gap-bridging questions will help you understand a subject in its complexity.
6. Keep Questions Open Ended
Your interview questions for subject matter experts must be open ended.
A close-ended question is binary. This means it only has two answers: yes or no.
Close-ended questions are often a sign that an interviewer has an agenda. Rather than being truly open to hearing the SME’s insights, the interviewer simply wants to hear the SME confirm their preconceived take.
In contrast, open-ended questions have many possible answers. These questions let SMEs offer explanations with the metaphors—or reference points—that most accurately represent the point they aim to convey.
For example, consider an interview with an SME who invented a new, energy-efficient engine. The engine uses a sustainable coolant.
You don’t want to ask the question, “Does the coolant reduce friction?” That’s a close-ended question. Its ability to illuminate an accurate understanding of the coolant’s purpose in the engine is strictly limited.
Instead, try asking, “What is the purpose of the coolant?” or “How does the coolant improve the engine’s energy efficiency?” These questions open the door for the SME to describe the coolant’s purpose with greater specificity.
7. Ask “Connecting” Questions (Return Interview to Throughline)
If your interview veers off subject, return to your throughline. How does this tangent relate to your main hook? Or is it connected to the answers to your thesis questions?
If not, it’s perfectly fine to get back on track by asking a follow-up question to one of your original thesis questions.
Alternately, tangents may signal that your interview has reached a decent endpoint. It may signal that it’s time to wrap up. In that case, end the interview on a friendly, professional note.
Thank your SME for their time, and let them know how they can reach you if they would like to add anything else to the conversation later. Be sure to keep in touch and alert them when your content goes live.
Elevate Your Content with Subject Matter Expert Interviews
Conducting interviews with SMEs is a great way to elevate your content, no matter where you publish. Specifically, when working with private or Enterprise clients via Constant Content, the ability to create reported articles supported by primary sources can land you a spot on writer teams for high-value clients.
An exclusive profile of a subject matter expert can be the differentiator that piques Enterprise clients’ interest. That’s added value they can’t get from generic content writing services.
Level up your marketplace profile by interviewing SMEs in your network today.
Want more tips on creating standout content? Read more from the Constant Content blog.
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