Daniel Burstein

Content Marketing: 5 questions to ask subject matter experts to get the ball rolling

January 11th, 2013

Content marketing, at its essence, is really just a connection. It’s linking those who know something (subject matter experts) with those who want to know it.

This can be a struggle for some marketers who are trying to generate content, especially in complex fields like healthcare IT or power engineering.

That’s why the subject matter expert is so valuable. The vaunted SME (pronounced “Smee.”) Much more knowledgeable than Captain Hook’s right-hand man, but sometimes as ornery as the ol’ captain himself.

To win him or her over, it helps to immerse yourself in the industry to a level that you have their respect.

But to create quality content, it helps to ask the right questions to get that subject matter expert going. Once you tap the keg of passion in a SME, the party about topics important to the egg industry or Sarbanes-Oxley just never ends.

So, to help you generate content for your blogs, videos, email newsletters, podcasts, whitepapers, and the like, here are five general questions that have helped me throughout my career, as I’ve interviewed SMEs to create content.


#1. How will the [new product feature here] help [target customers here]?

In most organizations, SMEs have a role in product development. That means they’re usually quite excited about new features they helped create.

Just make sure the end result of your conversation does not turn into an ad for your product, but use this as a spur for content based on the pain point your new product feature will solve.


#2. What challenges have you helped customers overcome recently?

SMEs are also often involved in either service delivery or customer support (depending on the size of the organization, it may be the same SME as above), so asking how they recently helped a customer could result in a helpful story.

When it comes to content marketing for complex, difficult-to-understand products, stories resulting in actionable advice that helps your audience are gold. They’re much easier to connect to than mumbo jumbo feeds and speeds.


#3. How has [industry news here] affected [target audience here] and what should they do about it?

Timely information always makes for good content, and your SMEs likely follow the industry closely and have strong opinions on the latest news.

Just make sure you have a thorough vetting process for your content marketing, so you don’t inadvertently publish something controversial.

Of course, if you advertently publish something controversial, that can be a great way to spark discussion with your community.


#4. A [job title here] in our LinkedIn Group wanted to know [question here]?

The end goal of your content is to help your audience. So, sometimes, the best place to go for questions is straight to the source.

Plus, by having the question come from a real person in the industry, the question has more credibility and your SME might have more passion in answering it. Hey, sometimes the smartest people in the room like showing off; it’s human nature.

Just make sure you get the SMEs opinion on the question, as well. If it is an outlier that the SME doesn’t think will help many people in the audience, it might not be worth covering. However, if it is an outlier that relates to a long-tail keyword you’re targeting, it still might be worthwhile.

Which leads us to …


#5. I’ve heard a lot of people in the industry talking about [target keyword]. For example, [other thought leader in the industry] said [something you’ve read while doing industry research]. What is your take on this?

Content creation is the most effective SEO tactic. So asking keyword-specific questions can aid your organic search efforts.

However, you want to juice the conversation a little. After all, asking a question about a keyword can be very broad and difficult to find a starting point for the SME.

So stir up the pot a little and include a competitors’ take. Or at least an industry analyst. That should get the conversation going.



Almost as important as the conversation starters themselves are the follow-up questions. These few have always helped me in my career …


Can you give me an example of that?

Especially for content marketing for very complex fields, it’s important to really ground the advice with a real-world example that illustrates the point. In order of most powerful to least powerful, here are some examples you can use:

  • Real customer story with results
  • Real customer story without results
  • Anonymous customer story with results (“I have a great customer example, but we can’t name the actual customer …”)
  • Anonymous customer story without results
  • A scenario (“If you don’t have a real customer, let’s create a scenario. Let’s say I’m the VP of Acme Corporation, and we’re facing the challenge you said is common in our biophotonics industry. Walk me through the first three things I should do.”)
  • An analogy (“Wind system hardware manufacturing is a lot like football …”


What did I overlook or forget to ask about this subject?

Or “Is there anything I didn’t ask that you wish I would have?”

It always helps to get thinking about what important aspects of the topic you might have overlooked. After all, if you don’t catch them, your savvy readers or competition might. And that leads us to …


What is the downside of this advice?

Or “How might our competition try to poke holes in this?”

The importance of this question increases the more competitive your industry is. Content marketing is very public, and it is very easy for a competitor to use your own content against you. Especially if you’re the top dog in the industry. Pepsi is always waiting for Coke to stumble.

This may not necessarily change one word you write; however, it helps you at least prepare for some of the reaction you will get to this content and how you will react. It also keeps you from drinking the Kool-Aid too much.

After all, content marketing is not an advertisement. It should, first and foremost, help potential customers (even if they never buy).


… awkward pause …

The awkward pause is the all-time best interview question I’ve ever come across (it even works well for job interviews).

It’s human nature to fill dead air with information. It also helps make sure that you’re not monopolizing the conversation with your viewpoint, and letting the truly helpful information come through form your SME.

In fact, the awkward pause has even caused me to change the entire direction of pieces, after whatever the SME came up with to fill the dead air was much more interesting than one of my trigger questions mentioned above could ever bring out.


Related Resources:

Content Marketing: How to get your subject matter experts on your corporate blog

Public Relations: Getting corporate data out of subject matter experts heads and into quarterly trend reports increased media coverage 261%

Content Marketing: 21 ideas for planning, creating, and leveraging content from your webinars

Is Your Company Embracing ‘Fear-Based’ or ‘Fear-Less’ Marketing in 2012 and Beyond?

Daniel Burstein

About Daniel Burstein

Daniel Burstein, Senior Director of Editorial Content, MECLABS. Daniel oversees all content and marketing coming from the MarketingExperiments and MarketingSherpa brands while helping to shape the editorial direction for MECLABS – digging for actionable information while serving as an advocate for the audience. Daniel is also a speaker and moderator at live events and on webinars. Previously, he was the main writer powering MarketingExperiments publishing engine – from Web clinics to Research Journals to the blog. Prior to joining the team, Daniel was Vice President of MindPulse Communications – a boutique communications consultancy specializing in IT clients such as IBM, VMware, and BEA Systems. Daniel has 18 years of experience in copywriting, editing, internal communications, sales enablement and field marketing communications.

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  1. January 11th, 2013 at 10:14 | #1

    Good stuff, Daniel. The B2B market is always hungry for any new perspectives or tried-and-true solutions to digging the gold out of SMEs. But I would add that, at many companies, particularly those that work with complex products, the marketing departments act as an information filter, interviewing subject matter experts around the company then attempting to reduce this input into the rigid structure of the company’s website, a 16-page brochure or a trade show poster. And that’s a necessary process – but it often dumbs down the power of an SME to engage with other SMEs out at customers, for example.

    My point is that the real experience of a company’s know-how, its thought leadership and what it can really do for its customers and the industry as a whole, is usually much, much greater than the marketing filter allows it to show to the market. And this more profound experience is often overlooked as a source of extreme value to prospects and customers in today’s online, conversation-driven marketplaces.

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