The B2B Content Marketer’s Guide to Interviewing SMEs

Kit Fox

Most of your day, you need to think like a marketer. That is your job, after all. You produce content and execute tactics for a sole purpose–drive results that grow the business. But when you work in the B2B realm, the job requires diving into complicated, technical ideas that take years to grasp.

You don’t have years. Which means you need to take a shortcut–picking the brain of your Subject Matter Experts (SMEs). These are the scientists, inventors, and innovators who know your business’ products down to the molecule (in the Life Sciences, quite literally down to the molecule). When it comes to content marketing, they might be your most valuable resource. Harnessed correctly, they will help you produce engaging campaigns that grow your business’ expertise and authority to your target customers.

Effective content marketing requires authenticity. To get that authenticity, you will need to go directly to the source. When it comes time to interviewing your SMEs, you should not think like a marketer. You need to think like a journalist.

As one for over a decade, these are the 7 tips, tricks, and guidelines I employ to make my interviews as useful (and efficient) as possible.

Feature image for interview tip blog.

What is an SME?

Think of a “Subject Matter Expert” as your company’s guru. They’re the person or group of people who know the most about the innovation, production, or working features of the products and services you sell. Most often, they’re the people in your org chart with the alphabet soup after their name (Ph.D, M.D., etc.).  They have spent years in their specialty, and they contain the most valuable knowledge you need to craft a compelling marketing campaign.

Your task is to mine their experience and translate it into a format that connects with new leads. 

7 SME Interview Tips

Go Where They Are

I value in-person interviews at least twice as much as remote. That’s because an interview really has two components: Content (what the interviewer says) and setting (their surroundings). A phone call with get you the former, but the latter is nearly as important.

First, because face-to-face interactions build better chemistry. You’ll get better quotes and make your subject more open and comfortable across a desk instead of on a screen. Second, the space in which they work provides a lot more color than their words alone. When you meet an interviewee on the factory floor or in the lab, they can point to the instruments they use or the blueprints on their desk. You’re in their environment, which gives you the opportunity to ask much more detailed and specific questions about their job that you would otherwise miss.

In-person meetings, of course, are not always possible. If that is the case, always request a video interview and try to have them take it from their office or where they work. Take time to ask them about their surroundings. You may not use this color in the final campaign, but it still provides valuable context and can ignite stronger, fresher ideas.

Outline. Don’t Script

An interview is a conversation, not a movie script. You might be tempted to write out your list of questions ahead of time, then regurgitate them verbatim–in order–as the interview goes along. Don’t.

A rigid interview structure hampers you in two ways. 1) Often, you’re so focused on getting to the next question that you miss the opportunity to follow up or expand on an interesting, unanticipated conversational thread. 2) You’re not the expert, and the way you structure questions introduces your own bias. You might completely skip or misinterpret a topic simply by focusing on the things you think are important.

Instead, allow room for the conversation to meander. I do this by bulleting rough topics or phrases that I’d like to hit ahead of time. I’ll scratch those topics out during the conversation as we hit them, but I don’t choreograph the interview beforehand. Instead, I let the expert guide our conversation while I gently nudge if we need to cover something else.

Do the Research

Unfortunately, there are such things as stupid questions. And most often, they occur when you simply haven’t done the work to prep ahead of time. Your experts likely have a healthy and publicly available body of work. Take time to read and understand the most relevant parts before you start the conversation. This saves time, allowing you to skip the basics. But, it can also accomplish something more important; preparation boosts your subject’s ego.

Showing you care has more power than you think. Referencing their past work or asking a question about a study they authored or a previous product they built will earn you a genuine connection. When you show that you’ve invested time in them, they’ll reciprocate, giving you better, more useful answers.

Record and Scribble–Don’t Transcribe

Unless you’ve spent a few years studying shorthand, you can’t write as fast as a person speaks. Don’t bother trying. It will increase your stress and pull your attention away from the conversation. Instead, bring a recorder (your smartphone will do a fine job) and only scribble timestamps of good quotes or useful nuggets in your notebook.

AI transcription services like Otter can then spit out the full, searchable text of your conversation in minutes. Just make sure you test your recorder ahead of time and gain your subject’s consent before starting.

Use the S.O.S. Question Format

To ask a great question, be short, be open, then be silent. Why?

  • Short questions get long responses. The longer you speak, the more likely your subject will tune out or simply regurgitate your question as an answer. You’re there to listen, not speak yourself, so don’t underestimate the power of a three or four-word question. It gives room for your subject to return an answer brimming with their own ideas instead of structured to fit your lengthy preamble.
  • Open questions get open answers. “Why” and “how” are the two most powerful words in your arsenal. Don’t let your subject get by with a simple yes or no. Curt, snipped responses are usually a symptom of your question format, not their personality.
  • Silence needs to be filled. Don’t be afraid to let a question marinate. Ten or 15 seconds of breathing room allows the subject to think about an answer. Because of the potential awkwardness, it also encourages them to speak for longer and deeper than they might intend. The technique might seem uncomfortable at first, but it always yields better answers than trying to fill the space with your own blabber.

“Explain it Like I’m 5.”

Yes, the question is silly. Yes, it’s cliche. It also works. You’re dealing with highly knowledgable and specialized experts who are used to talking with similar highly knowledgable and specialized experts. Sometimes, you need to break them out of their own jargon and bias. This question is the cheat code. It will help you more thoroughly understand complex topics, but it also provides more useful and practical language that you will need as you create SEO-driven content.

End with “ Is there Anything Else You’d Like to Add?”

This should always be your last question. It is a good interviewer’s secret sauce. For more than 10 years, this simple question has yielded the most interesting and useful quotes of my career. It forces your subject to reflect and usually leads them to summarize the entire interview in a single, excellent quote. Ninety percent of the time, the conversation will go something like this:

You: “Thank you so much for all this information. Before I go, is there anything else you want to add?”

Interview Subject: “No, not really. I think we’ve gone over everything. Except…. [[insert money quote]].”

Try this technique just a few times, and trust me, you’ll be amazed at how well it works.

Conclusion (Or, Is there Anything Else I’d Like to Add?)

No, not really. I think we’ve covered everything you should know to become an expert SME interviewer. Except…

Great interviews lead to great content. These seven tips serve as a (journalist-inspired) field guide to get the most useful, most compelling, and most valuable stories and ideas possible from your SMEs. Start using them, and your content marketing will dramatically level up.

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Kit Fox

Kit Fox is Altitude’s lead internal brand storyteller and content creator. Before joining Altitude in 2024, Kit spent a decade in the publishing industry, where he served as an editor for, Runner’s World. Men's health, and Men’s Journal, special projects director for Hearst Magazines, and director of membership for Lehigh Valley Public Media. He is the co-author of “Mighty Moe: The True Story of a Thirteen-Year-Old Running Revolutionary.”