11 Questions To Ask Before Picking a Subject Matter Expert

Christy Walters


December 2, 2022 (Updated: February 12, 2024)

neon question mark at the end of a dark tunnel to represent questions for picking subject matter experts

A subject matter expert (SME) is a person who has in-depth knowledge of an industry or niche topic. These people are crucial content marketing allies because they have the knowledge your audience wants or needs to know. Even the best researchers can’t replicate real-world experiences and skills. But how are you supposed to find the right partner? Today, we’re looking at 11 questions to ask your team before picking a subject matter expert to make sure you develop the right partnership for your business:

11 Questions To Pick the Right Subject Matter Expert

If you think it’s time to add an SME to your team but don’t know where to start, here are some questions to ask to figure out the right person for the job:

1. What Resources Can You Invest in an SME?

neon question mark at the end of a dark tunnel to represent questions for picking subject matter experts

Image via Unsplash by @emilymorter

If time, money, and other limitations were no object, you’d obviously want to recruit the most qualified expert in your field to work on your content projects. Unfortunately, unless you work for a company like Apple or Google, you probably do have restrictions on the type of SMEs you can partner with. Consider the time, money, and effort you can dedicate to finding and hiring an SME. For example, if you have a pressing deadline, you don’t have the time to spend scouring the internet, or even the company, for just the right partner.

You may need to work with someone you can contact right away—with a lot of free time and flexibility—to help you meet the deadline. Alternatively, even if you have lots of time to find your perfect SME match, your budget for the partnership may dictate who you can work with. Knowing your limitations before you start the search makes the process easier. It also eliminates the potential of finding a great SME you can’t have, and feeling like you have to settle instead.

2. How Do the SMEs Fit in the Content Development Process?

The way each team plans to use its SMEs may differ. A marketing team that runs a successful podcast works with experts differently than the team for an all-print publication. Before you choose an SME, you need to consider how and when you plan to use their expertise. What is their role on your content team? Do you plan to do live interviews once a month for your podcast or social media channels? Do you want to do short interviews every week to get their thoughts for blog posts?

There is no right or wrong way to work with your SME. But you need to know what you expect them to do and how much dedication you want from them if they commit to the role so you can be transparent from the first interaction.

3. Do You Want a Passive or Active SME?

When deciding how your SMEs fit into the content development process, you can see if you need someone to take a more active or passive role on your team. Active SMEs have high involvement in the content development process. They show up for interviews, brainstorm content topics, and maybe even help with writing or filming, if they have the skills.

Passive SMEs take a more “behind the scenes” role. Instead of doing an interview for a resource article, they may fact-check a researched article from your content writers. Or they may consult on the best way to proceed with a content project on a specific topic. Again, understanding an SME’s level of involvement with your team helps you narrow in on the right fit for your organization.

4. Should You Rent or Buy Your Subject Matter Expert?

After you know how your SMEs fit into the content development process, and what you want them to do, you can understand how often you’ll need them around. If you plan to interview someone every week for a blog, you’re going to need them to have more availability than the once-a-month podcast guest. SME involvement brings up the question of buying vs. renting your talent. Should you hire an SME full-time for your content team so you can call on them whenever you need? Or is it better to rent niche freelancers for every project?

Only you can decide which option is right. Most companies just starting with SMEs can likely get by with the freelancer approach. When you’re not adding someone to the team long-term, there’s less of a commitment. Especially if the partnership doesn’t turn out the way you expect. Plus, with short-term contracts, you’re free to find the right specialist for every project instead of relying on one full-time team member.

In contrast, if you plan to work on many long-term projects where you need an SME, it may be better to add them to the team full-time. That way, they can’t back out or drop the partnership on their end when you need them most.

5. Where Do You Want To Find Your SMEs?

You can find subject matter experts anywhere, as long as you’re looking. Consider how and where you want to find the right talent. Do you plan to look internally at your own company? Can you research industry experts on social media or other digital channels? Are you attending any conferences or trade shows where you could meet experts in person?

Knowing where you plan to look for your talent helps you narrow the pool further. It also makes it easier to split the research process among team members. For example, if you plan to find your SMEs online, you may ask three members of your team to scour Twitter, LinkedIn, and YouTube, respectively. Then you can cross-reference their top SME picks to see if there’s one person who’s a leader on all three platforms and reach out.

6. How Do You Want To Contact Your Experts?

The way you plan to kick off each partnership may also influence who you choose to work with. Do you want to introduce yourself with a cold call or email? Would you rather introduce yourself in person at an event? Is it better for your brand to set up an internal introduction among team members from various departments? The availability of your potential SME’s contact information may also influence your decision to start a partnership.

For example, if you find someone on Twitter who you think will be a good fit, but they have their direct messages (DMs) turned off and no other contact information listed, you might look for someone else who’s more open to partnerships or collaborations. Most external SMEs who market themselves online will have their direct messages open on social platforms. They’ll also share at least one of their other contact options, such as an email address, phone number, or a link to a contact page on their website or blog.

7. Have Any SMEs Come To You?

If you haven’t been in the market for an SME before, it may have been easy to dismiss direct messages or emails from industry thought leaders or experts. Even if they reached out to collaborate with your brand on content projects. Go back through all your communication channels and see if you have old messages from people who asked to partner with your company for content creation.

Even if you turned them down in the past, there’s still an opportunity to connect again and forge a partnership. Just be sure to vet each candidate thoroughly to make sure they’re the right fit for your brand.

8. Is This Person Really an Expert?

To quote Dr. Greg House from House M.D., “everybody lies.” And people are, for whatever reason, extra prone to lying about their jobs or their credentials. Maybe you’ve dealt with a situation like that before. You post a job vacancy, and a candidate looks great on paper. Maybe they even nail the interview because they know all the right things to say. Then the person starts the job, and it seems they don’t know what they’re doing at all.

Situations like this may make you wary of believing someone when they call themselves an expert. How are you supposed to tell if someone is really an expert, and isn’t just blowing smoke? Looking into the person’s background and getting recommendations from others may help you separate the real smarties from the braggers. When determining the validity of an expert, look at criteria like:

  • The type of degrees a person has and which schools they attended
  • Their previous work history, including places of employment, job titles, and tenure
  • Volunteer experience in the industry
  • Research projects, studies, or experiments they took part in
  • Individual and team career wins, such as high sales quotas or related metrics
  • Previous SME experiences, such as speaking engagements or published content
  • Recommendations from trusted sources, such as managers, other team members, or your target audience

When looking for the right SME, you want to make sure they’re not all talk. Can they back up their stories, thoughts, and opinions with experience and facts? If something doesn’t look or sound right, or you’re skeptical about someone’s credentials, they’re likely not the right SME for your brand.

9. Is Your SME Active in the Field?

Expertise is relative. For someone to become and stay an expert on anything, they have to practice constantly, research, and engage with whatever subject they’re an expert in. That’s why it’s crucial to make sure your potential SME is active in industry communities.

For example, someone with a lot of knowledge and experience in the tech industry may be a computer programming expert. But if they haven’t worked in computer programming since 2006, they’re not the right fit for your brand. They’ve been out of the game too long to provide up-to-date information about the industry for an ongoing audience. A few good ways to tell if someone is currently active in their field of expertise include:

  • Holding an ongoing job within the industry
  • Belonging to and having active memberships with relevant industry groups
  • Attending classes or working toward earning or renewing certifications in the industry
  • Volunteering with an industry organization within the last year
  • Teaching classes, courses, or workshops about industry topics
  • Taking part in other industry programs like lectures, podcasts, or speaking engagements
  • Maintaining an active presence on social media platforms like LinkedIn on Twitter and discussing industry topics

10. Should You Test Your Subject Matter Experts?

If you think you want to put your subject matter experts to the test before inking a full partnership, go for it. It’s not unusual for roles in the creative space—like writers or videographers—to complete test pieces or some sort of skills assessment before landing a role. You can do the same for your SMEs by asking them to collaborate on a test project. Clarify that you may or may not use the content for your brand and be transparent about how the test process works.

For example, you may ask your SME to sit for a short interview to collect blog post content. Let the candidate know if they’ll be speaking off the cuff or if you’ll give them the topic in advance to prepare. If possible, offer to compensate the SME for their time during the test process. Doing so may entice them to stick around through the extended vetting because they feel respected and appreciated.

Not every SME needs to be subject to a skills test. But if you’re on the fence about someone’s credentials or expertise, this may be another way to see what they can really do before you forge a deeper partnership.

11. Will Your Audience Like This SME?

In the end, the entire reason you’re looking for an SME is to find someone who’s going to share the information your audience wants or needs to know. Whether the audience is going to see the SME’s face, their words, or just feel their presence over your content, you need to ask your team, “is the audience going to like this person?” One of the biggest hurdles of content marketing is making your pieces both helpful and relatable.

If your content is factually accurate but hard to understand, people aren’t going to stick around. Just like they may find your brand funny, but if your content doesn’t meet their needs, they’re moving on. The audience won’t buy into your SME on credentials alone. If they’re not engaging, likable, or relatable, your audience will find someone else who fits that bill in content published by your competitors. If your final SME decision comes down to two people with the same qualifications, pick the charmer. They have a better chance of winning over your audience.

Does Your Brand Actually Need a Subject Matter Expert?

By now, you’ve looked through the list of questions and have probably started formulating your ideal SME in your head. Or maybe you don’t have a clear picture of your next SME and you’re wondering if you really need one at all. If you think your brand can make do with just a content team and still deliver the best high-quality information in your industry, think again.

There’s an ego debate at play when it comes to weighing subject expertise against content creation skill: which one matters more? Non-writers or creators think the development process is easy. Anyone can jot down a few sentences or hit record on a phone camera, right? In the other camp, content creators know they have top-notch research skills. Why would they need someone else to come in and tell them things they could look up online? If both parties approach an SME partnership with these attitudes, it’s bound to fail from the start.

At CopyPress, we specialize in content development, so we can tell you the truth: yes, your brand needs SMEs. A content creator and SME partnership is stronger than one side alone. While it’s easier to teach a talented writer about a new subject than it is to teach an expert to write, that doesn’t mean you should discount what SMEs bring to the table.

View your SME partnerships as another form of research. Instead of spending all your time scouring Google for information that might not exist, interview people who actually work in your field every day. It takes the same amount of time but brings results that are far more interesting and helpful for your audience.

Let CopyPress Choose the Right SMEs for Your Project

Even when you know working with SMEs is in your best interest, investing the time and resources to develop these partnerships can be a hassle. Instead of putting in the recruitment work yourself, hire CopyPress instead. All of our clients have access to a knowledgeable and dedicated content team that includes writers, editors, quality assurance specialists, and SMEs in a variety of industries and niches.

No matter your campaign expectations, we source the best talent for each project to get the results you expect, guaranteed. Ready to see for yourself how this collaborative partnership works? Schedule your free strategy consultation with our team today.

Author Image - Christy Walters
Christy Walters

CopyPress writer

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