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How to Have Conversations Instead of Interviews: Beam’s Approach to Expert-Driven Content

Brooklin Nash
February 21, 2024

Ever grown out your hair or beard?

Then you’ve experienced that weird in-between phase. It’s uncomfortable, unkempt, and far from ideal. You have an idea of where things are going, but this…this is not it.

That’s exactly where B2B content marketing is right now.

Simply put, an SEO-only approach to content is running out of gas. It’s just not the Holy Grail it used to be. We all turn to Google to find answers to our questions, but when we have a real challenge—something we need to take seriously—we skip over the majority of blogs and instead turn elsewhere.

If you don’t have someone with the right answers in your immediate circle (AKA word-of-mouth), you’ll turn to podcasts, YouTube, and *cough*Reddit.

Our friends at OGM hit the nail on the head with their research and revealed something we’re all feeling: Nobody trusts your B2B SaaS blog.

You read that correctly; folks seem to have more faith in ChatGPT than they do in B2B content marketing. Oof.

So what’s the answer? What does the other side of this weird haircut look like, and how long will it take to get there?

At Beam, we’re placing our bet on expert-driven content informed by the good people you know and love—subject-matter experts (SMEs).

Below, we’ll show you the way we identify, interview, and collaborate with the best sources of truth (and trust) on the market. But first, a couple of definitions and a brief rant on SEO.

Download our SME Interview Guide!

What’s “expert-driven content” and who are “subject-matter experts”?

The cool thing about these phrases is that the definitions are virtually baked in, but here’s some added context to make it official.

  • Expert-driven content: Marketing collateral, across mediums, that’s created alongside authoritative voices and original data the end consumer will find interesting, relatable, and valuable.
  • Subject-matter experts: Bonafide professionals who have reached a level of mastery in a specific domain, skill, or industry. They’re the ones doing the things content marketers write about.

At best, every piece of B2B content you find (and actually consume) is hyper-relevant to your question, problem, or interest. It provides insights that are derived from an informed source (SMEs). It’s selfless—it gives more than it asks of you.

At its worst, B2B content favors quantity over quality, keywords over value, and superficiality over depth. It’s greedy—it wants your attention and traffic but gives you a watered-down version of Google’s first page. It’s there to get your lead info or drive you to a sales page.

These qualities don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Can an SEO-driven article provide value? Of course. But can the average reader detect SEO for SEO’s sake? I think so.

It usually only takes a few sentences to figure out if you’re reading keyword clutter or captivating, helpful stuff. The difference between these two ends of the spectrum is real people with real insights talking to the right audience.

So you’re saying SEO is dead?

Please place the pitchfork on the ground and remain calm.

We’re not saying SEO is going away. We still use SEO tactics within our content strategy. It’s just not the primordial arbiter of content success it used to be.

SEO can help you:

  • understand what your audience is searching for,
  • identify competitor content gaps,
  • generate content themes and ideas, and
  • suss out web optimization and indexing issues.

But SEO can’t (and won’t) be your golden content ticket. Traffic and leads, while certainly useful, don’t automatically equal trust, brand authority, and conversion. Paid acquisition can’t be your only foot in the door with prospects.

Plus, traditional SEO frameworks might have an expiration date as AI continues to steal the limelight.

If you focus on delivering value with worthwhile content, Google’s algorithm will organically reward you for your efforts. Or at least that’s what it was originally designed to do. Back in the day, before SEO was a niche industry, this was called White Hat SEO. It still works!

For example, Beam worked with Metadata to produce an industry benchmark report featuring original research and insights from SME interviews. The results—without a lick of SEO optimization—speak for themselves.

More than a year later, Metadata consistently ranks for hundreds of industry-native keywords, and the report still accounts for close to 4% of all web traffic. Mark Huber, former Head of Brand & Product Marketing at Metadata, says it best:

“We always joke that it created enough content for us that if we were to shut off everything else, we would be able to repurpose that report for, I think, somewhere in the 7–9 month range.”

The truth is you likely have everything, and everyone, you need to create unique and differentiated content. John Bonini, Founder of Some Good Content, put it perfectly:

Beam’s Soup-to-Nuts SME Process

After hearing about Metadata’s success with expert-driven content, maybe you’re bought in and ready to ride. Now what? What’s the next step?

Navigating schedules, calendars, and goals internally is a chore, so the thought of introducing external components…woof! And what about the interview itself? What questions should you ask and why?

The Beam Team has done the heavy lifting for you. Here’s our step-by-step guide to creating SME-inspired content.

Download our SME Interview Guide!

Identify: How to find them

Before you start haphazardly clicking on LinkedIn profiles, you need to understand the type of content you want to create.

At Beam, we almost always decide on the “what” before the “who.” This boosts our odds of pairing the right SME with the right content outcome our clients are seeking. For a more comprehensive endeavor, like playbooks or survey reports, we’ll source multiple SMEs for one piece of content.

We operate on three levels of depth to find the perfect SME for each piece of content.

  • Conceptual visionaries: These folks can speak to high-level concepts or ideas. Think of executive-level leaders with a particularly unique view of their industry, product, and/or market.
  • Conceptual headline example: The Evolution of Content Marketing ROI from 2015 to Today
  • Strategic architects: These folks take those pie-in-the-sky concepts and start to give them frameworks or guidelines. They’re often managers or department heads. Think Head of Customer Success or VP of Sales.
  • Strategic headline example: A New Approach to Unlocking Your Content’s ROI
  • Tactical builders: Sometimes considered individual contributors, these folks are responsible for following through on the concepts and strategies. They move the needle on a daily basis. Think Technical Engineer or…Content Marketing Manager ;)
  • Tactical headline example: 4 In-the-Weeds Ways to Measure Your Content’s ROI

There are no hard-and-fast rules, but in our experience, an SME taxonomy like this one makes sure you’re not wasting anyone’s time, especially during the interview. In other words, do we really need to speak with a CEO for a product demo? I’ll dig more into asking the right questions later in the article.

The hunt begins

If there’s one thing you take away from this article, let it be this: SMEs don’t grow on trees, but they do tend to hide in plain sight.

There are a lot of stellar professionals who are not social media influencers. Read that again. Some of the most engaging and passionate people we’ve interviewed don’t give a hoot about their LinkedIn follower count. Does it help? Sure. Is it necessary? Nope.

The nature of a typical SME is someone who doesn’t consider themselves an expert. That’s because they’re usually the ones with their heads down doing the work. Once you switch your mindset on this, you’ll start seeing SMEs everywhere you look.

In order of prioritization, here are the three places we look for SMEs:

  1. The client's internal roster: Every company, small or large, includes experienced professionals who know what they’re doing. Sabina Hahn, Beam’s Head of Client Strategy + Success, works with our points-of-contact (POCs) to find, correspond, and book SMEs. We try to do as much of the project management heavy lifting as possible to keep our POCs out of the scheduling crossfire. If you work internally at an organization, we suggest you start here.
  2. The Beam Team’s personal and professional network: Sometimes our clients are looking for outside opinions and perspectives. In that case, we lean on our relationships with vetted experts. Many of these folks we’ve met as clients, former colleagues, or industry partners.
  3. External outreach: This is probably where most folks start. It’s not always the most predictable or efficient, but it certainly works. LinkedIn is a no-brainer here, but you can also get scrappy by cruising through forums, Discord, B2B communities, Slack groups, or G2 reviews. But you don’t have to start from scratch with an in-person SME. You can build a research repository that houses credible sources of knowledge from newsletters, blogs, and podcasts.

If external outreach is your only option, craft a compelling pitch. Be explicit about your goals, timing, and expectations of the SME, plus include what’s in it for them. Our sweet spot for conversations is around an hour, but 30-40 minutes is doable.

Here’s an example of some external outreach that’s worked for us at Beam:

One important note here: Be sure to have an answer to, “What’s in it for me?” You’re asking for someone’s time, experience, and trade secrets. (More on this below).

Backlinks, personal references, and company plugs within the content you create are all free marketing. If you record the interview, you can let the SME use it for their content and social endeavors. Additionally, SMEs can use your content on their resume to prove that they’re, well, SMEs.

Once a SME says “yes,” we send over a Calendly link to make scheduling as easy as possible.

Plan: How to prepare for interviews

Once you have a confirmed SME, it’s time to think about how the conversation should go. To do this, we write what’s known as a Work-in-Progress (WIP) brief.

This is an incomplete version of our creative brief. The full version is what will ultimately be sent to our amazingly talented writing team. (Download our template here).

We send the WIP brief to our SMEs three business days before the interview. In addition to the interview questions, the WIP brief includes pertinent background information that helps the SME feel confident and prepared.

At minimum, here’s everything we want to have locked in before the interview:

  • Perspective and Byline: Will our SME be the voice of the content or a behind-the-scenes confidant?
  • Audience and Pain Points: During the interview, I’ll pretend to be the audience. What would they ask the SME? What do they want to know? What are they getting wrong?
  • Narrative Frame: What’s the plot of the story, and how does the SME fit into it?
  • Overarching Client Goal: What’s the end goal of this content, and how will theSME’s involvement help achieve it?
  • Product-based or Agnostic: Are we focusing this conversation on a specific product or service?
  • External Research: Take time to find articles and posts created by your SME or their company. This will give you some much-needed context before the convo.
Use our SME taxonomy to frame your questions

I start drafting questions based on the SME's role and the intended depth of the content (conceptual, strategic, or tactical).

Things get murky and bogged down if you don’t ask the right questions to the right person. Big heady questions for a tactical builder might not land as well for a conceptual visionary.

Think about that person’s day-to-day goals. Think about their experiences and challenges. Who do they report to? Who do they manage? If you get these questions right, your interviews will feel more like conversations. (With less awkward pauses too!)

For a conceptual article with the Founder of a company, I’ll likely go big and wide with open-ended questions that reveal the SME’s unique mindset and perspective.

  • What’s something you know now that you wish you’d known before launching X?
  • What was the ‘aha’ moment that sparked a desire to found your company?

For a strategic playbook with a VP of Customer Success, I’ll ask about specific industry challenges or goals that don’t have clear answers.

  • If you were building an expansion strategy from scratch, what would you do and why?
  • What metrics or key data points should be monitored to ensure expansion is working?

For a tactical how-to guide with a Demand Gen Marketer, I need to find out exactly what they’re doing and how. These questions are almost always down in the trenches.

  • How can marketers optimize their budgets with Product X?
  • How does Platform X help increase certainty and precision when generating ROI?
Organize your questions using The Hero’s Journey

This one’s for all you English majors and cinema snobs. If you’re new to this, I’ll give you the abbreviated version I use.

Every piece of content (usually) has:

  1. a problem that needs to be solved,
  2. a way to solve the problem (and why that way is the best way), and
  3. the outcome of solving the problem.

When I purposefully set out to organize an interview with this framework, people seem to just get it. Things flow naturally and questions fall into place with ease. It feels more like a conversation than an interview.

In an ideal world, this framework ends up being a rough skeleton of your outline. The questions can take on the shape and form of your H2/H3 sections. Of course, this doesn’t always shake out, but it certainly gets you closer to an outline that tells a good story —which leads to a draft that tells a great story.

I recently interviewed Community Strategist Bri Leever for an article about building communities. Here’s how I organized my overarching questions according to the above framework.


  • What’s a common misconception about community building?
  • What is the hardest challenge you repeatedly encounter when it comes to building community?


  • Knowing what you know now, if you could give your younger, less-experienced self advice, what would you say?
  • What are the top three steps you take when working with a new client who wants to build a community?


  • What are the common threads or elements of successful communities?
  • How do you think communities will change (for better or worse) in the future?

Interview: How to talk to SMEs

You can cover a lot of ground in 30 minutes. If you’ve done the right prep work, an engaging interview…

  • sets the foundation for unique, expert-driven content;
  • provides writers with clear, understandable inputs;
  • strengthens the reputation of Beam and our clients; and
  • creates an enjoyable conversation that leaves the door open for another one.

After you plan the content strategy, find a SME, and write the WIP brief, you don’t want to drop the ball during the interview.

So how do you make sure the interview itself is a resounding success?

After 2,000+ conversations, podcaster and entrepreneur Andrew Warner wrote a neat little book about interviews. In true content marketing fashion, I’ve apprehended my favorite nuggets from Mr. Warner and added a few of my own.

Set the stage with expectations and goals

Even though I already sent the WIP brief to the SME, I like to kick off each conversation with a quick preamble. SMEs are busy people—sometimes they don’t have time to prepare, and it’s not unusual for the person to have no clue why they accepted this meeting in the first place.

That’s why I always introduce myself, Beam Content, and the client we’re partnering with. I also thank them for their time; the most priceless commodity around. Then I’ll offer a plot synopsis or elevator pitch of the topic we’ll discuss. This is usually a summarization of the Narrative Frame section of the brief.

Start high and wide with a broad question to get a feel

The first question sets the stage for the entire conversation. If it’s super zoomed-in and particular, it will be awkward and a bit jarring to level-set and zoom back out.

So, I start with a broad question and go from there. This prevents any cognitive whiplash from zooming-in and then back out, and it saves our writers from a headache later when they watch the recording or read the transcripts. Plus, when you start big and wide, you give the SME a little room to reveal ideas and topics you may not have considered.

Start with something simple: “What comes to mind when you hear the word____?”

Ask the same question in a different way, and stay flexible

My goal for all SME conversations is two-fold. I want to:

  1. Confirm my original hypothesis for the story, or
  2. Discover a new story that’s even better than the original.

I’ll often ask the same question in a different way as a safety measure to make sure I’m tracking. In other words, I’m trying to elicit the answers I was hoping to hear before the conversation.

Let’s say we’re creating an article tentatively entitled “X Lessons CSMs Can Learn from Sales Teams.” One of my big questions will be: “What can customer success managers learn from account executives?”

If the answer is “nothing,” or “very little actually,” I’ll need another approach.“Do you think a great account executive would make a great customer success manager?” If the answer is “no,” then it looks like we have a new story to tell! If the answer is “yes,” then I know I’m still unfolding the original concept.

Pose hypothetical contrarian viewpoints to get hot takes

Almost every industry is fraught with controversial ideas and opinions. These lines of demarcation are worth exploring because they represent opposing ways to achieve success.

This is a fantastic place to focus your content because it has the potential to deliver the most value. Highly volatile industries like fintech and martech move fast, and often it’s ideas that come hurdling at us more than the technology.

“Let’s say I’m a LinkedIn influencer who thinks…”“What would you say in response to most sales managers who believe that…”“What if a client was curious about retention and asked you…”

Given the right question, your SME will hop on their soapbox, but don’t ask in a way that aligns you with a particular lane of belief. Stay neutral with hypotheticals, and you’re bound to find original points of interest.

Ask for examples in threes

We’ve all been asked, “What’s your favorite movie?” Maybe you have an exact answer on deck, but most people will get lost in thought. Some folks might not even be able to answer at all.

A better question is, “What are your top three favorite movies?” This introduces a little wiggle room and an opportunity to be more precise. Use the “top 3 approach” especially when the conversation is getting tactical.

For example, instead of, “How do you prove ROI?,” ask, “What are the three best ways you recommend proving ROI?”

Follow up with some love

After the conversation is in the books, send a brief email thanking them for their time and expressing how much you appreciate their insights and expertise. If possible, give them a timeline of when they can expect to see the final product and where they can find it.

Love these tips? We created an SME Interview Guide so you can save 'em for later:

Handoff: How we prepare the conversation for writers

During the conversation, I’m taking notes using a bulleted list. This helps me capture the big ideas and specific details I’ll use to create the final outline. These notes will also be helpful for the writer.

Pro tip: Use these hotkeys during your conversation to avoid clicking around.

  • Shift + Command + 8 starts a new bulleted list
  • Command + [ or ] increases or decreases the bullet indent

The conversation is recorded on Zoom (with the SME’s permission), and also captured through Otter.ai. This is a very handy transcription tool that lets you highlight quotes, find keywords, and scroll a summarized outline of your convo.

Sometimes the story doesn’t line up with my original hypothesis, and that’s totally fine. The result is something more authentic than I originally suspected. While the conversation is still fresh in my mind, I’ll finish the brief and create the outline.

With outlines, I always try to strike a balance between offering our writers a strong foundation while still leaving room for creative interpretation. Once the outline looks good, I scroll through the transcript one last time to make sure I didn’t miss anything. Then, it’s off to ClickUp for delivery.

A content strategy that’s worth your time

Content marketers are scrappy, curious, and adaptable. But that certainly doesn’t mean we know everything about every industry and discipline. In fact, it’s pretty easy to tell when we’re writing about things we don’t know enough about.

I’m convinced quality content, backed by real opinions and experiences, is the future. When AI crawls the internet for the right content in 2030, will it choose a mediocre SEO Frankenstein or something…different?

In a recent chat with Mark Rogers, Director of Content Marketing at Freshpaint, I asked: “If you had to communicate the value of content to a CEO, what would you say?”

His answer was spot on.

“Content’ is a big term. You have to remember that it touches everything—landing pages, creative ads, social, webinar copy. Whether you know it or not, you’re already doing content marketing.”

Obviously, we can’t be certain, but we’ve built Beam on our belief that people crave expert-driven content that’s created in partnership with subject-matter experts.

We’ll be the first ones to admit it—introducing more people into your content strategy takes more work. But the outcome is something that will stand head-and-shoulders above the competition.

Why? Because buyers don’t trust content marketers and their B2B blogs that much, if at all. And trust is invaluable, especially for GTM teams who experience a wild amount of change and transition.

Instead of relying on someone in the middle, buyers want to go right to the source—people with informed perspectives, tangible advice, and notable experiences.

They want to talk to an expert.

Give them expert-driven content. Steal our SME Interview Guide to DIY, or let us help.