When it comes to creating effective online courses, subject matter experts (SMEs) are key to your success. They’re the people you turn to when you need key details to make your scenarios more relevant, an expert set of eyes for your storyboards and quizzes, or just a breakdown of how a specific process works. In short, they play one of the most crucial roles in any e-learning project. But when they’re reluctant to work with you or not fully engaged, they can also be your biggest challenge.

Since they’re a critical part of your e-learning projects, now’s a good time to learn how to turn even the most difficult SME into an invested partner.

Develop a Relationship with Your SMEs

When you’re on a tight deadline, it’s easy to become laser-focused on trying to get the information you need as quickly as possible. But don’t forget to establish a relationship with your SMEs before you start grilling them for answers.

People are more likely to show enthusiasm for something when they feel like they’re truly part of the process. Do your best to get your SMEs on board with what you’re trying to accomplish by making sure they understand how critical their role is to the project’s success.

You don’t need to become best friends; a simple introductory meeting will do. Give them an idea of who you are, what you’re building, how excited you are to work with them, and how they could impact the resulting project. They’ll be more open to working with you if you establish a positive connection with them first.

Be Respectful of Your SMEs’ Time

If your SMEs aren’t giving you the information you need and you’re on a tight deadline, it’s easy to get frustrated. But before you hunt down your SMEs, demanding answers, take a minute to consider that they aren’t purposely ignoring you or withholding information. They’re just busy people with deadlines of their own.

To avoid missed deadlines, make sure your SMEs have the support they need from their managers. The best way to do this is to involve your SMEs and their managers in your project plans as early as possible. Clearly outline what you need from them and ask them when they can deliver it. If they’re overloaded with work, perhaps their managers can work with you to free up some of their time.

During the review process, show respect for your SMEs’ time by making it easy for them to share their feedback. First, try to be as specific as possible about what you need. For instance, if you only want them to provide feedback on how a specific interaction works, tell them that up front. Then, give them access to an app like Review 360 that streamlines the review process and helps your SMEs provide their feedback in an intuitive way. 

When you give your SMEs a clear understanding of what you need and empower them with tools that meet their needs and respect their time, you’ll find that most SMEs are more than willing to help out.

Speak in a Language Your SMEs Understand

Picture this: you’re an SME who’s been asked to help develop an online course covering human resources procedures. During your first meeting with your e-learning developers, they start grilling you about “real learning” and throwing around terms and acronyms you've never heard before. If you have little or no experience with instructional design, you might start to feel confused or—even worse—overwhelmed. And you probably won’t be in a big hurry to get back in a meeting with them.

To avoid alienating your SMEs, skip the “e-learning lingo.” This way, they’ll walk away from your meetings feeling pumped up about the course, not deflated or unsure about how they can contribute.

Show Appreciation for Your SMEs

Has a coworker or client ever expressed gratitude after completing a project you worked on together by sending you a personal email or sharing the sentiment in a group setting? If you’ve experienced this, then you know how a simple recognition and a small thanks go a long way toward making you feel valued.

A great way to get your SMEs’ attention and support is to send a glowing email to their managers and copy them on it.  It doesn’t take much to show a little appreciation for your SMEs, but it’ll go a long way when it comes to their willingness to participate in the project. You’ll be glad you did the next time you’re requesting extra time or information from them.


At the end of the day, it’s all about relationships. When you put a little effort into developing a good rapport with your subject matter experts, you’ll likely find it easier to get the content and feedback you need from them. And once you’ve won over a reluctant SME, give them more support by preparing them with the tips they’ll need to be successful in their role. In the end, you’ll both reap the rewards of a successful e-learning course.

Have your own experience winning over a reluctant SME? Share your tips in the comments!

If you’re looking for more best practices, take a look at the Everything You Need to Know About Working with SMEs series, or just check out a few of our favorites below! 

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