Marketers have always hired writers to create content.
And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that — they outsource content to us, too (as a content agency).
But the problem here is, more often than not, writers and agencies aren’t subject matter experts (SMEs) on the topics they get hired to write about.
For example, you’re selling an HR software product, so you commission a writer to write an article on “how to hire your first accounting manager?”
They could do really excellent research and produce a well-written piece within a few days — or even hours sometimes.
But truth is, if your audience is top-level or advanced HR managers, they’ll likely be able to tell the advice you sharing in your article isn’t coming from an SME because there’s usually a gap between a writer’s research and an SME’s real-life industry experience.
And that gap is often obvious. I ran a poll on LinkedIn recently where I asked my connections (who’re mostly marketing execs) whether they could tell if an article, ebook, or whitepaper they’re reading lacks subject matter expertise.
75% of respondents answered they could.
This probably explains the noticeable increase in conversations we’ve been seeing around “subject matter expertise” on social media in the past few months.
It sure looks like everyone is talking about it:
Google is also prioritizing it now more than ever in its search results pages.
So it’s become a pretty big deal over the last few months.
But subject matter expertise is hardly a new concept; it’s just getting more attention these days because people are getting smarter by the day.
There’s been so much content published online — especially over the past two decades — that everyone now knows what good versus bad content looks like.
We’ve all learned to question the information we see online.
So when you’re sharing advice, for instance, they want to know who’s giving the advice; is it coming from an expert (an SME) or just a random person? Is this an influencer or a real product user?
All those fine, little details matter now.
Or as Tommy Walker (former editor at QuickBooks) puts it in a recent tweet, “your reader isn’t dumb… inexperience bleeds through.”
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But who’s a subject matter expert (and who isn’t)?
I’ll start with who isn’t.
An SME isn’t a writer who has experience writing about a particular topic. It’s also not a content marketing manager who has extensive experience leading content teams in your industry.
In many (if not most) cases, a subject matter expert is a professional who engages in any particular topic or subject day in, day out. Or week in, week out, at least.
They’re not just writing or talking about it; instead, they’re often:
- in the trenches every day/week,
- practicing a particular profession,
- in frequent talks with industry people,
- seeing trends rise and fall over the years,
- growing their influence in the industry, and so on.
An SME’s expertise comes from all that experience.
For instance, an accountant is an SME in accounting, just like a marketing operations manager is an SME in marketing operations.
A writer or marketer who specializes in any of these fields is only a niche or — at best — specialist writer, not an SME. They’d often know a lot about the industry, but there’s usually still a gap between what they know versus what SMEs know and have experienced.
To put this into perspective even better, here are some real-life examples of what SMEs look like:
- Alfonso Valdes, DevOps engineer for 13 years
- Avi Shapira, sales team leader for 7 years
You get the point: SMEs are professionals who have spent years in their industry. And during that time, they’ve:
- held technical, operations, and/or leadership roles
- had several conversations with industry stakeholders — customers, colleagues, etc.
- faced industry-specific challenges and learned from their successes and failures
- experienced what works and what doesn’t in their industry
In short, they know the ins and outs of their space.Who's REALLY a subject matter expert? And who isn't? This article provides a pretty detailed answer. Click To Tweet
So if you’re doing content marketing for a business like Salesforce, for instance, and a sales team leader like Avi works in your company, he should probably be one of the subject matter experts you’re asking to contribute to your content.
This doesn’t mean Avi has to write the content — he obviously has his sales team leadership job to do — but he might be able to contribute to it.
In my experience, though, getting an SME in that position to make the time to contribute his experience to any content is a major problem.
So, I’ll share some ways I’ve found to make this easier for our clients here at Premium Content Shop.
How to make partnering with SMEs easier
1. Show how their participation supports an important goal
It’s true that SMEs have their jobs to do, and they almost always have little to no time to participate in your content creation process.
But we all give time to anything that’s important to us.
Once we understand the importance of an action, the likelihood we’ll do it increases dramatically — one study even shows when goals are defined, performance increases by 12-15%!
Convincing an SME to participate in your content almost always starts with showing them why they should. If their contribution to your content helps them achieve a goal they have, chances are they’ll be more inclined to participate.
In fact, I reached out to three product marketing managers and asked:
“If your content marketing manager showed how their content would help you achieve your product marketing goals, do you think that would increase the chances of you granting their request? And by how much?”
Metadata’s head of product innovation, Silvio Perez, said he’d be 100x more likely to allocate time/effort to content as an SME if it would help him achieve his goals:
Skupo’s product marketing manager, Julia Hines, shared a similar answer:
The product marketing manager at ServiceRocket, Samuel Miller, shared that the product and content marketing teams in his company already work closely together.
But if a content piece will help support business goals, he’d be even more likely to participate as an SME:
Bottom line: if your content will help your SMEs achieve their goals, let them know; it’ll almost certainly increase the likelihood they’ll be willing to participate in creating it.
2. Get buy-in from the SME’s manager (if possible/needed)
In my experience, when a request to contribute to a piece of content comes from the director or manager of a department or team, things move a bit faster.
Case in point: let’s say you’re doing marketing for a SaaS company in the HR space. Your target audience is HR managers, and you need your in-house HR people to contribute their experience to your content.
You could go directly to HR team members and ask them to come get interviewed for a piece of content. They might grant the request, or they might tell you they’re too busy.
But if the request comes from their VP, manager, director, or even the CEO, they’re much more likely to agree.
When I ran a poll on LinkedIn, asking my connections how hard or easy it is for them to collaborate with internal SMEs, 70% of them shared that it was either hard or very hard.
Then I also asked them to share some helpful ways they’ve found to make it easier.
Multiple comments, like this one from Datavid’s head of marketing, quickly showed I wasn’t alone with my thoughts — collaborating with SMEs is easier when the directive to do it comes from above:
3. Collaborate on their terms
On the surface, this one looks like a small tip, but another way to make it easier for your SME to come on board is to ask them what method they’d prefer to use to collaborate with you.
Do they want you to send them a list of questions to answer in a quick Loom video?
Do they prefer email exchanges? Are they more interested in face-to-face conversations than anything else?
Working around their preferences will help ease up a lot of the friction involved in the collaboration process.
4. Give them author credit to support their personal branding efforts
We’re in the age of personal branding, and almost no one is left out.
From CEOs to writers, VPs to managers, many (if not most) of us are looking to build a personal brand with thousands of followers. And the goal is usually to advance our career growth.
So when you give SMEs author credit, you give them the chance to share content they have their name on with their network.
They get to share their thoughts on industry-related topics and put their name out there. If aren’t very familiar with marketing or personal branding, you might need to educate them a bit (preferably with real-life success examples).
You could also let them know they can repurpose the content into several social media posts. The more social posts they have out, the more eyes they have on their brand. Metadata’s content marketing manager, Justin Simon, has a pretty good graphic showing what this looks like:
You could even show them this infographic so they see the potential in collaborating with you.
Let them know every time they collaborate with you on any content piece, they’ll get the opportunity to get up to five posts from each piece that they can share on social media. And then put an emphasis on how this helps them build/market their personal brand.
(Author’s note: Get the good stuff below…)
Why go through all that trouble just to collaborate with SMEs?
Here are three critical reasons why SME collaborations are worth all the resources you can put into it:
1. SMEs have unique points of view (POVs)
There are amazing writers who can research a great deal and whip up well-written content for just about any audience you’re targeting.
But the unique POVs and experiences that come from an SME are often what takes a content piece from good to great.
For example, let’s say you’re hiring a writer to cover a topic like “how to modernize your approach to selling and increase sales.”
Like I mentioned before, they could do deep research and discover some shifts they find B2B sellers making and write about those.
But the truth is, if you’re not pairing them up with at least one SME who has real-life experience on the topic, they’ll likely be writing from the perspective of whatever experiences other people have shared online.
And that means you’ll be publishing copycat content that won’t help your brand stand out in the sea of sameness out there.
In most cases, your SMEs are the only people who would naturally have unique POVs to share because of their personal experience with the topic.
Case in point: Drift’s article about “3 shifts b2b sellers need to make to modernize their selling.”
Drift could very well hire a writer to create this article — and maybe they did.
But you’d find the piece is authored by Brooke Freedman, a senior director of sales at the company with 20 years of experience in sales. And her experience shines throughout the article.
She begins the article by sharing how years ago, sales used to mean hopping into a car and driving for hours to knock on doors or sit in lobbies until someone agreed to meet you — a perspective not often shared in similar articles, which often focus on telemarketing.
Then she went on to share how that kind of selling is quickly becoming a thing of the past, with buyers spending only 5% of the buying journey with a sales rep.
Not too long after, she then shared the three significant shifts sales teams need to embrace to modernize their approach to selling — all based on her real-life experience with the topic.
See where I’m going with this?
These are the types of experiences/POVs you get in your content when you collaborate with SMEs. It takes on a whole new level of quality you won’t get with even the best writers.Partnering with subject matter experts to create content helps you stand out in the sea of sameness in your industry. Click To Tweet
2. SME-driven content doesn’t just catch attention, it holds it
Anybody can catch attention online these days.
All you need is a shiny, clickbaity headline and you’ll have all the attention you want.
But holding that attention is another ball game entirely, and that’s what’s most important. Because conversions happen when you’re able to make people wait and listen to you.
You probably already know where I’m going with this:
When you create content based on SME experience, your content stands a better chance of holding the attention of your target audience. Because SMEs often share perspectives and advice that are rooted in their field experience — and those POVs help you hold audience attention.
3. Showing expertise builds brand and attracts inbound leads
Seems pretty basic, but this is the end goal: brand building and demand generation.
One of the best things that come from collaborating with SMEs on your content is the halo effect it has on your brand.
When you consistently use content to show that you’re an expert in your industry, it won’t take too long before your target audience(s) start seeing you and your brand as a thought leader.
And when that happens, brand trust and inbound leads usually follow.
Bonus point: Always ask goal-relevant questions
As you can tell from what I’ve shared in this article, it takes time and effort to get SMEs behind your content creation process.
But let’s say you get their attention. Now what? The last thing you want to do is ask questions that won’t produce the answers you need.
In many cases, what should drive your questions is the goal you’re trying to achieve.
For instance, let’s say you’re doing content marketing for a product that helps HR teams automate the process of sharing job ads on major job boards at once. And let’s say your primary goal is to drive trial signups.
Given that goal, one topic you might want to cover is “How To Hire Your First Employee,” and here are some goal-relevant questions you’d want to ask to get the answers you’re looking for:
- What are some major points you think an article about [Topic] should cover?
- From your experience, how would you advise [Audience] to approach hiring a first employee?
- Are there any real-life examples you can share on how you hired a #1 employee in the past?
The more targeted and goal-relevant your questions your questions, the better the answers you get.
Start tapping into your SME network
When marketing managers/leaders tell me they want to be the go-to source for industry-related content, I immediately understand they want to use their content to show thought leadership and build a brand that stays in the minds of their target audience. A brand potential customers consider before several others when buying.
Think FirstRound, Ahrefs, or Drift — brands that have established themselves as the credible place to go for industry information, largely because of their SME-driven content.
If this is your goal, what it takes to get there is usually SMEs and industry experts who can help contribute their knowledge and expertise to your content, and help create educational resources that deliver value, build trust & drive leads.
And while it may take some extra time and work to get them on board, I hope this piece has shown you they’re well worth the effort and given you some good strategies to make the process as smooth as possible.A GREAT READ: How Content + Subject Matter Expertise = Brand Trust & Leads Click To Tweet