Creating content that shares the deep knowledge your employees have is a powerful way to position your people, and your brand, as an authority. It not only shows what you know, but that you are willing to share it (for free) to genuinely help people.
By empowering people solve challenges, work smarter, and feel more in control, you build an important union of trust.
But even with the most committed leadership and brilliant subject matter experts on hand, many marketing teams struggle with executing this kind of content well.
The main reasons I see are:
- Lack of time. Everyone has their own pressures and priorities and this kind of content often takes a lot of effort to get right.
- Lack of buy-in. Both from your leadership and internal contributors.
- Lack of skills or confidence writing a content marketing piece.
And if you’re the lucky marketing manager heading up this content, it can be really daunting working with subject matter experts. You might be intimidated by their vast knowledge, be unsure how to get them excited about writing, or simply struggle to find the time and headspace yourself needed to plan and create this kind of content.
This guide will step you through how to integrate subject matter experts into your content marketing strategy.
From identifying who to use and how to get them on-board, to getting the information from their heads onto paper (and maybe even convincing them to write an article or two themselves!)
Stick with me till the end and you’ll have an actionable plan to start creating unique, POV-driven thought leadership to amplify your marketing efforts. All using the resources sitting within your organisation.
In this guide:
Subject matter expert definition
A subject matter expert, also referred to as SME or content matter expert, is a person with extensive knowledge of a business area, process, skill or technology. They have often been in their role for a long time, and have built up expert knowledge in one area.
Who is the “go-to” person that your colleagues look to for information and advice in a particular area? If you can picture that person, you’ve found an example of an SME.
An SME might be a:
- software engineer
- product manager
- director of risk
- head of sales
- helpdesk support person
- account manager
- research and development director
In short, a subject matter expert can be anybody with in-depth knowledge of the subject you want to create content about. They will also understand all the specific terms and jargon in their area of expertise and can explain that area clearly to others.
Why subject matter experts are a Content Marketer’s best asset
Know, like, trust.
Salespeople have used this model for decades. People get to know you, like you and then trust you. Only then will they buy from you, especially if it is a substantial investment. The good news is there’s a way to hit all three of these areas at once – and it’s probably something you’re already doing. Content marketing.
Writing expert, authoritative content is the fastest way to build this know, like, trust dynamic.
- Know: Writing content from your subject matter experts’ point of view lets your audience get to know you. They not only get to know your brand, product and the value you bring. But if your content is authored by your SME, they also get to know them on a personal level.
- Like: Writing content from a person rather than a brand also gives you an opportunity to add a personal touch. It’s much easier to be an authentic, humorous, likable human when your content is written from a person rather than a brand – all valuable things to get your audience to like you.
- Trust: By far the most important and toughest to achieve of the power trio. But you have an edge. You have experts on hand who have years of experience. This authority, when coupled with a willingness to provide insights, share advice and help people, is a powerful way to build trust with your audience.
Using subject matter experts to give input into your content, whether it be an article, eBook or whitepaper, can give it the edge to stand out in a very crowded content marketplace. SME-driven content provides a definite point of view and a unique voice, instantly differentiating you from your competitors.
Subject matter experts influence buying decisions:
- 78% percent of B2B buyers strongly agree they are placing a higher emphasis on trustworthiness in the content’s source (Demand Gen Report)
- 85% of consumers regularly or occasionally seek out trusted expert content when considering a purchase (Relevance.com/Nielsen Research)
- B2B buyers are likely to pay more to work with companies who have clearly articulated their vision through thought leadership (Edelman)
- 60% of people go to check out a product or service after reading that company’s content (Demandmetric)
- 96% of the most successful content marketers agree their audience views their organisation as a credible and trusted resource. (Content Marketing Institute)
It’s clear from these stats that B2B buyers are demanding more credible, trustworthy information. Tapping into your SME’s insights is essential for creating the trust-building content your customers are looking for.
This approach to content marketing works well for B2B content, especially in highly technical or specialised areas. But first, you need to identify who it is in your organisation that can act as your expert.
Where to find subject matter experts in your organisation
In small teams or organisations, the choice of an expert is obvious (or even limited to a single person). However, in larger, geographically diverse organisations, it can get a little trickier.
It’s important to note that while all SMEs are valuable, some are going to be better suited to helping you achieve your content marketing goals. You want to find SMEs that can speak to topics aligned to your content marketing plan. Ideally someone who is well-informed on a topic important to the customer journey.
Here are a few places to look.
1. Your leadership
Your leadership is an obvious place to source subject matter experts. They’ve progressed in their career to become the decision maker or the authority in a particular area. However, not all leaders are experts. Some are just great at leading, and intentionally surround themselves with people who are experts and can advise them. So choose wisely.
If you do decide to use your leaders, time is going to be the biggest barrier for these SMEs. Make sure their involvement is kept as minimal as possible – you may have to do most of the heavy lifting here.
2. Internal expert groups
If your organisation has a centre of excellence (CoE), it’s is a rich source of SMEs. Centres of excellence go by different names depending on your organisation such as:
- Community of Practice
- Competency Centre
- Capability Centre
Alternatively, if you have LinkedIn-style employee profiles, these are a great way to search for the expertise you need.
3. Other places to look
If you don’t have formal groups like these set up, you’ll need to dig a bit deeper. Think along the lines of:
- Those who contribute to internal conversation threads via Slack or your intranet
- People who present at internal information sessions (e.g. lunch and learn)
- People who speak at external events and conferences or professional associations
- Podcast and webinar guests
- People who regularly share their expertise on social media
- Contributors to internal social networks, discussion forums, blogs or wikis
- People who run induction or onboarding for technical areas of the business
Often it will be a case of speaking to managers about their top performing team members.
Who do people go to for expertise within their group or function?
Who knows more about X topic than anyone else in the company?
Your salespeople are another great source of intel when it comes to finding SMEs, as they are often connected to a lot of people across functions, as well as being closely connected to customers’ challenges. Ask them who they go to for information when they need it.
In some organisations, it’s not immediately obvious who the subject matter experts are. For example, I worked for a conference company. The SMEs in that case were our speakers, not the conference producers or CEO. But if you dig a little deeper, you’re sure to find an SME who will help you create a high-quality piece of content.
Two types of SMEs to be wary of
Sometimes a subject matter expert can have the knowledge, but getting it out of them is a real challenge. Time pressures aside, there are two types of SMEs who are probably not going to give you what you need.
Here are two types of SMEs to avoid:
- The “knowledge is power” SME: These SMEs guard their knowledge very carefully. They feel a deep sense of ownership over that knowledge and believe sharing it will weaken their status or power. They may part with some of it to appear to be cooperating, but they probably won’t give you the deep insights you need for your marketing content.
- The “I’m not worthy” SME: These SMEs often have a tonne of knowledge but don’t feel it’s anything special. They’ve lived with it for so long that it doesn’t seem valuable to them. So they will share it, but sparingly and timidly. You may be able to work with this kind of SME to enlighten them to the value of the information they have, but it will be much harder than getting it from an SME with the confidence to share.
Creating SME content: two options
Now you’ve found one or more subject matter experts to work with to write your content, here comes the tricky part. Getting it written!
You have two basic options here:
- Self-authored SME content: The marketing team sets the topic and outline, then your SME goes off and writes it.
- Ghost-written SME content: The marketing team gets input from the SME, either written or via interview, and writes the content on their behalf.
Either way, to get an expert piece of content, you’re going to need their input. The time commitment and level of input from the marketing team will depend on which option you take.
Let’s have a look at how to do each of these.
Option 1: Self-authored SME content
Organisations that have a strong marketing leadership will often have already bought into the value of self-authored SME content. This makes your job as a marketer a whole lot easier as it’s probably integrated into their job description.
But that doesn’t mean this content is at the top of your SME’s list.
Writing this piece of content might be your highest priority, but to them it’s just another thing to tick off their (very long and growing) to-do list.
Here are some tips for getting them to contribute:
Give them the focus upfront
SMEs live and breathe your product or service, so their views will naturally have these as the focus. Make sure you frame your piece of content from the very start. Let them know that it will be written to solve a customer problem. And be specific on which problem you’re solving.
Write an outline for them
Treat it like a brief for a creative agency or freelance content writer (like me!). The more detail the better. Give them the topic, a draft headline and the main points you’d like them to cover. Be specific in how long you’d like each section to be to avoid having to go back for more information later.
Give them questions to answer
Write out questions as if you were going to interview them to write this article. Ask them to answer them in as much detail as possible (you can edit it down later). What you don’t want is for it to be too brief because you’ll have to go back to them for more information. See the section on questions for your SME interview to get you started.
This one is going to take more effort on your part, and it’s crossing over into the “ghost-writing” territory, but if you’re really struggling to get your SME to produce the content you need, it can work. Again, see the interview questions below to get you started. Once it’s done, get it transcribed and send it to them to write.
Give them examples of “best practice” content
Sometimes asking an SME to write an article is like asking a chef to make you “food”. What kind of dish do you want? Are we talking breakfast or dessert? Are you vegan??
Find some examples, either within your company or external sources, that give them an idea of what they should be aiming for. Try to find content with a similar format to what you’re going for (i.e. do you want an opinion piece, a how-to guide, or a list?) Stress that it is for format guidance only. If you’re using a competitor’s article, you don’t want them getting derailed by a different brand’s tone of voice.
Assure them they can review the content before publishing. This might seem like something you’d obviously do, but assuring them upfront that nothing will be published without their final approval is a great way to reassure them they won’t be misquoted or mis-represented.
When self-authored SME content goes bad
If you’re one of the lucky few who have subject matter experts that write brilliant content first time, good on you!
The reality is that SMEs are experts in their field. They’re rarely experts at writing. And very rarely experts at writing content that carefully blends insights with marketing messages. So chances are the content you get back will need some finessing.
And if you’re the marketing manager left holding the proverbial baby, it can be tough to know how to turn it around. But don’t worry. There’s no need to start from scratch.
Here are some common problems with self-authored SME content and some fixes:
Content is too product focused or salesy
This is the most common problem with SME authored content. And it’s understandable, right? They are immersed in your product or service and are sometimes even on the front line of sales. The most common problem is they START the article with your product, making it the focus from the get-go. This turns your readers off, because they think it’s another promo piece of content.
Fix it: Don’t panic! You can keep the bulk of your SME’s article. Write a new intro for them that focuses on a specific customer problem, rather than your solution. It’s fine to promote your business. That’s the point of content marketing. But it has to be done in a subtle and strategic way. And definitely not in your intro (more on how to write intros that hook your readers in here).
It’s full of jargon
Some jargon is OK if customers understand the industry-specific terms. But business speak makes them work too hard. Phrases like “synergistic alignment of engagement metrics” has no place in content writing. And for goodness sake, no one wants to hear about your low-hanging fruit!
Fix it: Put yourself in your customers’ shoes and ask yourself if they really would understand it. Does it add meaning to your content, or is it there to make someone sound important? Tools like Hemmingway and Grammarly can help identify unnecessary jargon, as well as clean up your writing. If it’s a technical area and it needs clarification, go back to your SME and ask them to explain it to you in basic terms. I like to ask people to explain things to me as if I was the intern on my first day at work.
It’s too short
This often happens when you’ve asked your SME to write an article but not been specific with how long you’d like it. You get a couple of sentences of brief content that doesn’t give your readers enough “meat” to sink their teeth into. The can often happen because SMEs don’t think they should give away all their secrets (something you might need to demystify for them).
Fix it: Schedule a quick follow up meeting (10 minutes should be enough) to interview them. Ask them to elaborate on each section, record your interview and use that to flesh it out. For next time, make sure you’re clear with how long you’d like each section to be e.g. 200 words or a couple of paragraphs. I often let them know the more the better and I can edit down later.
Boop, pause the article…
Has this article been useful so far? Has it got you plotting and planning your next content piece? If you want some more of this in your life (and in your email inbox), subscribe here.
OK, back to the article…
Option 2: Ghost-written SME content
Unless you have a company-wide buy in for self-authored content, it’s very hard to achieve on a consistent basis. Often companies start out with good intentions and a decent cadence of content, but as workloads and pressures intensify, articles get pushed further and further down your SME’s to-do list.
In this case, it’s time for the marketing team to step in and act as ghost-writers. That is, interviewing them, writing up their thoughts into your piece of content, and listing them as the author of the piece.
When I was a full-time content marketer, I always took this approach, mostly because I am way too impatient and was usually working to a tight deadline – but also because I had more control over the finished product. I could balance out the information with promotion, and I wasn’t spending a long time fixing up someone else’s writing (which sometimes took me longer than writing the thing from scratch!)
Note: Ghost-writing content can take a fair time investment. If this is something that is just not feasible for you, it might be worth partnering with a quality content writer.
But before you can get to the ghost-writing part, you need to get your SME’s commitment to contribute.
Here’s how to get your SMEs on board with ghost-written content:
Tell them why you are writing this. Content marketing as a function often struggles with its image – it’s not always seen as a revenue generator or value driver. You need to sell the value of what you’re doing here in order to get their cooperation.
What’s the purpose of this piece of content? Ultimately it’s to sell your product or service (or create qualified leads for sales people to sell to). You don’t have to go into great detail or present your full content marketing plan, but giving them a good idea of what this content is going to achieve from a business perspective will help get them on board.
List out the benefits of contributing to your marketing content
These might be obvious to you as a marketer, but they may need some spelling out for your SME. And you might take a different approach, depending on what kind of SME you’re dealing with:
- For extroverts: Focus on the profile-building aspect. If they want to be seen as a leader in their field, they have to stand up and be vocal about what they have to offer. Make it clear that they will be listed as the author or quoted in the article. Being the face of an article can quickly elevate professional visibility and shape their reputation as a leader in their field. Being seen can also lead to more recognition, reward and promotion.
- For introverts: If your SME is not a lime-light seeker, make it about helping your customers. Sharing this information is going to help them do their jobs better or use your product more effectively.
The bottom line for both introverted and extroverted SMEs is that this content is going to help your company sell more. After all, that is the ultimate goal of content marketing.
And be open to how they want to provide information. You may prefer to communicate via email but there’s no point sending email after email requesting information from your SME. All this will do is piss them off and make them not want to help you. Some SMEs prefer to talk it out. Others want to consider it and send you back info via email. Ask them outright how they want to provide information and go with that.
Make it clear what their involvement will look like. How much time will it take? Will they be expected to just write down a few bullet points, or do you need a phone interview? When do you need it by? Make it quantifiable.
In my experience, the less you can ask of your subject matter experts, the more likely they are to say yes. “would you be available for a quick 15 minute chat where we’ll discuss these four questions?” is more likely to get you a yes than “can you write a 1500 word article?”
Give them the questions upfront
This will give them a chance to prepare and clarify their message (rather than babbling management or technical speak). If you don’t want to limit yourself to specific questions, make them talking points instead. This will give you more wiggle room to let the conversation and content flow.
Which brings me nicely to the next step, the interview. If you’re stressing about this step, wondering “How to I interview an SME? What questions should I ask? And how do I stop myself from freaking out at their genius?” Read on.
Subject matter expert interview questions
So you’ve identified your SMEs, got time in their diary, now it’s time to interview them. But hold up, “I’m not a journalist!” you think. How am I going to interview this expert who’s built up this knowledge over decades?
It’s OK, no need to panic. I’m going to let you in on a little content writing secret. Most articles follow a formula, such as PAS (Problem, Agitator, Solution) or AIDA (Attention, Interest, Desire, Action), or something completely different. There are many to choose from and you’ll probably find you come up with your own version over time.
Here’s the writing formula I use for SME content:
- Define the problem
- Outline mistakes people make
- Provide ideas to solve the problem
- Call to action
That is a VERY simplistic take on it and obviously there’s a lot more that goes into it.
The benefit of using a formula like this is it gives you a framework. You can use this as your outline and then figure out the questions you need to fill in these sections.
Here are my standard questions I use as the basis for almost every SME interview I do.
1. Why do people struggle with [subject]?
A good piece of content solves a problem. So start there. You might already have an idea of what the problem is, but your SME might have a different take on why this is a challenge for a lot of people.
Why do people struggle with managing geographically disperse teams?
Why is implementing a CRM hard for marketing teams?
What’s holding back people from embracing remote working?
2. What are some common mistakes people make with [subject]?
This helps build on the problem. Finding out where people go wrong is useful for a couple of reasons. 1. It helps build rapport with your readers (yes, I struggle with managing my business expenses!) and also sets up for the next question as to how to NOT do these things.
What are some common mistakes people make when setting up a self-managed super fund?
What are some of the biggest blunders you’ve seen our customers make with implementing our software?
3. What are three practical ideas people can use to overcome this problem?
Make the number specific. If you just ask for “some tips” they may only give you one (or 20 which you don’t want either). Three to five tips is a good number to aim for. Better to go in depth with three than be vague with 10. You may have to ask some follow up questions to probe a bit deeper into their tips here. This is where you want them to go really in-depth. People want practical advice that can easily be applied to their challenges, and you don’t want to disappoint them with vague or “thin” advice.
4. What do people need to be aware of before doing [X]?
This is similar to the question about common mistakes, but delves a little deeper into things they might need to know before implementing their ideas. It will depend on your topic whether you use this question.
Are there any laws people need to be aware of?
What are some common misconceptions about artificial intelligence?
5. Is there anything else you want to tell me about [subject] that we haven’t covered today?
This is my super golden unicorn question which sometimes gives me the best content. The thing is, you can assume all you want, but you aren’t in their head. There could be some really important information you hadn’t even considered asking a question about. This may seem like a simple question, but trust me, I have got some amazing insights out of SMEs that I would never had got if I hadn’t asked this.
Of course, every interview and piece of content is going to require unique questions. But this gives you a jumping off point for writing your own questions.
SME Interview Tips
Here are some tips to equip you with the confidence to interview an SME to get the right information for your content without falling in a quivering mess.
First of all, remember they are the experts, not you. They are always going to know more than you, which is a good thing! All you need to do is ask the right questions and interpret their information. Let them do the taking.
Do enough research
The expert will always know more than you, so it’s about having an informed discussion. You need to research enough so you can ask good questions and avoid asking SMEs to explain simple concepts that you could have learned on your own. You don’t need to become an expert but you do need a decent understanding of the terms they are using. Put yourself in your persona’s shoes and try to come at it from that level of understanding.
Because you already work in the same organisation, chances are you already know some of the jargon and technical terms, but you might need to do some research on the specific topic they’ll be talking about. A quick Google search and reading some news articles are a good starting point.
Also research what your SME has said before – are there any articles, videos, presentations or webinars they have authored or appeared in? This will give you a good basis of their area of expertise, the jargon they use and how they communicate.
Try to avoid interrupting
You’re probably used to having a two-way conversation but try not to interrupt (unless the conversation has gone way off track). You don’t want to cut them off right when they’re getting to the good part. You may have to sift through more content when you’re writing, but in the end the more info the better. This will take the pressure off feeling like you have to lead the conversation.
Ask for clarification
This is the exception to the advice above. The only time I’d interrupt is when things get too technical or jargon-y. It’s OK to ask for clarification if this is the case. Since you’ve done a bit of research, you know the basics, but if you’re totally lost in the information they’re telling you, chances are your readers are going to lose interest.
Don’t be afraid to chase a thread of a conversation
You have your standard questions but if the conversation goes off on an interesting tangent it might be worth pursuing. Also be brave enough to veer in a different direction if your interview isn’t going to plan. Just get as much info as you can and you can figure out the angle or focus later.
Always record the interview (and get it transcribed)
Take a few notes of the main points of sentences that pique your interest, but don’t distract yourself with writing what they’re saying in full. Recording the interview will let you focus on what they’re saying so you can clarify points or ask follow up questions.
Writing your article
Now you have your interview transcribed, it’s time to write it up. I know, I know. It’s harder than it sounds. For me, this is the fun part, but I get that for many this is the hardest.
If you’ve nailed the SME interview, but are struggling to write your article, I can help. I have extensive experience in interpreting complex information and turning it into engaging content. Here are some examples of my work.
The thing is, writing is about using formulas and filling in the blanks. I never start an article at the top, writing the intro and working my way down.
Here is my simple 6 step formula for writing an article based on your subject matter experts’ insights.
- Put your questions into a word document
- Fill in your subject matter expert’s insights. Get your transcription and copy and paste your SME’s answers under your questions.
- Now comes the editing part. I read through their answers and make three or four dot points of their main ideas for each question. Then pull out the sentences that speak to these points. It takes a bit of massaging, but slowly your sections will start to fill out.
- Create subheadings. You should now have a list of questions and a few paragraphs of answers underneath. If you wanted to, you could leave it as is and have it as a Q&A. But it’s more powerful to turn the questions into subheadings. Here are a few ways to find subheadings:
- Pull out an interesting phrase they use and put it in inverted commas e.g. Today’s workplace is “ill equipped” to deal with the digital future
- Summarise the whole section e.g. The future of the digital workplace
- Ask a question e.g. What’s next for the digital workplace?
- Write your introduction. At this point, you should have a good idea of the angle or “hook” based on the insights your SME has provided. I consider the intro the most important part of an article, so it’s crucial to get it right. A captivating intro can mean the difference between someone scrolling on or clicking away from your site completely.
- Write your headline. I usually brainstorm a few headlines when I write my interview questions but again, the focus of your article might not have been apparent then. It should be crystal clear now. Write a list of 10-20 headlines and run them through a tool like this Headline Analyzer.
Of course, there’s way more that goes into writing the article than that – but hopefully it gives you a good starting point. And of course, once you have written your article, make sure you’re making the most of it with a solid content re-purposing strategy.
A final word on SME content marketing
Whether you choose to ghost write your SME content or ask them to create it themselves, using subject matter experts in your content marketing is a smart move.
If you’re looking at SME content as a long-term strategy (and you should), it’s important to build rapport and enable an ongoing, mutually beneficial relationship. What value can you offer your contributing SMEs? Maybe they need their LinkedIn profile looked at, something proofread, or a graphic you could help with. The point is to connect with SMEs before you need to ask for something – the very same principle that you’ve probably built your content marketing strategy on.
Here are a couple of final tips for building lasting relationships with your SMEs:
Tap into their ideas. SMEs often have lots of ideas for content pieces, but sometimes don’t know who to share them with. Invite them to email you with any ideas they have. Similarly, if you have an idea, check in with them first. Perhaps they have a new take on this that you hadn’t considered.
Share results. Once you’ve published your content, make sure you celebrate the success of the piece. Show them how it has increased leads, how many views or shares it has had or any other measures you’re using to track its performance. This is a good way to foster long-term relationships.
If you need help getting your subject matter expert’s insights out of their heads and onto paper, get in touch. I can help with: