In highly technical or nuanced industries, having access to subject matter experts (SMEs) can really make a difference in the strength of your content marketing program and your hub’s domain authority. Even hiring technically experienced freelance writers can be no substitute for the POV of experienced team members immersed in your brand, products, and customer challenges. There are also cultural/employer benefits to utilizing internal SMEs — it’s an opportunity to raise the profile of internal rising stars and facilitate greater cross-departmental communication.
But there are practical and operational challenges to garnering SME input and thought leadership. The biggest obstacle I run into on client programs is SME time constraints, followed quickly by silos (where the content marketing team isn’t in regular communication with business partners) and prioritization (where content marketing is not seen as a value driver).
So how can you break down the roadblocks and create enough buy-in with SMEs to make participation a priority? An arsenal of best practices can help you effectively leverage the SME opportunity and sidestep these all-too-common challenges. Use this checklist as a guide for incorporating SMEs into your campaign to create content that truly reaches your audience and drives results.
Here’s How to Identify the Right Internal Experts
SMEs are the people in your industry who have deep or specialized expertise in a particular subject or field. Within a B-to-B technology company, for example, your SME may be on the product side and best able to provide IT-buyer-friendly deep dives into specs and concerns. At a financial services organization, your target SME may the director of risk solutions.
When selecting an SME who will provide value to your campaign, look for the following qualities:
- Influence: Do they have a following within their areas of expertise? Are they active on relevant social channels and/or at related industry events?
- Knowledge: Are they well-informed on a topic important to the customer journey? Can they provide a long-term POV about your industry?
- Alignment: Do they have a natural incentive to support marketing efforts? Are they aligned with your campaign and company goals?
When SMEs have these qualities, their domain authority and insight can help you create content that differentiates your brand — your expert (and thus your content) will have a point of view, a method or a specific observation that keeps the audience coming back for solutions and inspiration. As you’re identifying and recruiting SMEs, keep in mind the value of assembling a diverse team of roles, POVs, and backgrounds. You probably don’t want to end up with six SMEs from the sales team named Steve.
Determine the Right Content Formats for Each SME
It’s important to note that strong writing or even on-camera skills are not prerequisites for content marketing program SMEs. Obviously, these are nice-to-haves, but a strong content marketing program will benefit from the thought leadership of a valuable SME even without these qualities. Interviews with writers can create ghostwritten thought leadership, and a strategic brief alongside the right editing and setup can easily bring an uncomfortable interviewee into the spotlight for a video or podcast.
Align the format to your specific customer journey and needs, using these types of questions:
- Would this thought leadership be more valuable as a byline or journalistic-style citation from an expert?
- Can I repurpose any of the SME’s quotes for future pieces?
- Is this a good candidate for media training?
- Is this a good candidate for a video interview?
- Is this a good candidate for a podcast or audio interview?
- Does this SME bring new connections to case studies or customer stories?
Take time investment and logistics into consideration when planning a project with an SME. A video shoot will require at least several hours of on-location involvement from the SME, which may not be feasible. A series of phone interviews with a writer may be all a high-level SME can commit to during a busy season for your industry.
The most important thing is to avoid one-off SME engagements and ad-hoc content creation. Approach your SME content creation efforts through the big rock (or campaign-style) content lens. By taking the time to work with an internal expert, the output should be highly valuable, lower funnel content that can be repurposed across different formats and channels.
Best practices for Working with SMEs
Now that you’ve identified and recruited SMEs for your thought leadership campaigns, it’s important to build long-term relationships with them. At its core, this requires ensuring everyone feels their time and contributions are valuable. Remember that SMEs have a full-time job and are often not directly incentivized based on contributions to marketing efforts and performance.
- Create clear campaign and content briefs: Let SMEs know exactly what role they will play in the campaign strategy, the expected business goals, and all the details on their specific content projects. Keeping project briefs in a centralized, accessible location helps ensure alignment and allows the SMEs to highlight their participation to their own supervisors and decision makers.
- Build a simple process for idea-sharing: Experts frequently have ideas for content or topics, and at large organizations they often just don’t know who to share them with. Make it easy for internal SMEs to reach you and come forward with ideas. This can be as simple as a monthly email request for insights, a short online survey, or even office hours for new ideas.
- Work towards formalizing shared objectives: Pilot projects with one SME can be a great way to start building a more integrated, more successful organization. Ultimately, sharing KPIs across teams builds collaboration but you can start more informally by aligning your marketing efforts with the goals of your specific SME. For example, if your SME needs to introduce customers to a new trading tool, tie content marketing reporting to awareness of that product.
- Be flexible: If your SME program is just getting off the ground, recognize it’s not proven effective for your SMEs (yet!). Foster buy-in from your SME by being flexible with the timing and format of input. For example, if they don’t have time for a full interview, ask for a single quote on a particular topic or feedback via email on a completed project. Build extra time for reviews into your workflows.
- Think long-term: Your goal should be to create long-term relationships with SMEs where everyone gets clear value. Remember to share all results so they can quantify their contributions.
By following this guide and accompanying checklist, you’ll have a roadmap for building strong relationships with SMEs who can support more effective content marketing campaigns. Over time, this partnership will both raise the profile of your SME colleagues and have clear business results.
Angela Morris is a NewsCred Content Strategist on the financial services vertical.