Know-it-alls. Smarty-pants. Five-time Jeopardy! winners. All people who might have gotten on your nerves at some point in your life. On your journey towards inbound marketing perfection, however, those types of folks aren’t just your Wonka golden ticket to the traffic and conversions of your dreams, but also allow you to wear a well-fitted thought leadership hat that distinguishes you from the competition. In fact, they’re so essential to your content marketing, they deserve their very own spiffy moniker – Subject Matter Expert.
True, your expert inbound marketers here at Creative Cave have discussed subject matter experts (SMEs) before as a part of a comprehensive look at content creation, but their ever-increasing importance to your content warrants a far closer look. Although we’ll always be refining our approach to working with SMEs in our blog creation process, the system we’ve developed thus far adds way too much impact and gravitas to keep to ourselves.
So on that note, join us as we give away a few of our secrets in working with SMEs. Integrate our pearls of content wisdom into your process and start creating blog content that drives traffic, establishes you as thought leaders within your industry, and compels your audience into conversion better than a Sarah McLachlan commercial (we know those aren't very compelling, but couldn't resist the reference).
Leverage In-House Expertise
First of all, every organization possesses some form of in-house expertise, including yours. When Larry in the office just down the hall really knows his stuff, he could become an invaluable source of information in your blog development process. Ol’ Larry is actually the type of SME that really breathes life, depth, and authenticity into your content, a true competitive edge that establishes your company as an industry thought leader when you fully leverage his insights.
That in-house expertise makes your content unique, a quality that is nearly impossible to mimic when strictly using third-party sources. While internet research is an indispensable component to the process, it will never be a substitute for Larry’s years of experience on the frontlines of your B2B industry. Both your current and potential customers will gravitate to your content because your in-house SME provides them with perspectives and knowledge difficult, often impossible to find with even the most exhaustive of online searches.
Of course, your boy Larry is a busy guy with job responsibilities of his own, so while he’s more than happy to lend his insights to your content creation, you should also be mindful of his limited time and already full plate. He probably doesn’t have room on his calendar to sit down and write an entire blog post for you, maybe just time for a short meeting or call. As you’ll see, that’s why much of our approach to working with an SME revolves around an efficient system that streamlines the process, making the very most of that limited time. Our approach begins with preparation for both yourself as well as the SME so everyone can hit the blog ground running.
In this particular case, hitting the ground running means you perform a significant portion of the heavy lifting before you even speak to the Subject Matter Expert. First and foremost, educate yourself on the topic so you can speak knowledgeably about it and sound professional with the SME. Are we saying you should come across as a PhD candidate on the subject? Nope. If that were the case, you wouldn’t be seeking help from the SME in the first place.
Instead, have a decent handle on your proposed blog material, acquainting yourself with the general concepts. This will provide you with a sense of direction and allow you to ask the right questions during your conversation with the SME. With enough preliminary research, you should be able to speak the SME’s language, understand any needed shorthand, and feel comfortable conducting an actual discussion rather than merely taking notes like you’re sitting in an undergrad lecture hall.
Prepare Your SME
Now that you’ve prepared yourself sufficiently, it's time to make the process as efficient and painless as possible for your Subject Matter Expert. At Creative Cave, we've distilled this part of our approach to an absolute science, following a meticulous set of guidelines that maximizes the transfer of information from the SME to our blog post without stepping on any toes or making anyone's life more difficult.
Begin by setting aside somewhere between 30 minutes to an hour – no more, no less – for your conversation with the SME. Because time is of the essence, provide the SME with a summary of your planned discussion as well as a handful of questions they can prepare for. We found that embedding these questions within the calendar invite is the most efficient way of handling this part of the process.
Likewise, give the SME any previous content that might provide context or a handy reference. The same is true for any third-party research you've conducted that will help them prepare for your line of questioning. Remember, your job is to make the process as easy as possible for the SME without sacrificing impact.
On that note, always respect how the SME prefers to communicate, whether that's more of a spontaneous conversation over the phone, an in-person meeting over a cup of coffee, or something more structured where they've written out their thoughts ahead of time. Make sure to remember those communication preferences for any future meetings you might have with the SME.
A Shared Focus on the Bigger Picture
As part of the preparation, also make sure the SME understands what you're trying to achieve with the piece. Sure, at its most basic level, you're creating an insightful, unique piece of content that educates the reader on the topic. However, assuming you want to rise above the oceans of drab and uniform B2B content out there and stand out as a thought leader, discuss the topic as part of a broader content strategy.
While you're always trying to educate, nearly every individual blog post should also be a piece of a larger puzzle that strives to drive content downloads, rank for a particular keyword or topic, or address a stage of your audience's buying process. If the SME is in-tune with that bigger picture and your overarching content strategy, they're more likely to give you better information on the topic along with ideas for other pieces that fit within that broader strategy.
This very blog post g is a good example of such a strategy. While we absolutely wanted to share our expertise in working with SMEs to inform blog content for B2B companies, we also have a grander goal in mind. Ultimately, we want to convey our unique insights and vast experience in B2B content strategy to demonstrate how well-suited Creative Cave is to running these SME brainstorm meetings. Our particular skill set is capable of drawing phenomenal content out of companies which will be an essential driver in attracting more website traffic and leads.
Get the Most from Your Conversation
By this point, most of the grunt work is behind you and it's time to put your conversational skills to the test. Even if thinking on your feet isn't your strong suit, the preparation you've done thus far will go a long way in making the discussion with your Subject Matter Expert productive and enlightening. To help give the conversation an octane boost, we have a few best practices to keep in mind as you proceed.
- Maintain interest: Have you ever tried to discuss something you're passionate about with someone that didn't give a hoot about the topic and, much to your chagrin, didn't hesitate to display their boredom and disinterest? Keep that in mind when speaking with your SME. They're donating their time to your endeavor so remain upbeat, curious, and engaged throughout the conversation.
- Highlight benefits to the SME: Even the most altruistic of souls sometimes need some incentive to give their full effort. Never forget to highlight the benefits your SME might realize by helping you, whether that's a byline, reaching a marketing KPI, or any number of perks that might come their way. And when all else fails – beer (this applies in many more situations than just this one, btw).
- Record the conversation: You have between 30 and 60 minutes to get everything you can from the conversation. Continually asking the SME to repeat themselves quickly gets annoying, so recording the conversation is just darn sound logic. Your writer will thank you given the often technical nature of B2B content, especially if your note-taking is less than stellar. You're also better off to pay attention to the conversation than get caught up in trying to type out every word.
- Rely on technology: We use Zoom to record our calls with an SME, but there are plenty of other video conference/recording platforms out there. Afterword, we upload the recorded call into a text transcription tool to transcribe the conversation, making it easy to copy and paste it directly into the outline for our writer.
As you're talking, don't panic if there's a drawn-out pause or lull in the conversation. This isn't a speed dating exhibition so don't feel the need to fill every nanosecond with words. In fact, those pauses can be instrumental to both you and the SME to come up with additional questions, different angles, and new insights that will only further distinguish the resulting content. You can also use those pauses to ingest the information as the SME conveys it, asking for clarification as you go if anything seems unclear since, chances are, it would be unclear to the reader as well.
Similarly, don't be afraid to give the SME a gentle nudge or two by asking if there's anything else they would like to include, especially towards the end of the conversation. Granted, you obviously want to avoid annoying the SME, but you also don't want to give short shrift to your content, either. Politely push your SME into a deeper knowledge dive, asking follow-up questions and always looking for meaningful tangents that could add scope to the current piece as well as new topics to pursue in the future. This is definitely an acquired skill that will come more naturally with practice so don't break out in hives and cold sweats if you find yourself stumbling at first.
As a final note on the conversation itself, you want to stay as focused on the topic as possible. However, sometimes a discussion will take on a life of its own and dictate the direction for you. When this occurs, think of it like swimming in the ocean during a riptide. While you can fight your hardest to tread water but ultimately go nowhere, you can also let the tide take you where it wants you to go, maintain both your sanity and energy in the process, and still make it back to shore, albeit in a different place than you initially expected. Always be prepared to alter your approach based on what the SME is teaching you or, in extreme cases, scrapping your original idea altogether.
Let the SME Shine Like a Diamond
Finally, as you begin to put all of the information together, both from the Subject Matter Expert as well as your own research, don't lose sight of why you used an SME in the first place. You could speak at a high level about the topic, industry trends, and generally provide sound information to the reader using third-party sources, but that doesn't necessarily mean your content will stand out and distinguish you as a thought leader. Your SME has unique insights on the topic gathered from personal experience and a perspective chiseled from years in the industry. Use those traits as the cornerstone to your approach and you'll give your content a significant head start in separating itself from the masses.
For instance, try to include real-life examples of the topic from the SME that relate to your company, whether it's in the form of a simple anecdote or a full-blown case study. These types of examples are selling without blatantly selling and that, our friends, is the goal. In other words, if you're writing about a solution to a problem that occurs within your industry, use it as an opportunity to subtly mention instances when your company successfully addressed such issues. Not only are you educating the reader but, just as importantly, allowing yourself to indirectly demonstrate that anyone searching for your topic, finding your blog, and reading your sage words should work with you.
So what are we ultimately trying to say with this lengthy tome? It's not enough to have an asset like Larry sitting a couple of offices away from you. If you fail to draw that expertise and unique perspective out of Larry, then you might as well ask that new guy Tim for insights to use in your content. And as we all know, Tim's not the sharpest knife in the drawer (sorry to the hypothetical Tims out there). Your content, your readers, and your marketing funnel all need and deserve an SME that sets you apart, labels you as a thought leader within the industry, and brings real value to your organization.
Coincidentally, maximizing what you get from working with an SME just happens to be one of the absolute strengths here at Creative Cave. So give us a holler and we'll help your content shine bright like a diamond, too (insert Rihanna reference here). Pinky swear.