December 19, 2022 (Updated: May 4, 2023)
A subject matter expert (SME) is a team member or consultant who has in-depth knowledge of a specific industry or niche. Partnering with one is a great way to get unique, valuable, trustworthy content for your brand. But how do you find these people? And how do you start one of these collaborations off on the right foot? Today, we’re looking at how to create SME partnerships for your brand and how to nurture them to create strong, long-lasting work relationships to develop the best possible content for your audience.
You can’t use SMEs in the content development process until you’ve created a working partnership with them. It sounds obvious, but if you’re already thinking ahead to content creation and you don’t even have an SME on retainer or on your team, you’re too many steps ahead. Follow this plan to help you find and create your first or next successful SME content partnership:
Before you even start looking for a subject matter expert, you need to think about what type of person you want to work for your brand. What do you want them to know and what do you want them to do as a member of your team? Here are some things to consider before you start searching for the right content partner:
The more criteria your team sets for picking an SME, the more specific you can get about researching and finding candidates. Just be sure not to look for someone who’s too niche. Putting too many qualifiers on your search for the perfect candidate may bring up zero results. Make sure you’re only defining the most important characteristics of an SME partner so you have a larger candidate pool to choose from.
SMEs are everywhere if you know where to look. Once you know the characteristics of your best SME candidates, start researching and pair a person with that description. While you can advertise from an SME role, either internally or on a consultant basis, you can also go out into the world and do the research yourself. In addition to posting an SME job listing, here are some places you can look to find the right subject matter expert candidates:
Social media is ripe with people trying to make names for themselves and show off their expertise in any industry. Most platforms use hashtags, which you can search to find industry-relevant topics and the people speaking on them. Connecting with people through social media channels, like LinkedIn or Twitter, allows you to develop a relationship with potential SMEs before you even ask them to work with your brand.
Finding influencers in any industry or niche is also a way to tell “who’s who” when it comes to a topic. Influencers often have a larger following than regular SMEs. Just be sure to vet them to find out if they really know what they’re talking about. Some influencers are just charismatic but they don’t know much. Finally, you can search platforms for the term “subject matter expert.” For example, people may use the phrase in their Twitter profiles to indicate they’re open to new contacts. Others may add it to their LinkedIn resumes if they’ve had SME experience.
Most people who really know their stuff in any industry belong to some kind of educational or professional organization. People who are active in professional associations often have access to continuing education and training opportunities, events when they can speak with other like-minded professionals, and access to industry studies and publications before other people in their fields.
All of this exclusive access and information makes them a go-to resource for your SME needs. To find people within these organizations you can often search for them on LinkedIn. You can also contact the organization, which might have a list of members that consent to share their contact information for these purposes. Another way to gain access to a professional organization is to see if any of your team members belong. Then ask them to do the research for you.
SMEs who work freelance or on contract often collaborate with a variety of brands. They’re usually not subject to contracts with non-compete clauses for one-off or spotty work. That’s why browsing your competitors’ channels and content may reveal industry SMEs willing to work with your brand too. Most content lists bylines or contact information for any SMEs which makes it easier for you to find and reach out to them.
If you’re not sure who your direct competitors are or whose content you should comb, request your free content analysis report from CopyPress. In addition to pointing out your content and search positioning strengths and weaknesses, the report also lists potential competitors you may not have considered.
“CopyPress gives us the ability to work with more dealership groups. We are able to provide unique and fresh content for an ever growing customer base. We know that when we need an influx of content to keep our clients ahead of the game in the automotive landscape, CopyPress can handle these requests with ease.”
Director of SEO at Auto Revo
Attending industry events and talking to other visitors, speakers, or vendors is a great way to find potential SME partners. Sign up for conferences, trade shows, or even webinars with the intent of meeting new people. The larger the network you can grow, the more opportunities you have to find potential SME partners.
When all else fails, Google it. Search for “subject matter expert + [your industry]” and see what comes up. You’ll likely get quite a few articles about how to work with or find SMEs for your industry. But you’ll also get results like online portfolios, social media profiles, or job boards with people looking for SME work. Remember to vet your candidates from search results carefully. Whether you end up going with the first person you find or the 50th doesn’t matter as long as you know they can get the job done right.
Professional recommendations are even better than other types of SME research. Why? Because these SME picks come with a stamp of approval from someone you know. Whether it’s an old colleague, a current team member, or a friend in your industry, contact people in your network and ask for suggestions. Someone who knows your SME in real life—not just from a social profile—knows if they have what it takes to do the job. They can back up any claims about expertise and give you an idea of what it’s like to work with that person.
After you make a list of your top candidates, you have to build the bridge and make contact. This is one of the most challenging steps in the SME recruitment process because not everyone is receptive to cold calls or emails. If you received someone’s name as an SME suggestion from a colleague or friend, ask them to make the introduction for you. People are often more receptive to blind meetings if they’re “helping out a friend.”
If you find a potential SME on social media or through a competitor’s website, try to build a rapport with them before sending a message and asking for their help. Compliment their past work or their skills. Let them become familiar with your brand and your team before you approach the subject of a partnership. If you don’t have time to do a slow-burn SME courting, you can try a cold email or direct message. And if you’re going to cold contact, keep a few things in mind:
After you’ve gotten someone to sign on as your SME, it’s time to incorporate them into your team and workflows. The best way to do so is to hold a team introductory meeting either in person or virtually through a video conference program. Having an informal introductory meeting allows everyone to get comfortable with the new team member. Your SME may feel intimidated starting as an outsider with a new group. Your team may wonder who the person they’ll be spending with during the workday is.
Try inviting your SME to an already scheduled team meeting and adding extra time for introductions. This opportunity lets both sides preview how the working relationship will happen. It also gives both parties time to ask questions or get clarification on any unclear areas of the partnership before the real work gets underway.
Though you may have listed your SME expectations in your initial contact or team meeting, it’s important to list them in writing and share them with your SMEs, especially contract workers. Create a contract or list of expectations for your SME such as how often you expect them to work, their pay, deadline dates, or anything else that may cause questions or hinder the workflow.
Stating the expectations and responsibilities as early as possible in the process allows the SME to ask questions and your team to provide clarification so you don’t waste time providing additional guidance at every stage of the content development process.
Freelancers and contractors have busy schedules. They often take on multiple projects at once to pay the bills. Even internal SMEs often have other jobs to do besides sharing industry knowledge and secrets with their team members about their workload and capacity. Some SMEs may only be able to do interviews once a month. Others may be able to do multiple ones per day. Everyone’s stress levels, workloads, and capacity are different. The more you know about your SMEs’ schedules, the easier it is to plan your content calendars and workflows.
Train your SMEs on how to get into your content workflows. The training looks different for every team and company depending on your expectations for an SME. Those who plan to write or record their own content need training on how to use your equipment or content development tools. For those just providing interviews, you may let them sit in on a current SME interview and observe the process.
When you provide training before you toss your SMEs into real work, you allow them to get familiar with the process and clear up any uncertainties that could delay or bottleneck your workflows.
Set goals you and your SMEs can actually reach for every campaign or project. Based on what you know about their capacity and your expectations, make sure you can attain what you set out to achieve.
For example, if one of your overall content marketing goals is to increase conversions, set specific KPIs for every SME project. You might set a goal to increase content clicks on Twitter by 15% at the end of the campaign. But you might only set this goal if your new SME has a large Twitter following and expects to share the content with their network. If your SME didn’t have a Twitter presence, you might choose a different, more attainable goal instead.
Your SMEs aren’t the only ones who need to come to work with knowledge of the industry or topic. Your team should do background research about the SME, the industry, and the specific content idea before the first interview. Not only is it courteous of the SMEs’ time to come prepared, but it’ll also make your content better. Here are a few ways your team can get ready to kick off an SME partnership:
Read about the interview subject before you meet with the SME. Learn the basics and what’s considered common knowledge to avoid asking broad questions that you can find answers to anywhere online. Your SME interviews are about getting one-of-a-kind stories and insights that you can’t get from cookie-cutter articles and videos online.
When you do your research, you come up with better interview questions. Be thoughtful about what you ask. What questions get to the root of human emotion? Which ones spark interesting stories or insights that only your SME can provide?
Consider an interview format that’s comfortable for both your team and your SME. Consider if you’re going live, doing a recording, or just collecting information to use in another way. These pieces of information all affect how, when, and where you do an interview. Be sure to share the interview expectations with your SME, too. If they’re going to be on camera or have an audio recording done, let them know. Give them time to warm up their voice or pick out a nice outfit.
Who says you have to stick with just one SME? In fact, it’s better to have a list of experts you can call on when you need help with industry content. Experts earn that term for a reason, but no one person is an expert on every single industry topic or niche. It’s basically impossible. Instead, view your SME partnerships as a panel of experts approach.
In marketing, for example, you may work with an SEO expert, a content expert, a direct marketing expert, and others who provide information and insight about their even smaller marketing niches. Plus, the more SMEs you work with, the bigger your network, and your audience, get.
Finally, if you want your SMEs to stick around and continue to work with your brand, you have to nurture your relationships with them. It’s the same as turning your audience into loyal brand followers. You want your SMEs, especially those on contract, to be loyal content team members. Here are a few ways you can nurture your SME connections and keep them strong:
A simple “thank you” can go a long way. Thank your SMEs for the work they do. Sending a thoughtful email or message after an interview, or congratulating them when your team publishes a new piece of content with their help makes your partners feel appreciated. Team members who feel like management and their colleagues value their work and participation are more likely to enjoy doing their jobs and want to come back for more.
Keeping the lines of communication open between SMEs and all your other team members helps strengthen your relationship with them. When SMEs know who to contact with questions or get quick responses to their queries, it makes working relationships easier. Communication is also a two-way street. If your SMEs aren’t communicating with your team, have a discussion with them about why it’s important to ask questions or respond when a member of your team reaches out.
Whether providing feedback on the content is part of your SMEs job or not, encourage them to share their thoughts. Whether it’s a simple opinion or a technical critique of a piece, you and your team can learn from their observations. While your team doesn’t have to follow or take all of your SMEs’ content suggestions, letting them feel like they have a say in the process makes your SMEs feel like full members of the community rather than outsiders.
If your SMEs aren’t meeting certain expectations or standards that you set out at the beginning of your partnership agreement, provide feedback. Sometimes, having a meeting to share expectations again or clarify things that didn’t make sense helps your team members improve their performance. Just make sure any feedback you provide is constructive. Frame your conversations as a way to help your SMEs get better and grow your partnership rather than as a punishment or admonishment of their work.
Now you know how to find a subject matter expert and how to introduce them to your content development workflow. But why should you work with an SME at all? Here are a few reasons why working with a subject matter expert is good for your brand and your content:
Using an SME during content creation helps improve your brand and website authority. Google and other search engines care about the authority of your site and your content. People rely on search engines to provide safe, accurate, and helpful information based on any question or query they have. Google doesn’t want to lose business from those searchers by recommending low-quality, spam, or unhelpful content. Thus, the service places a premium on authoritative content and ranks it higher in search.
When you use a subject matter expert in your content, such as a source in your blog or a guest on your podcast, you get to piggyback off the authority they’ve already built in their industry and online. They transfer some of that authority to you through association, which helps improve your SEO and ratings with search engines.
Search engines aren’t the only entities that pay attention to authority. Your audience cares about it too. And truthfully, search engines only care about authority because your audience did first. Even back in the pre-internet days, source credibility mattered. The information you got from the newspaper or the nightly television or radio news had more authority than something people read in the tabloids at the grocery store checkout.
People put more trust in publications and brands that make authority a top priority. Trust leads to audience and client loyalty, both of which provide your company with a sense of security and ongoing business with these loyal followers.
When you have a knowledgeable, credible source for content development, the pieces are just better. People who know what they’re talking about and have in-depth knowledge of a subject have an easier time explaining it to others with less preparation. Think about a topic you know deeply, whether it’s a work topic or a hobby. If someone asked you to give an impromptu five-minute speech on that topic, could you do it? Probably. You wouldn’t even need notes.
Now, if someone asked you to do the same thing for a topic you kind of understand but not really, chances are you’d be a bit more nervous and the presentation wouldn’t go as well. Working with an SME is more like situation one. You get better information with less hassle and better workflows. And the process produces better content your audience understands and connects with.
Your subject matter experts are always going to know the right terms and lingo to use when talking about an industry-specific product, service, or topic. This is extremely important in highly-specialized industries where a lot of terms sound alike but have different meanings. Technology, medicine, science, and mathematics fields are just a few examples of cases where using the right terminology is critical.
Plus, using industry-specific language makes your brand sound more knowledgeable. For example, which web design company are you going to trust, the one that talks about coding with HTML or one that talks about adding the “< thingies” to a page to make it work?
Working with a subject matter expert can make your content development process go smoother. When your team can spend less time on research and fact-checking because they get it from the pros, they have more time to dedicate to other areas. Or if your team doesn’t need to spend more time doing other tasks, working with an SME simply allows you to scale production and develop more pieces of content more quickly. The more content you put out into the world, the more chances you have to connect with the audience and attract leads.
Your subject matter experts are experts for a reason. They know the current happenings in their industries, what came before, and what’s coming next. You can use their predictions and foresight to your advantage by being an early reporter or adopter of industry trends. If your team creates content about a subject that’s just about to blow up, you can gain exposure before people start bingeing information. The more authority you build before something becomes popular—and before everyone else has a chance to create content about it—the higher you can rank in search with your content when the boom happens.
Being an early reporter for industry trends also helps your company become a thought leader in the niche and increases trust and authority that you’re sharing accurate information with the audience.
Working with subject matter experts puts faces and names to your brand. Your company isn’t just come corporate, soulless entity out to grab money. It’s real people doing real jobs and sharing their real experiences. When you tap into SME partnerships, you gain access to exclusive stories. You get personal insights on industry topics. You find ways to relate one-on-one between your SMEs and your audience. The more you can connect with people on an emotional level and create “hey, me too” bonds, the easier it is to grab people’s attention and their loyalty.
Even if you find the right SME partners and create a perfect collaboration, your content isn’t reaching its full potential without a solid marketing strategy. But planning a winning strategy—especially one rooted in content analysis—takes thought, research, and effort. It’s easier with someone to guide you through each step. Our Director of Content Analysis, Jeremy Rivera, does just that in our latest eBook, How To Analyze Your Content and Craft a Winning Strategy for 2023. In this guide, you’ll learn important lessons from an expert:
Download your free copy today and get a head start on making 2023 your most strategic content year yet.
More from the author: