January 17, 2023 (Updated: October 6, 2023)
They say it takes a village to raise a child, but it takes an army to create high-quality helpful content for a brand and its audience. Each content soldier has their own role to play in the battle for better search engine positioning, audience attention, and lead collection. Today, we’re talking about two of these roles—subject matter expert vs content expert—and how their duties affect the type of content your brand produces. We’ll also help you decide which of these roles should be your next priority hire:
A subject matter expert (SME) is a team member or consultant who has in-depth knowledge of an industry or topic. These people also have the experience and credentials to back up their expert claims. They may have firsthand experience, such as working in the field for many years. Subject matter experts may also have an extensive knowledge background from earning a degree in the industry or after many hours of study. Usually, someone with a combination of both education and experience makes the best SME in any niche.
SMEs may not necessarily work for a brand in that capacity. While SME can be a job title, those aren’t the only people who qualify as SMEs. A long-tenured professor, a senior engineering manager, or a doctor with their own practice can all still be SMEs.
A content expert is a writer or another type of creative who takes complicated, expert-level knowledge and transforms it into helpful, accessible content. Their priority is sharing information on a level the audience understands, in a format that they want to consume. Content experts often work for marketing teams to write, film, and edit pieces the brand shares with its audience.
Though both roles have the term “expert” in their name, what they bring to your team is different. Here are some of the most common distinctions between these two jobs:
The everyday job duties of an SME and a content expert are different. In most situations, the SME joins your team to share their knowledge. They take part in interviews, review written or recorded content for accuracy, or train other team members on how to perform certain tasks.
For example, a day in the life of an engineering SME may include meeting with a writer to provide information for an upcoming email newsletter. Then, they read through an eBook document to make sure the creatives understood and accurately shared information about the topic. Finally, they work with the video team to create how-to videos for YouTube to show them how to explain the parts of a motor to the audience.
Content experts, in contrast, collect the knowledge from the SMEs and spruce it up for the audience. They write copy, film or record segments, and edit or proofread content. While the engineering SME is going about their day, the content expert is the one conducting the interview for the newsletter and then drafting the copy. They’re receiving the edits on the eBook and making the recommended changes from the SME. The content experts are also the ones following the tutorial to find the right way to show and explain the functions of the motor to the YouTube audience.
SMEs specialize in a variety of topics. You can find an SME in any niche, whether it’s medicine, engineering, or even sports. The topic or field itself isn’t what defines the SME. It’s how much they know about that niche and how much experience they have with it. Depending on the field your brand caters to, you could work with multiple subject matter experts that specialize in each different niche for your business. For example, a sporting goods manufacturer may work with SMEs for different sports to create blog content to promote each of their products.
Your content experts, on the other hand, are always concerned with writing, editing, and production. They can work with SMEs in any niche, but their job focus and daily tasks don’t change. The content experts at the sporting goods manufacturer can work with SMEs in hockey, football, and rock climbing to collect information. But their primary job is to focus on writing those blog posts for each niche.
In most cases, your content experts are talented researchers. They could spend a few hours scouring the internet and come up with information for a solid, surface-level piece of content on any topic. But sometimes to meet the needs of your target audience, you need to dig beneath the surface. That’s where SMEs enter the chat.
In his 2008 book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell said it takes 10,000 hours, or 10 years, to become an expert at anything. For most SMEs, if you want to hire a “true” expert by these standards, they either need an advanced degree or a long tenure in their field. In most expert niches, people “start from zero” when they enter a new industry for the first time.
Whether you started an apprenticeship for a job or went through college, you really don’t start studying the little details of an industry until you’re in your late teens or early twenties. And that’s just the basics. To become an expert you have to build on the fundamentals with more in-depth experience.
Content experts don’t truly need these same “credentials” to qualify as an expert. Why? Because for some people, learning to read, write, or be creative starts as early as preschool age. Content experts begin developing their skills much earlier than, say, an engineer or doctor. You learn the basics of how to read and write in elementary school.
Content experts may also have a more innate talent for writing and creativity that you can’t match with hours and hours of practice. It would be easier to teach a good writer to be an SME in a knowledge-heavy niche than it would be to teach an SME how to write a great content article.
Any SME you work with linked has already made a name for themselves within their industry or niche. Whether they speak at conferences or have their own blog, part of their “expertise” comes from the authority they’ve built in the industry. In contrast, it doesn’t really matter who your content experts are as long as they get their jobs done right. You’re not building a brand on your content experts. But you might try to pull clout and audience members in through your SME’s name to promote your brand content.
SMEs and content experts do have some traits in common. Here are some of the similarities between the two roles:
In other cases, maybe where expert content or content creation is a lower priority, companies prefer using contract or freelance workers in either role. Not only does working with external employees save money, but it also provides flexibility. Brands don’t have to call on these team members until they need them. That cuts down on the need to invent work to justify a full- or part-time position for the role.
Some brands find that working with an agency solution is better than hiring an SME or a content expert on their own. In these partnerships, the content agency secures both content experts and SMEs. Then they work with the brand to determine what type of content they want to create and how they plan to share it with the audience. This option is a good hybrid of both internal and external SME and content expert models. It provides internal team member quality with the payment and commitment structure of freelancers or contractors.
Both your SMEs and your content experts put a high priority on creating high-quality content. Your SMEs know everything there is to know about an industry or niche. Anything they share, they want it shared right. They know one of the main parts of their role with your content team is to provide factually accurate and helpful information.
Similarly, your content experts want to take the accurate information your SMEs provide and share it with the audience the right way. These partnerships are true collaborations. They require diligent work and constant feedback from both parties to develop the best and most informative pieces possible.
SMEs and content experts are trying to capture the attention of the same audience in everything they do. A plumbing SME and a content expert writing for a plumbing business both want to reach the same people: those who need help with their pipes.
The content expert likely knows more about the audience’s skill level and what kind of content is most helpful to them. But both roles have the same targets in mind when writing interview questions, answering them, and reviewing content before publication.
While it’s rare, there is a chance you could find someone who is both an SME in your field and a content expert. A person doesn’t have to be a writer or creator by trade to be good at sharing their thoughts with the public. Some SMEs author their own articles, write their own eBooks, or record their own podcasts. And they amass a large audience of readers and viewers when they do.
But there’s a difference between writing “well enough” to get by and actually being a content expert. It’s the same as having a content expert who’s pretty good at research but doesn’t provide quite the same level of knowledge and experience as an SME. While it is possible to find one person to do both jobs, the likelihood is low.
But if you can afford it, adding both an SME and a content expert to your team is a better choice than just hiring one or the other. People in these roles work best together to share the information your audience needs to know.
They also work together to display the information in a way that’s helpful and makes sense for any skill level. The combination helps grow your audience, increase your organic search potential, and jump ahead of the competition by providing the information your audience can’t get anywhere else.
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