November 29, 2022 (Updated: May 4, 2023)
Why should your audience trust your brand? It’s a valid question, especially in content marketing. But it’s an important one. Most leads and general audience members aren’t going to trust your brand—or become loyal followers—on your word alone. You must convince your audience that your company knows what it’s talking about and has their best interests in mind. But how do you do that? Today, we’re looking at what subject matter experts are and how using them for content development helps build that meaningful, trusting relationship with your audience:
A subject matter expert (SME) is a person with in-depth, unique knowledge and expertise on a specific subject or in a particular industry. Companies call on subject matter experts to solve problems, create strategies, consult on individual projects, or even teach and train other team members. In content marketing, an SME helps build trust with your audience through their industry authority.
For example, if you wanted to learn how to build an airplane or a car from scratch, such as learning how to source the parts and put them together in a safe, functional way, whose advice would you trust: someone who’s done it before or someone who hasn’t? In content marketing, your SMEs are all people who have done or have experienced the situations you describe in your pieces. They know the ins and outs of your industry, products, and customer pain points. They’ve built the experience and authority to speak on the topic.
The more clout an SME has—meaning more job experience, degrees, publications, experiments, or other tangible forms of knowledge—the more authoritative they are. That means your audience may be more likely to trust what your SMEs say rather than a regular brand representative.
SMEs can work in any industry because each one has some sort of specialized knowledge that comes along with the many jobs inside each group. This is good news for content marketers because it means you can likely always find an SME to collaborate on your projects no matter what information or content types and styles you’re using. Though they exist in every industry, SMEs are more common in some than others. The most popular places you may find SMEs include:
If you’re not writing content for one of those industries, don’t worry. Just because there aren’t as many people billing themselves as subject matter experts in other fields doesn’t mean they don’t exist. It just may take your team a little longer—with a more thorough vetting process—to find the right SME for your project that both your team and your audience can trust.
Image via Unsplash by @austindistel
What an SME actually does in a day-to-day work environment depends on what industry they’re in and the needs of their specific company. Some may work with organizations full-time in planning and strategy roles to help with company growth, organization, efficiency, or other foundational issues. For other organizations, SMEs may work in a consultant capacity. A company may contact these professionals for specific questions or one-off projects rather than using their skills and expertise every day.
SME partnerships in content marketing often look slightly different than a typical SME role. While your brand SMEs may also consult on strategy and other projects, their primary roles in content marketing are to share their experience and expertise with your audience. By sharing what they know, SMEs help your brand build authority and trust with the audience. Typical job duties for a subject matter expert in content marketing include:
One reason brands may shy away from using SMEs for content creation is that they just can’t find writers or videographers that excel in both content creation and knowledge of the field or industry. If this is the reason your brand isn’t using SMEs for content marketing yet, stop this train of thought immediately. You have a writing and content team for a reason. They’re good at what they do, whether it’s writing short-form blog posts or creating engaging long-form videos for social media.
But it would be silly to expect your writers to understand the in-depth, inner workings of your industry—because their specialties are writing and content development and not, for example, the finer points of oil and gas utilities. On the other side of the same coin, it’s unrealistic to think that your SME is going to be a high-caliber writer or video director, editor, and star. Their strengths lie in the nitty gritty of your industry or brand.
If you find an SME who is also a great content creator, you’ve found a unicorn. Don’t let them go. But in most cases, your content marketing team and your SMEs work together to develop the finished product. Your marketing team interviews your SMEs to get the information they need for every project. Or, your SMEs may edit, review, or fact-check a content creator’s work to make sure your brand is sharing only high-quality, accurate information.
What exactly makes someone a subject matter expert? The term “expert” is sometimes problematic because some people may think they’ve mastered something or are skilled at something when they aren’t. How do you know if your subject matter experts are really experts? What your brand considers an “expert” may differ slightly from another company. And it may even change according to each content project.
The basic definition of the word is a person with authoritative knowledge and skills. But your team has to decide what qualifications represent or demonstrate that knowledge and those skills. When looking for SMEs, some job titles that may lend themselves to good candidates include:
But someone doesn’t have to have 25+ years of experience and a fancy title to qualify as an expert. Your industry, the complexity of the content subject, and your established brand authority may all play a role in determining if someone is truly an expert in the area you plan to cover in your content:
Industries like healthcare, engineering, finance, and IT may have more restrictions on what makes someone an expert in the field versus other industries. If it takes a lot of schooling and training to get into an industry, or most roles in your brand’s field require rigorous certification or licensure, you’ll want to be more careful about who your brand deems an “expert.” Good indicators that you’ve found an expert in a complex industry include:
In less brain-intensive or technology-intensive fields, such as art, music, or eCommerce, certifications, and licensures may not matter as much as experience and talent. Rather than focusing on the pieces of paper these experts acquired or even the number of years they’ve been in the industry, focus on what these experts do. For example, an eCommerce expert may only have three years of experience in the field. But if they’ve helped 20+ companies grow into online retail giants in that time, it’s less important if they have a Ph.D. Their work track record speaks for itself.
In any industry, the complexity of the subject in the content also influences what makes someone an “expert.” In this case, someone who has a lot of experience working in the specific subject area is more authoritative and a better expert than someone in the field who hasn’t. For example, IT professionals do many different jobs that fall under that heading. But if you want to develop content on servers, you want to work with an SME who has deep knowledge of that area of IT, not just the field in general.
The same goes for less specialized fields. For example, if you’re writing content about children’s literature, any author or librarian isn’t “expert” enough. Your experts should have experience working with children’s literature, or even mediums more specific, like picture books.
How much authority your brand already has with its audience and leads also influences how much of an “expert” someone needs to be to work with your brand. If your company already holds clout or authority in its industry, and you have a consistent, loyal following, the actual credentials of your SMEs may be less important.
While you still don’t want to just pull any person off the street and call them an expert, you may be able to get away with using someone with fewer accolades or less hands-on experience and still reap the same rewards of credibility and audience trust. If your brand doesn’t already have a following or any kind of authority, you’ll want to be more strict and selective about the SMEs you choose and partner with.
Their clout and credibility are the things that increase trust in your brand. If you find your SMEs aren’t really experts, that could hurt your brand reputation in the eyes of your audience.
There are multiple reasons that partnering with an SME is beneficial for your brand, including:
If you can add a well-known industry name to your content project, you have a better chance of getting more reach and attracting a larger audience. SMEs may come with a built-in following, especially the more well-known they are. It’s the celebrity or influencer effect. Your SME doesn’t have to be a celebrity, and likely won’t be an influencer. But if they have the same sort of clout in their own circles, that could help your brand attract new audience members and leads. The more people that know your brand exists, the more popular it can become.
SMEs spend their days in the trenches of their industries. They may be some of the first to start using new tools, programs, or strategies. They’re also some of the first to learn about upcoming challenges or recent breakthroughs in the field. Working with people who have the inside scoop on your content topic helps to keep your ideas fresh. It also puts your brand ahead of the curve, allowing you to talk about hot topics before everyone covers them. When your brand is first, but also accurate, your company name becomes synonymous with authority and credibility.
Even if your SME doesn’t come with a built-in following, they’re still key in helping spread the word about your brand and content to others. If you feature an SME in an article or video on your brand channels, they’ll likely share it with their own networks. Even if that’s just friends and family, for now, that’s still a brand-new crop of potential leads or customers that you may not have reached before.
And, the more clout the SME has, the bigger reach you can get. Even these small acts can help build your brand awareness and set your organization up for success with future content projects.
Working with SMEs can help your keyword ranking, search engine positioning, and authority with Google and other search engines. Most SMEs have connections and clout, whether it’s within their industry, or in general. The more exposure your content gets, the more potential it has to earn backlinks. More backlinks mean more authority with Google and better SEO.
Subject matter experts are human. That means working with them isn’t always a perfect experience. Though there are plenty of benefits to using an SME, here are a few downsides to these types of working relationships:
Some SMEs can actually be too specialized in their niches to help your content creation. For example, if you want to work with a mechanic as an SME to develop content for your automotive brand, you likely want an SME with knowledge about all the inner workings of a car. Partnering with someone who only repairs the cooling system may be too specialized for your needs. But, if you work with different SMEs for different projects, and you aren’t looking for long-term partnerships, highly specialized SMEs may still benefit your brand.
The best SMEs can take the highly specialized information that they understand and present it in a way that makes sense to someone without their training and background. This is a hard thing to do and it’s not for everyone. Think of Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory. Sheldon is extremely smart, but he’s not the best at watering down his knowledge so Penny can understand.
If you’re working with an SME who can’t paraphrase topics or provide real-world relatable examples, your content team may have a more difficult time relaying the information to the audience in a way they understand.
Many work partnerships can send us right back to the dreaded group projects from our school days. Depending on the personalities of your internal content team and those of your SMEs, they may not always mesh. Some SMEs may think they know more than your content team and want to take over the project themselves.
In other cases, your team members may not listen to the SMEs if they think they can explain or develop a concept in a better way for your audience. Having a project manager or a team lead who can mediate or moderate any potentially friction-filled content meetings could help avoid these types of situations.
If you want expert-level content without the pressure of finding the right partners, turn to CopyPress. We take care of the hunt for the right talent to help build your brand authority. Our content creation team uses vetted and sourced writers, editors, and SMEs that have experience in and knowledge of your industry. When you work with us, it’s not just about getting content to share. It’s about getting that content right.
We take the time to get to know your team, and brand, and needs to understand what kind of expert content you or your clients expect to build authority and credibility. When you’re ready to take the next step into high-quality content creation, schedule your free, no-obligation strategy call with our team to learn how to get started.
More from the author: