Why It’s Time to Fire Your SMEs
“Oh, are you an engineer?”
Of all the compliments I’ve received in my career, that question is one I’ll remember forever. I was seated at a conference table with a half-dozen engineers planning some website content, and I guess I’d just said something halfway smart, because one of them actually mistook me for one of their own (at least enough to ask the question). The memory still gives me goosebumps.
Working with subject matter experts (SMEs) — taking a peek into their worlds and having the chance to geek out over the same things that set their hearts a-flutterin’ — is one of the most enjoyable and rewarding aspects of my job. I love engineers. I love heart surgeons. I love lawyers and accountants. I love economists. Heck, I love software developers so much that I even married one.
Your SMEs are the life’s blood of your organization, the masterminds behind your innovation, the thought leaders that lend authority to your brand.
But there’s one place even the most revered SME just don’t belong: your content team.
Do we need their expertise? Yes. Do we need their insights on what’s going on in our industry? You bet. So it makes sense that they should be the ones to craft our content, right? Umm, yeah, about that …
Why We Have SMEs Writing Content
In companies around the world, large and small, across all industries, SMEs are creating content. I don’t mean they’re providing input for a content specialist to spin into inbound marketing gold — I mean they’re writing the stuff themselves.
Hey, it’s not such a crazy idea, for a number of reasons:
They know stuff.
We all know that, for all our geeking out over style, interactivity, multimedia, and other bells and whistles, content is all about … well, about the content. We need to offer good information and insights, and our SME’s have both in boatloads. Why filter all that information through a writer, burdening him/her with the task of (a) getting up to speed on the topic and (b) translating the SME’s ideas into content? Why not, as the idiom goes, get the good stuff straight from the horse’s mouth?
Hey, it’s easy to develop a complex when you work on the content marketing team. It seems your mission is dead last on everyone’s priority list, and getting even basic information often feels like pulling teeth. So when an SME steps forward and actually offers to contribute, it can seem like a gift from heaven. We can almost hear the Disney birds chirping in the background as we exclaim, “Wait … someone wants to contribute to our brand’s content? How lucky are we?”
They’ve done the publishing thing.
If your SMEs are true thought leaders in your industry, they’ve probably published before. They’ve written papers for industry journals. They’ve pulled together articles for online publications. I’m guessing they’ve even presented at industry conferences. All worthwhile content-focused endeavors, right? So why would you not want to have these folks write for your blog?
It’s one less thing on your content team’s plate.
“Oh yeah, we have more than enough people to do everything we set out to do,” said no content marketer, ever. Even in large enterprises, content teams are continuously strapped for time and resources. So when an SME steps up and offers to take some of that content off your plate, it seems like a dream come true.
If you’ve read this far (and skipped the title), you may be hopping off to pick up the phone and recruit some SMEs into the friendly fold that is your content team.
Whoa there, Sparky. Let’s back the truck up for a second here.
Why That’s a Bad Idea
Yes, it’s really tempting to hand off a chunk of our content creation duties to a well-meaning SME. And as with most temptations, the idea has more than its share of pitfalls:
Content writing isn’t their primary skill set.
It’s not that SMEs can’t be decent writers; many of them are quite skilled. But if they found themselves pounding the pavement and looking for a new job tomorrow, they wouldn’t be looking for writing jobs. They’d be looking for opportunities in their areas of expertise, and that’s as it should be.
It’s a subtle difference, but an important one, between being able to write (even write well) and supporting a content marketing program with engaging, user-focused, search-friendly assets. Even if they do know writing, they probably don’t know SEO. They probably don’t know your audience the way you do. They’ve probably never spent an hour or more sweating over the optimal wording for a title.
Even if one or more of your SMEs are gracious enough to offer their time and talents in support of your mission, their contributions will probably never wind up as a line item on their annual reviews. They have stuff to do — probably a lot of stuff.
So even if they have the best intentions, SMEs must give top priority to the stuff they’re actually paid to do. That means when they get busy, you get bumped to the bottom of their lists. When that happens, get ready to go into stalker mode: [beeeeep] “Umm, hey, Dr. Baker, sorry to be pestering you yet again, but your blog post is due tomorrow, aaaaaand …”
They’re not marketers.
When we publish content, we’re not just sharing good ideas for the sake of sharing them. Everything we put out there is one piece in a much bigger mosaic designed to attract people into our lead-generation system, where they can eventually become customers.
That’s why every piece we publish has to be carefully positioned to play its role in that process. And that positioning is only safe in the hands of a skilled content marketer — one who knows your brand and your audience inside and out, who understands the goal of each asset, and who can craft your content perfectly to play a successful role in your marketing mission.
What to Do Instead
Does this mean we have to turn SMEs away from our doors, to pat them on the head with an “Aww, thanks, hon, but this is best left to the experts” and send them back to their labs?
Of course not. We need our SMEs, and not only the ones who volunteer to contribute to our mission. What I’m saying is there’s a way to work with them that blends their unparalleled expertise with the unique skills and knowledge of our content marketing teams. Here’s how.
1. Create a process
Before you approach a single SME, or consider the offer of one who has volunteered, it’s important to have a process in place. Be sure to address the following questions:
- How often will you request the expert’s input, and how far in advance of your publication date will you contact him or her?
- How will you get the basic information from the expert — in-person interviews, phone interviews, emails, information extracted from papers or presentations?
- How will you involve the expert in the content creation process? Will he or she have a chance to review a draft, or have final signoff just before it publishes?
2. Set expectations
When you begin working with an expert, share the process you developed in Step 1, and make sure he or she understands that everything you publish is subject to an editorial process. If you’re working towards a specific deliverable, share each deadline with him or her (not just your target publication date) and the workflows involved. Finally, make it clear that you value his or her input on the facts and information contained in the piece, and that your team has final say on issues such as wording, grammar, and presentation.
3. Be professional
Treat your SMEs just as you would an industry expert outside your company. Be respectful of their time, be courteous (especially when discussing their feedback), keep your promises, and make sure to thank them for their input.
4. Give them ownership
Hey, things move fast in the content marketing universe, and it’s so tempting to move right on to the next thing as soon as a piece is published. But don’t forget to close the loop: Let your SME know that the piece you’ve been working on is now out there on the web in all its glory. Send a link to the final product with a final thank-you for his or her contribution.
If we’re going to publish relevant, insightful content, cooperation with our SMEs isn’t just a nice-to-have — it’s absolutely vital, but we need to be strategic about it. We need their involvement, yet we never want to toss content over the fence completely and expect them to become content creators.
We do need to find a happy, middle-of-the-road place where we can get the maximum benefit of our thought leaders’ expertise while maintaining the control that makes the most of our content marketing skills. Once we get to that space, we’re in a perfect position to publish content that offers the greatest benefit for our audience … and our strategy.
Find out why Joe Pulizzi, Founder of the Content Marketing Institute, had this to say about The Content Marketing Coach: Everything You Need to Get in the Game … and WIN:
“A simple yet effective guide to an approach that most businesses get flat out wrong. Do yourself and your business a favor and take a deep dive into this book. You won’t regret it.”
About the Author
A self-described geek who can recite entire episodes of South Park by heart, Rachel Parker has had a passion for content ever since she was old enough to hold a crayon (purple, please).
As Founder and CEO of Resonance, Rachel helps businesses publish content that connects with their audience … and converts those followers into customers. She’s also the host of the Content Marketing Podcast and author of the book The Content Marketing Coach: Everything You Need to Get in the Game … and WIN!