You don’t need content creators with deep vertical experience to develop a unique viewpoint that makes your brand compelling to target audiences.
By collaborating with subject matter experts, creators can help transform decades of experience into powerful storytelling. But mistakes in the partnership can lead to poor content and reduce internal support for SME content in the long run.
Here are four common mistakes to avoid so that your SME content connects better with your target audience and you connect better with the subject matter experts.
1. Forgetting about the audience
Surprisingly, content creators often forget about their audience when deciding what to write. Almost half of marketers (49%) struggle to determine what their audiences want to read, a 29% increase from the previous year, according to Typeset’s 2021 State of Writing.
Sarah Mitchell, co-founder at Typeset, is an experienced brand journalist and content marketer. She says that the root cause of the problem is a preference for third-party data over speaking to customers.
“Less than half the marketers who answered the survey are in direct contact with their customers,” Sarah says. “Instead, they’re relying on analytics, social media signals, or secondhand information from other people in the business.”
Answering the questions your readers ask is essential to audience-focused content. Failing to do this creates two problems when working with SMEs.
“First, you may not be extracting the most valuable information from them,” Sarah says. “Second, getting time from SMEs can be difficult. If they don’t see a return on their investment, it will be an uphill battle for marketing to get help from them in the future.”
She continues, “Ask your audience what they want and let that guide how you engage your SMEs.”
To do that, establish processes that enable you to create content for your audience, not your business. “Pick up the phone, create a survey, or get involved in online discussions. Direct contact with your target audience can be the most satisfying activity for content marketers,” Sarah explains.
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2. Failing to provide content goals
To work successfully with SMEs, you should brief them on the content goals before the interview. Andi Robinson, global content leader at Corteva Agriscience, has led content operations and a global content marketing program.
“Marketers who work with SMEs often fail to provide context to the SME prior to engaging with them. You need to give the SME information about who you are trying to reach and what your goals are,” she says.
Briefing experts on content objectives leads to fewer rounds of reviews and better results. But how do you link SME expertise with the content goals?
Andi asks these questions to put the expert’s perspective alongside the market context:
- Is this SME used to talking in technical terms while your audience is less technical?
- Is this SME used to talking about product benefits when the content goal is to create awareness?
The answers can indicate the potential misalignment. Quickly close the gap by providing the SME with the context for the content along with the relevant data points. This now shared common understanding brings the SME closer to your audience and links this tactical content to its strategic goals.
“Most SMEs will know their area well enough that they can easily adjust if you tell them what you are looking to get out of your work together,” Andi explains.
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3. Writing before the SME interview
While helping SMEs understand the content objectives will help drive success, avoid letting the strategic intention dictate the content. SMEs can provide unexpected insights and surprising angles.
Ashley Faus, content strategy lead at Atlassian, has run content marketing for major software and technology organizations. “Many marketers make the mistake of writing the asset before talking to the SMEs, and then ask closed-ended questions or leading questions to ‘fill in’ the rest of the piece with expert quotes,” she says.
For example, outlining the content around keywords and existing research can be problematic before you get guidance from the SME. It can lead to content that is not informed by expert opinion.
“The result is an article that can rank but has little or no unique point of view,” Ashley says.
To uncover the most interesting angles, interview specialists first:
- Ask open-ended questions.
- Follow up on different threads.
It’s also necessary to record the call and prepare a transcript. “Since SMEs are often busy and in high demand, getting as much information from them as possible is much better than simply trying to lend credibility to an already crafted asset,” Ashley says. “This way, the marketer draws out true expertise, and often, they end up with more information for additional pieces of content than simply asking a couple of leading questions.
4. Ignoring the experts
Interviewing experts before writing content is key, but it isn’t a magic bullet. To create a powerful piece, you need to listen to what your SMEs say.
Amy Higgins, senior director content strategy, at Twilio, has spent her career creating content that audiences want to read. “I believe a ton of times as marketers, we go into a call or an interview with SMEs with very specific expectations,” she says.
Let the experts guide the conversation to uncover unique ideas, stories, and opinions that will enrich your argument. “I’ve been on many calls with SMEs who help expand the narrative and offer insight that I would have never thought about,” Amy says.
“This could lead the conversation in a different direction than what my ‘program’ needs. But when we listen, really listen, to our SMEs, they provide much more actionable insight that is more relatable to our intended audiences.”
The point is clear: How you work with SMEs directly impacts the value that your content offers to your audience. It’s a competitive advantage as most creators follow their set topics and miss the unique angles that will draw in their audience. Their outcome is content that reinforces what they (and their audience) already know.
To avoid copycat content, you should get better at collaboration, and that starts with listening. “My advice when working with SMEs – listen more and love the journey of discovery,” Amy says.
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Be ready to listen and discover
If you want your collaboration with SMEs to be more than a routine exercise, be open to discovering new and interesting directions. You often can more easily create the content you think is needed, but then you would miss out on what your audience says they want and get focused insight from SMEs to build your brand’s content credibility. That’s how you establish a competitive edge.
Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute