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Consulting a subject matter expert (SME) is one of the most effective strategies for developing interesting and engaging content. The details they provide can significantly enhance blogs, white papers, videos, social media posts, and more.

They’re not just valuable resources for converting the small fraction of your audience who are ready to buy today. SMEs also offer great ways to build brand integrity, trust and credibility with the 95% or so of your readers who don’t know how much they need you — yet.

Why Use SMEs in Thought Leadership?

SMEs spend a lot of time thinking about the same challenges as your audience. In some cases, they may even match one of your customer profiles or have a similar background . As a result, their specialized insights are likely to be highly relevant to your customers and prospects. What’s more, if the SME has designed a product or conducted exclusive research, they may have unique advice to offer that your readers can’t get anywhere else.

Content that highlights SMEs can give your readers a glimpse behind the scenes of your organization, which is beneficial in an age where transparency is becoming more highly valued by B2B buyers. It also conveys the impression that your organization is an innovative thought leader. According to a 2020 B2B Thought Leadership Impact Study by Edelman Business Marketing and LinkedIn, 89% of decision-makers said thought leadership improved their perception of an organization and 49% credited it with influencing their purchasing decisions.

In addition, SMEs are often more appealing to engineers and other technical staff who can influence your clients’ buying decisions. These roles tend to be wary of more overt marketing and public relations efforts. SMEs who come across as pragmatic problem-solvers can ease these concerns, especially if it’s clear they understand readers’ technical challenges.

Does Your SME Need a Ph.D.?

The most important trait to look for in any SME is deep category experience. That might mean they have an advanced academic degree or a seat at the C-suite conference table, but neither of these traits is essential. Good prospects can be found in any department at any level of your organization. A 30-year veteran sales representative can make an excellent SME, even if they only have a high-school education. But don’t overlook a talented self-trained whiz kid, either — especially if you’re talking about the latest cutting-edge technology.

Ideally, your SME should be willing — and better yet, eager — to teach others. The more passionate they are about sharing their expertise, the more likely their insights will translate into compelling content. Strong options to consider can include:

  • Product designers/engineers can make particularly good SMEs because they’re incentivized to spread the word about the things they create.
  • Salespeople and product managers are “in the trenches” with your customers every day and often have the latest insights into what really motivates buyers.
  • C-suite SMEs have cache because they’re leaders in your organization. That said, make sure they’re in tune with the rank and file; it won’t serve you if they make claims your team can’t (or won’t) support.

These are just a few possibilities. Wherever you find your SMEs, however, they’ll be most effective if they know your audience well.

The “Care and Feeding” of SMEs

It’s important to have your content strategy mapped out before you choose your SMEs. Try not to rely on people who aren’t aligned with your marketing objectives. The reverse is also true: avoid setting your goals without consulting potential SMEs ahead of time. Even if you don’t completely agree with their opinions, it’s worth getting their input to minimize opportunities for friction when you start developing content. If possible, it’s also best not to force reluctant SMEs to participate in marketing efforts.

If you plan to feature an SME regularly, it’s a good idea to provide them with some media training. This is especially important if they’re going to interface directly with the public or handle situations where buyers can ask open-ended questions. Training is less of an issue, but still useful, if you’re just consulting with an SME for occasional background material.

Position your SMEs as experts who are in touch with, and responsive to, your buyers’ concerns and challenges. You can help them establish this type of reputation by providing guidance that keeps them focused on customer goals and pain points. SMEs sometimes obsess over details that may not be as important to your audience. If so, it may be necessary to do a bit of Geek-to-English translation. Be prepared to help them see their specialty from the perspective of a customer or end-user.

Always thank your SMEs, and be respectful of their time and contributions. Even those who fully understand the value of marketing often feel a bit outside their comfort zone. Remember, too, that your SMEs are likely to have at least half a dozen other things competing for their attention and expertise.

Beyond Content

Creating opportunities for SMEs to interact directly with customers and prospects can benefit everyone concerned, even if they’re not typically in client-facing roles. Prospects struggling with a specific challenge often welcome the opportunity to consult with an expert who can point them in the right direction. 

Webinars, panel discussions, trade show presentations or private customer events all offer SMEs chances to shine. Powerful moments can happen if your organization’s expert helps a potential buyer understand or overcome a current challenge. Positive experiences like this can even generate sales from prospects eager to benefit from more of your SME’s advice.

SMEs also profit from regular exposure to the voice of the customer, which helps them to stay in the loop with buyer needs and concerns. 

Maximizing SME Value

Details matter in B2B thought leadership, and that’s where SMEs shine. Their input can mean the difference between bland, general fluff and topics that motivate customers to choose you over your rivals. Done right, SME-driven content not only conveys the impression of expertise and innovation, but of experts who “get it” when it comes to the needs of your audience. Building trust in your SMEs encourages prospects to think of you as a go-to resource — and turn to you when they’re ready to buy.