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Which Matters More: Content Skills or Subject Matter Expertise? [Rose-Colored Glasses]

Whenever I hear someone use the term SME (pronounced “smee”) for subject matter expert, I imagine a Dr. Seuss-like character and accompanying verse:

On the 25th day of March, in the jungle of sales,
In the pall of the calls, the in of the bound,
He yelled, “Data! Information!” and other leadership sounds.
Then the SME stopped and turned slightly away.
He was out. Simply out. No more thoughts came his way.

Yes, the story of a thought leader who runs out of thoughts. I should write that.

But content teams typically face a slightly different problem. They struggle to decide who should express those thoughts.

Specifically, they wonder: “Should we bring in SMEs and teach them to write? Or should we hire writers and teach them the industry?”

Should you bring SMEs into your #ContentMarketing plans and teach them to write? Or hire writers and build their subject matter expertise? asks @Robert_Rose via @CMIContent. Share on X

That question reminds me of a great story about UPS that might be an urban legend (but I like it anyway). As the story goes, someone asked a UPS CEO how they encourage such excellent customer service from their drivers. The CEO answered, “We don’t hire drivers and teach them customer service. We hire friendly customer service reps and teach them to drive.”

Which comes first: Content skills or subject matter expertise?

Does that approach work in content marketing? Does it make more sense to try to get more content from subject matter experts or to try to instill subject matter expertise into content creators?

I’ve found the latter is almost always the better strategy.

When I was a CMO, the software company I worked for operated in a niche market that required a good amount of subject matter expertise and technical knowledge. I knew from my days as a writer in the entertainment business how rare content creation talent is.

My philosophy was to hire the best writers (often journalists) and designers I could find. I felt I could teach them enough of the subject matter to create great content. Interestingly, I also ended up teaching them marketing. In other words, I hired fantastic content creators and taught them the industry and marketing.

Spoiler alert: It worked.

But this philosophy works best when two fundamental things are true:

1. The business agrees to invest time and resources to help great content creators develop subject matter expertise. Developing expertise isn’t an overnight thing – it’s an ongoing process. SMEs usually aren’t great content creators because they’re so busy keeping up their knowledge that they don’t have the time to hone their content creation skills.

2. The content creators want to become at least basic-level SMEs. In my work with consulting clients, I’ve encountered content marketing teams made up of journalists and talented writers who don’t have any interest in the topics important to the business. They say things like, “Yeah, we’ve got thought leaders for that. I’m just here to make sure that the content is sound.” Those creators feel their job is simply to make sure the i’s are dotted and the t’s are crossed while earning better pay than they could as journalists. I tell these folks to start looking now – because they won’t be with the company for long.

How to build expertise on your content team

Assuming your company meets these two requirements, you need three elements to start balancing subject matter expertise and content creation skills.

1. Create an education program

I often recommend to my consulting clients that they create ongoing knowledge-sharing opportunities. For example, I ran Pizza and Knowledge Sharing Fridays in my CMO role. We’d invite technical subject matter experts to give an informal class to content creators over pizza. They’d talk about trends in the industry, go into depth about a particular challenge or just provide 101 education on how the technology worked.

You won’t need more thought leaders for your industry if you have content creators who know how to think about your industry. Investing in training about your topics and industry pays off.

Of course, you can do the reverse – hold classes to teach subject matter experts how to create content. Somehow those are never as well attended. I wonder why.

You won’t need more thought leaders for your industry if you have #content creators who know how to think about your industry, says @Robert_Rose via @CMIContent. Share on X

2. Integrate SMEs ride-alongs into your content creation process

Your content writers will never have the expertise of your best SMEs (though I’ve seen exceptions to this rule). But they don’t need it. Think about the best journalists in finance, for example. They aren’t necessarily expert money managers – but they have deep subject matter knowledge. Make sure these communities get time together to brainstorm and create ideas. Expose your content writers to the SMEs to help both groups amplify their voices (in their limited time).

Your #content writers will never have the expertise of your best SMEs (though I’ve seen exceptions to this rule). But they don’t need it, says @Robert_Rose via @CMIContent. Share on X

For example, in my CMO job, I wanted our CTO to have a blog. He was a busy guy who didn’t want to write. I encouraged him to leave me voicemails about the things on his mind as he was driving home. I’d have a service transcribe the voicemail, and I’d give the transcript to a writer who would transform it into a blog post with the CTO’s byline. They met once a month to make sure he was happy with the resulting post. This gave our CTO a well-written blog post once a month (or sometimes multiple times).

Try to incorporate interviews, monthly meetings, ride-alongs, or whatever works to give your content writers access to the SME (and the SME to the writer). They’ll build trust and appreciation for each other’s skills.

3. Consider renting as you scale

You only want to invest in people who you believe will hang around. So, most of your education investment should go into employees vs. freelancers. But you don’t be afraid to rent top-level thought leadership occasionally.

Invest in training in-house #content creators, But don’t be afraid to rent top-level thought leaders occasionally, says @Robert_Rose via @CMIContent. Share on X

As part of your strategy, you can include “renting” subject matter experts (including journalists) in your space. Remember, many people who write for newspapers, magazines, and other publications have their own blogs or content platforms and may be open to freelance opportunities. “Renting” their services helps you fill editorial gaps and (potentially) educate both your SMEs and your in-house content creators.

Over time, you can start to build a strategy that balances subject matter expertise and content creation and hiring employees vs. outsourcing. For example, you might plan to rely on:

  • A level-one expert content creator – an in-house SME who can write and even teach other writers
  • A level-one expert freelancer – an outsourced SME who creates content occasionally
  • A level-two expert creator – an in-house employee who knows enough to write the framework or transform raw SME material into great content
  • A level-three expert creator – a freelance writer who can transform SME material into well-constructed articles with some input
  • A level-four expert – A junior in-house or freelance writer who needs well-formed topics and subject matter support to turn out a decent article

When the SME finds me

Perform an audit of where you are now. Then start building your hiring and education and freelance plan to develop your content-team strategy.

You’ll end up with a happy ending for your Dr. Seuss rhyme:

The SME stopped and turned slightly away
He was out. Simply out. No more thoughts came his way.
The SME sighed, then laughed and opened up Slack
Because he knew of a crew that could build those thoughts right back.
It was Me that he found, Me, the creator.
Together we’d scramble and put pen to paper.
Because I knew his world, I’d help him adjust
And put more thoughts in his head that he could just trust.
On the 25th day of March, in the jungle of sales
The SME and Me create content that prevails.

It’s your story. Tell it well.

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute