Whether you’re creating content for SEO or running a business, the last thing you want to do is spread misinformation. In the age of information, knowledge is crucial—and subject matter experts are more relevant than ever.

A subject matter expert (SME) has in-depth, comprehensive knowledge about a specific topic. They use this expertise to analyze industry trends or educate an audience. Above all, SMEs can help you establish your brand as a credible source of information.

This blog will go over the ins and outs of how to work with a subject matter expert and how you can make the most of them.

What is the role of a subject matter expert?

As professionals with knowledge and experience in a particular area, SMEs use their know-how in service of a business. SMEs can work within your company—for example, a marketing manager might be a SME when it comes to outreach campaigns. They can also be hired as a third party.

SMEs perform a variety of tasks, but in essence they use their subject matter expertise to make recommendations, guide a company’s decision making, and share their knowledge to support the company. This can look like a SME consulting with a company on how they use their resources, recommending a new process, helping to create content, and more.

Benefits of working with subject matter experts

As authorities in their fields, SMEs provide fact-checked, relevant content. This is especially helpful for search engine rankings, which prioritize credible sources. If your SME is well known within their field, they can promote your content through thought leadership. By having their name attached, your project will appear more credible from the get-go.

Moreover, SMEs can break down complicated technical concepts in a way that’s easier to understand. While this helps with content creation, it can also guide your content strategy. A SME who specializes in SEO, for example, can offer suggestions to optimize your content for the web.

Plus, SMEs contribute to a company’s marketing efforts in a number of ways. They know and understand current industry trends, which they can use to inform the direction of your content marketing strategy. If they’re well known within their field, SMEs can spread the news of your company’s content to reach more people.

Finally, SMEs can contribute to driving sales for your company. If you train SMEs for a sales position related to their area of expertise, they’ll be able to help clients make informed decisions. Outside of sales, they can offer insights through content that speaks to the audience on a deeper, well-informed level.

When to work with subject matter experts

Subject matter experts are useful for all businesses, especially for those with less in-house subject matter expertise. This is especially the case for projects that require specialized knowledge, like if you need someone to explain a technical concept or understand industry-specific terms.

For example, SMEs are particularly common in e-learning content. An e-learning company designing a physics course may not have an internal expert and so would consult with a SME to design content for that course.

SMEs can also be invited to speak on podcasts, contribute to blogs, or help with content strategy. You may be interested in interviewing a SME to give an article deeper nuance or to have the SME supply a quote.

Things to consider before you work with a subject matter expert

Because SMEs fill a variety of roles, it’s important to understand what you are specifically looking for when you hire one. Do you need a researcher to provide background knowledge on a blog article? Are you looking to partner with a thought leader who can promote your content? Do you need a consultant or a writer?

Or are you looking for a SME with a more structural skillset—someone who can assess your marketing campaigns or leadership structure and offer recommendations?

Finding a subject matter expert

Once you know what you need, consider the who. Do you have in-house experts with the knowledge necessary to give your content nuance? Will you need to work with an external expert? Will you create brand-new content or repurpose it?

You can find SMEs to work with through social media or your network. Additionally, consult professional organizations as well as your competition. Who do other people highlight? Who has the expertise you’re looking for?

When to enlist a subject matter expert

The earlier the better when it comes to enlisting SMEs, especially if your project relies on content or research your SME produces. In the ideation phase, SMEs can help brainstorm ideas for subject matter or offer input on creating a content schedule.

SMEs can write engaging content. If you use content writing services, your SME may not be involved in the actual content creation, but they can serve as an editor to ensure its accuracy.

Challenges of working with subject matter experts

Though SMEs offer beneficial insight, any project can run into challenges.

Time commitments

SMEs are often busy, and your project may take a lower priority in their lives. If they don’t have enough time to balance their other obligations, they can miss deadlines or rush their work.

Communication challenges between subject matter experts and businesses

SMEs may have a narrow focus. For example, the SME may be part of a unique niche without further understanding of a broader subject. This may not be applicable to your project goals. To avoid this, it’s vital to clarify what you’re looking for from a SME from the beginning.

There may be knowledge gaps which can affect communication. Your team may not have background knowledge needed to understand the SME. Meanwhile, the SME may not understand the team’s goals or the project’s full scope. Different expectations and different professional backgrounds create a misaligned understanding of what the project is about.

For example, a SME contributing to an e-learning course brings their specific domain knowledge. However, they may not be familiar with e-learning or the elements of instructional design. In that case, it’s important for the SME to understand how their knowledge is applied. The e-learning team should communicate to the SME what the learning objectives are for the course. This will help the SME know how to turn their expertise into accessible information for online learners.

Accessibility of information

In a similar vein, another challenge when working with SMEs is accessibility. SMEs may struggle to simplify their technical experience into a more approachable format. They may have a lot of knowledge in their field, but the ability to teach it to others is a different skill entirely.

Teams must work with SMEs to break down highly technical information into content that’s easier to grasp for general audiences. This may require cutting out some elements that aren’t relevant to the company’s end goal. In some cases, this can grate against a SME’s preconceived idea about how things should work and what content should be prioritized.

These many possible challenges can seem daunting. How do you mitigate them? Consider the following dos and don’ts.

Working with subject matter expert dos

  • Do brief your SME and team from the beginning.
  • Do research your SME’s area of expertise before you meet with them. This will help you better understand where they’re coming from and prepare you to make the most of your time together. Ask good questions and explain your own role so SMEs can understand your background.
  • Do be open-minded toward SME input. Be willing to compromise, but also respectfully assert your company goals to guide SMEs toward solutions that work best.
  • Do give SMEs adequate time to complete the project.

Working with subject matter expert don’ts

  • Don’t leave deadlines open or unclear.
  • Don’t assume the SME knows everything about your development process. While SMEs have specialized knowledge in their area of expertise, they don’t know everything—which means you have knowledge about your company that the SME doesn’t. Take time to define your goals and how you measure success within your field.
  • Don’t focus only on your goals. Listen to what the SME’s goals are and what they intend to bring to the working relationship.
  • Don’t be vague. Clearly define your SME’s roles, deadlines, and expectations.
  • Don’t forget to thank them for their time and effort.

Ways to work effectively with subject matter experts

Whether you work with a SME once or want to form a long-term professional relationship, it’s important to emphasize communication and respect. In doing so, you’ll be able to sidestep misunderstandings and pitfalls, and you’ll bring credibility to your business practices.

Ways to cultivate respect toward subject matter experts

The most obvious way to show that you respect your SMEs is to show your appreciation for them. Thank them for their time and effort. Actively listen to them when they talk and ask questions. This shows that you’re paying attention. Plus, it will help you better understand your SME’s goals and how they align with yours.

Respect your SME’s time by setting realistic schedules and preparing for meetings. When making a schedule, ask your SME for input about how much time they think they’ll need. It’s often best to overestimate to allow for unexpected setbacks. In meetings, do research, take notes, and prepare questions.

Tips for communication

Poor communication kills relationships and projects. To begin with, clearly define roles and expectations. This includes setting deadlines and discussing with your SME how their role fits into the bigger picture.

Provide SMEs with feedback and keep them updated on how the project’s going. Check in with them to see how they’re doing. In doing so, you can anticipate if they need more time, if your timeline or project plan needs to be adjusted, and if you need to rearrange any resources. Where applicable, invite your SMEs to meetings.

Set up a two-way communication channel to allow SMEs to offer feedback or ask questions, just as you offer feedback to them.

Collaborating with subject matter experts

Often, the project leader or project manager is responsible for collaborating with SMEs. The project team can help decide what kind of SME they need and who to reach out to. If your SME is involved with content marketing, the content marketing team should be involved in assigning roles and finding SMEs.

SMEs can also be in-house employees with specialized knowledge. For example, a social media manager who has a specific strength for organizing Instagram outreach campaigns or crafting clickable social media content could be a SME.

Assigning roles when working with subject matter experts

When assigning roles, determine what you need your SMEs for. Are they creating content? Are they consulting? The purpose affects the role. Other factors include how involved the SME is, whether they’ll be there long term or short term, how much time the SME has available for your project, and who’s working on your team.

Let’s take the example of a company who has to write a blog article about a new medical technology. The team brings in a doctor with a specialization in that field as a consultant. That SME may work with the content marketing team to provide research notes, explain high-level concepts, and point to other reputable sources for further citation. Once the article is written, the SME could work with the editing team to fact-check it and verify its accuracy.

The importance of subject matter expertise

In a world where a limitless amount of information can flow from every corner of the globe thanks to the internet, subject matter expertise is crucial. By working with credible, knowledgeable sources, you can avoid the spread of misinformation. Moreover, SMEs can take a deluge of information and process it into approachable pieces.

While not everyone is a subject matter expert, you can grow your own base of knowledge. Our blog offers tips and resources to help you do just that. Check it out!

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