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How To Be A Subject Matter Expert When You Don’t Know The Topic

by Ben Sailer

Copywriters and content marketers are often required to write about industries or topics they know little about.

This can make it a challenge to position your company or client as an authoritative industry voice. You may have strong marketing chops, but what if you’re not an expert on your company’s niche?

Knowing what you’re talking about is imperative to your success. Passionate audiences can smell fakes, and they won’t hesitate to let you know when you miss the mark.

Fortunately, you aren’t the first intrepid wordsmith to find yourself in this situation. Others in the same position have succeeded. And with the right knowledge, you can, too.

The key is to make yourself a subject matter expert.

Ben Sailer know what your talking about

What Is A Subject Matter Expert?

A subject matter expert (or SME) is someone who knows their stuff inside and out. According to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, “A subject matter expert, or SME, is a ‘person with bona fide expert knowledge about what it takes to do a particular job.’”

That’s exactly how a content marketer should be able to sound: like someone who knows how to help your audience get stuff done.

So, How Do You Become A Subject Matter Expert?

It comes down to three things:

  1. Understanding how to do thorough research. This means going beyond Google and Wikipedia and getting deep into the weeds. You have to immerse yourself in the industry and community you’re trying to reach.
  2. Knowing how to write in your brand’s voice (and not just your own). Creatives occasionally have trouble leaving their egos behind when creating client work. However, effectively capturing your brand’s voice is crucial for conversions. People want to engage with, and buy from, companies that sound like they know what they’re talking about.
  3. Learning how to take complex material and break it down so it can be understood by your audience. Clients and company heads will sometimes ask that content include gritty technical details or obscure data that’s more important to executives and engineers than customers. Audiences typically care more about benefits for themselves. The challenge for a writer is to find a way to balance both ends. This means presenting audiences with compelling content while backing up claims with hard data and objective facts.

Bringing these three skills together will help you accomplish the following:

  • Know what you’re talking about. Content marketers require a high level of domain knowledge.
  • Know who you’re talking to. You may think you know your audience. Without doing research, however, you’re operating on assumptions.
  • Know how to talk to them. Developing the right voice and tone, while using the right verbiage, is key to reaching any audience (and driving conversions).

know how to talk

Let’s dig into how to put these principles into practice.

Understand How To Do Deep Research

If you want to become an SME, you’ll need to level up your research game.

That means you’ll need more than Google and Wikipedia to help you here. In fact, for now, forget Wikipedia even exists.

We’re going to roll up our sleeves and do some real research.

Interview Internal Experts In Your Company

Don’t have your own knowledge? Leverage someone else.

If you’re just starting out at a new company, or onboarding a new client, spend some time talking to their internal experts. These could be product designers, engineers, programmers, sales people–anyone who really knows what you’re tasked with writing about.

Here’s how.

  1. First, find out who the top experts are in your organization. If you’re unsure who these folks might be, try asking around. Your supervisor or someone in a senior leadership position should be able to point you in the right direction.
  2. Develop a list of questions. Odds are you have a lot of them. If you need some help generating a good list, try thinking like a journalist and remember the 5 W’s:
    • Who: Who does this topic pertain to? Who performs this task? Who is the customer you’re trying to reach?
    • What: What does your customer do? What do they need marketing’s help to understand?
    • Why: Why does your audience face certain problems? Why do they perform tasks a certain way?
    • How: How does your audience work? How does your product or service operate?
    • When: When do customers typically buy this product? When is this product or service used?

These are just some ideas to get you thinking.

  1. Talk to the co-workers around you. Everyone in your organization probably knows something you can use. And you don’t always need to have questions prepared first. If you run into someone at the water cooler, and there’s something you’d like to know, ask. You’d be surprised how much knowledge you can absorb over time without realizing it.

Talk to your co-workers

Hang Out Where Your Audience Does Online

Learn as much as you can about the audience you’re marketing toward. There are several ways you can do this. All of them are easy and low-cost.

  1. Visit online forums in your industry. This can be a great way to learn what’s important to your audience, identify trends, and develop an understanding of the vocabulary they use.
  2. Monitor social media conversations. Social listening tools like Mention are perfect for advanced social monitoring. Another option is to do a Twitter search for accounts related to industry keywords. See what people are saying.
  3. Join relevant social media groups. Professional groups on Facebook and LinkedIn can offer opportunities to communicate with your audience and see what things they’re talking about.

hang out online

Do Some Competitive Research

You can learn a lot from your competition. Here are a few ways to do this:

  • Read through their website copy. Make note of the terminology they use. Determine what kinds of customers they’re targeting.
  • Spy on their Twitter following. Look through their Twitter followers. This can give you a quick understanding of who their customers might be. Scan their bios to see how they describe themselves.
  • Sign up for competitor’s email newsletters. Odds are, they’ll be sending out useful information to their lists. Nothing wrong with using that knowledge yourself.
  • Read their print collateral. Same goes for any magazines or brochures they may have.
  • Search social media for competitors you may not know about. Go on Twitter or Facebook and search for businesses related to your client or business. You might find competition you didn’t know about. Then, learn everything you can about them and their audience.

Read Industry Publications

Subscribe to any industry publications you can find (if your company doesn’t have them around the office already). Get all the magazines and trade publications you can. Sign up for their email newsletters too. Follow them on social media while you’re at it.

Research Job Descriptions In Related Industries

Digging through job descriptions for positions related to your customer or client’s industry can provide insight into what your target audience actually does. There are a few ways you can approach this.

  1. Search large career websites. Monster.com, Indeed.com, and CareerBuilder.com are easy places to start. See what skills they’re hiring for and which tasks they expect employees to complete. This can help put yourself in your audience’s shoes.
  2. Browse the careers section of competitor’s websites. This can provide a lot of the same information you’ll find via job search engines.
  3. Talk to people in your company. We’ve touched on this before, but seriously, it’s one of the easiest ways to get information fast. If you’re writing about something that pertains to a particular skill set someone in your company has, ask them about their job.

Run Audience Surveys

Surveys are awesome because they provide direct audience feedback. Plus, there are simple tools available that make them easy to set up. Here’s how to get started.

  1. Pick your platform. Survey Monkey and Polldaddy are two popular options. Either will work.
  2. Generate a list of questions. Make them good questions, too. Every question you ask should be tied to something specific you want to know more about. Aim for 10 to 12 things you’d like to ask.
  3. Set a time frame for your survey. Anywhere from a week to a month can work.
  4. Build a promotion plan around your survey. This can be as simple as creating a social media campaign and pushing your survey to your email lists. Clearly communicate the participation deadline. This doesn’t necessarily need to be complicated. Some simple social messages may be all you need:                       My cool king
  5. Offer people a reward for participating. That could mean offer a discount to a select number of participants, or sending out free swag. This isn’t essential, but it may help increase participation.

Follow Relevant Social Media Accounts

When looking up social media accounts in your industry, follow them. Like their pages on Facebook, and follow them on Twitter and LinkedIn. Industry publications, professional organizations, trade groups, competitors, and influential industry individuals are all strong targets to follow.

Get Inside Your Audience’s Head With A Simple User Persona

Personas can be immensely useful when you’re trying to write for an unfamiliar audience.

A persona is essentially a character description of your typical reader or customer. They can be as simple as a stock photo headshot and a brief personality description, or more complex.

Here’s a quick two-step process for developing a simple persona:

  • Identify your target demographic. Determine the following:
    • Age
    • Sex
    • Profession
    • Location
    • Common problems and pain points
    • Interests and hobbies
  • Write a short description of your persona’s character. Try to think how this person would describe themselves.

Characteristics of your persona

Understand And Develop Your Brand’s Voice

Having the right background information is only half the battle. You also have to know how to sound like someone your audience wants to listen to. Your choice of words and use of technical language have to be on point.

Otherwise, you could end up coming off like this:

Steve Buscemi meme

Don’t risk looking or sounding clueless. Do your homework, sharpen your skills, and get your brand voice right.

How Can You Write In A Voice That Isn’t Your Own?

Creative professionals often want to inject their own style and voice into their work.

Creativity is what drove most of us into this profession in the first place. We don’t want to be clock-punching cogs in anyone else’s machine.

However, to do our jobs right, we have to set creative ego aside and do what’s best for our organizations and audiences. That means putting yourself in your audience’s shoes and creating the content they need. Or, crafting the copy that will compel them to purchase.

set aside ego

This should always be your goal, even if it means your writing isn’t as cute or clever as you’d like (although we’re certainly not arguing against catchy copy).

Getting into your audience’s head isn’t easy though. Nor is writing in the voice of your brand, rather than yourself. However, both are critical to your success.

So, how do you write effectively for an unfamiliar audience without your copy sounding like it was written by a clueless hack?

Start By Understanding Voice And Tone Right

Let’s start by determining what “voice” and “tone” mean within the context of this post. There is some discrepancy out there between sources on this. Some say they’re the same, while others maintain they’re different.

Here are the working definitions we’ll use:

brand voice and tone

To put this another way, let’s quote the folks at MailChimp:

“What’s the difference between voice and tone? Think of it this way: You have the same voice all the time, but your tone changes. You might use one tone when you’re out to dinner with your closest friends, and a different tone when you’re in a meeting with your boss.

Your tone also changes depending on the emotional state of the person you’re addressing. You wouldn’t want to use the same tone of voice with someone who’s scared or upset as you would with someone who’s laughing.”

MailChimp’s interactive guide to voice and tone provides walks through how they apply voice and tone to various types of content. It’s worth checking out to help visualize each in action.

voice and tone

How To Define Your Own Brand Voice

Sometimes, knowing who you’re not can help you figure out who you are.

It can help you develop your brand’s voice, too. Start by asking yourself the following, and filling in the blanks:

“We are [BLANK], but we are not [BLANK].”

Come up with three to five different variations of this sentence pertaining to your organization.

In a short amount of time, you’ll likely end up with something like this:

“We are serious, but we’re not impersonal.”

“We are authoritative, but we’re not condescending.”

“We are fun, but we’re not silly.”

Once you’ve gone through this exercise, use your answers to help complete this sentence:

“[OUR BRAND] creates [ADJECTIVE] content for [AUDIENCE DESCRIPTION] that is [ADJECTIVE 1], [ADJECTIVE 2], and [ADJECTIVE 3].”

You now have a one-sentence description of your content, audience, and brand voice to guide your content creation.

Find And Use The Right Terminology For Your Audience

The next step in developing your brand’s voice is building your vocabulary.

Using an incorrect term or unusual phrasing can throw up a red flag for your audience.

If someone wants to learn about a topic, they want to know what they’re reading is authoritative. If they’re researching products or services to purchase, misused language can negatively impact your company or client’s perception.

This is where your industry and audience research come in.

How to Infuse Authority and Creativity Into Your Copy and Content

Great writing should have creative flair.

In order for your content or copy to sell effectively, however, it needs to sound authoritative. Using the right words and themes to connect with your audience is crucial. No amount of creativity can compensate for messaging that is fundamentally off-target.

Let’s take a look at a Facebook post from Fender:

Fender bass post

This is a simple post, but it does a lot of things right (3.6k reactions can’t be wrong). Here’s a breakdown of what makes this post work:

  • This post poses a controversial question for bass players. While a layperson may not know the difference between playing with a pick or using fingers, this is a common point of discussion among players of the instrument. “Pick” and “finger-style” are also familiar terms to bassists.
  • It isn’t clear if the person who wrote this post knows much about playing bass themselves. Either way, it is clear they possess the knowledge required to know this would be a good question to ask their audience.
  • The image selected fits the messaging well, showing someone plucking a bass. A carelessly selected photo or a generic image of a bass may not have connected as well, and it’s possible someone without knowledge of the subject may have overlooked this.

The number of comments this post received are proof it resonated. It gave Fender’s audience an opportunity to share their own thoughts on the topic, too:

facebook comments

The fact this post initiated such robust discussion shows it was on-point. A writer without knowledge of their subject matter likely wouldn’t have driven this kind of success.

This example is straightforward and to the point, though. So, let’s take a look at one more post; this time, something with some more creativity:

arbys facebook post

This post from Arby’s is deceptively genius.

If you’ve followed the fast-food brand’s Facebook page recently, you’ll have noticed they make a lot of deep geek culture references. This is an audience that is easily offended when it feels it is being pandered to. Details matter to this crowd (just as they likely do for your audiences), and few brands speak to them better than Arby’s.

Here’s a breakdown of everything going on here:

  • Owlboy is an obscure indie video game that took a decade to create. Its release generated press hype with outlets that Arby’s audience likely reads.
  • Understanding this took an impressive level of research. Not only does Arby’s know their own business, but they’re also finely attuned to their audience’s interests. This post shows they know how to get into their audience’s heads and tie their interests back into their own product.
  • If you look at the top two comments on the right side of the screenshot above, it’s evident they’ve hit their target. For evidence that they nailed their target audience (and are true geek-culture subject matter experts), let’s look at the top comments on this post:
  • arbys facebook post comments
    11,000 reactions and 883 shares are concrete proof of the benefits of doing your homework and being a true SME. Plus, note the comments from followers who feel Arby’s knows their hobby even better than they do. This is what success looks like here.

In order to make this work for you, you’ll need to do the following:

  • Dig deep into your research. You know how Arby’s marketing team knew not only about Owlboy, but knew that reference would connect with their target audience? Most likely because they read the same publications their audience does. They wowed their audience with a piece of content that showed they were experts about what interested them. That doesn’t happen by accident.
  • Find the intersection between your audience’s interests and your business. In this case, Arby’s decided to target people interested in nerd culture. Then, they created content that showed they really understand that subject matter, all while making it relevant to their brand. To apply this same method yourself, aim at the intersection between your product and your audience’s interests beyond your brand.

find the sweet spot

Ian Lurie, CEO of the digital marketing agency Portent, once created a great slidedeck  on this topic. Check it out below:

Breaking Down Complex Information For Your Audience

You’ve probably had a boss or client adamantly claim you need to mention a certain feature or data point in a piece of content.

And there’s probably been a time where you thought differently.

Sometimes, there is a disconnect between what executives and engineers prioritize versus what your audience and potential customers care about. Walking the line between these two sides can be difficult.

The trick is to hook audiences with what’s compelling to them. Then, back up your claims with hard facts and data.

Clarify Complex Data And Facts

In order to be effective as an SME, you need to be able to communicate with non-expert audiences.

If this were easy to do, your company wouldn’t have hired you to do the work.

The key is to make complex information easily understandable. One way to do this is to focus on the benefits that complex features provide.

For example, let’s look at this Facebook post from Ford Trucks:

ford trucks facebook post

“Adaptive steering” and “segment first” may not be terms the general public is familiar with. Pickup truck enthusiasts, however, can understand that those features make the latest Super Duty is the “smartest” model they’ve built yet. This is a case of factual technical terminology being used to support a subjective claim about the truck.

This post effectively does two things:

  • It ties technical terminology to a clear benefit.
  • It compels readers to click to learn more.

And it does so while sounding authoritative (partly through sharing a post from CNET, a trusted news source).

How Can I Apply My Subject Matter Knowledge To Other Types Of Content?

So far, we’ve looked at a few Facebook posts to demonstrate what subject matter expertise looks like in the wild. That’s because social media makes it easy to gauge whether messaging was on-target based on likes, shares, and user comments.

Next, let’s dive into some other types of website content.

Instructional how-to content is core to many company’s content strategy. Home Depot does an excellent job of creating buyer’s guides and instructional pieces for their customers.

Take this guide to installing hardwood floors, for example. This isn’t a simple task. If the advice demonstrated is wrong, it could easily lead to customers damaging their homes (and being none too pleased with their choice of hardware store).

how to install hardwood flooring

If you’re tasked with writing a complex piece of content like this, and you’re not an expert on the subject, you’ll need to do some deep research.

Looking through this page shows a high level of expert knowledge. It shows people everything they need to complete the project:

tools of the trade

It walks through no less than 15 steps, each with a clear illustration, and detailed instructions to successfully install flooring. The page also uses easy-to-understand language, even when talking about tools and tasks a first-timer may not be familiar with.

lay out the first row

It’s clear that if the writer wasn’t a DIY home renovation expert before, they’re certainly did a good job of sounding like one. Best of all, it talks to readers like they’re average people, not home repair experts. This again shows an understanding of their audience and how customers use the products they sell.

Once a person successfully completes their project, they’ll think of how Home Depot helped them get it done. That positions them as a topical authority and make those customers more likely to return when they do their next project.

And it’s all made possible by writers and marketers taking the time to become true subject matter experts.

The same principles of condensing complex information into clear benefits for your audience applies to any kind of content you’re creating, whether that’s video, email, social posts, print collateral, or anything else you can think of.

Now You’re Ready To Be A Subject Matter Expert

Hopefully, you should have some understanding of how to:

  • Do deep industry research.
  • Put yourself in your reader’s shoes.
  • Create the kind of content they genuinely want.

Next time you’re faced with a client in a new industry, or take a new job in an unfamiliar market, you’ll know what to do. So, roll up your sleeves, get your hands dirty, and be the smartest marketer in your niche you can be.

Best of luck.

About the Author: Ben is the Blog Manager at CoSchedule. His specialties include blogging, content strategy, SEO, social media, and email marketing. Try CoSchedule free for 30 days here.

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DON’T MISS OUT

Get updates on new articles, webinars and other opportunities:

Ben Sailer

Ben is the Blog Manager at CoSchedule. His specialties include blogging, content strategy, SEO, social media, and email marketing. Try CoSchedule free for 30 days here.

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