“Thought leadership” has become one of the most hotly pursued objectives in the marketing world, although the concept itself is hardly new. As marketers, we build our brands’ thought leadership by sharing material knowledge and insights through our various customer communications. Where will these groundbreaking insights come from? Look no further than your company’s own subject matter experts (SMEs).
Why Thought Leadership?
When some marketers think about thought leaders, some pretty big names come to mind: Google, Amazon, American Express, and other superstar enterprises. But true thought leadership lies well within the reach of any brand in any industry, and the benefits make it worth the effort:
- Thought leadership spreads your brand promise. When you hear the name Starbucks, you think “coffee.” When you hear the name Amazon, you think “online retail.” By growing your thought leadership, in your area of subject matter expertise, you help your audience form automatic associations between your brand and the products and services you’re known for (or want to be).
- Thought leadership gives you a competitive edge. In a recent study by Edelman and LinkedIn, 45 percent of the B2B decision makers surveyed reported that an organization’s thought leadership directly influenced their decision to award business to that company.
- Thought leadership helps you build a loyal audience. Once people know they can rely on you for accurate, insightful content, they’ll keep coming back to you over and over again.
Why SMEs Are Key
As a group of people holding all the material knowledge, all the expertise, all the insights you need to establish your brand as a thought leader, SMEs educate far more than they expect. They know more about your products and services — the problems they solve, how they work, and what makes them special — than just about anyone. They speak at conferences, and they publish in industry journals. They’re influencers who may already have enthusiastic followings. They’re your company’s own subject matter experts.
When you align your SMEs with your marketing strategy, you give your followers the chance to learn from the best of the best. You tap into your organization’s own “brain trust” to root out the insights that will help you make a deep and lasting impression on your target audience.
How to Work The Best With Your SMEs
In an ideal world, we’d borrow a subject matter expert from her department for a couple of hours, sit her down at a computer, and let her spin her ideas into content marketing gold.
Now let’s talk reality. The first major challenge is that your SMEs are busy — really busy. Their primary obligation is doing the things they get paid for (research, designing products, delivering services, etc.), and contributing to content is often near the bottom of their priority lists.
The second challenge is that SMEs are (typically) not marketers. They can wax eloquent all day long about a product’s features, (how it’s built, what it does, how we made it better/faster/stronger, etc.), but sometimes they’re a bit fuzzy on how those features translate into benefits for the customer. They are not always the best at turning technical jargon into user-friendly word speak.
Knowing ahead of time that these challenges will pop up, will prepare you to be strategic and purposeful in the way you work with your subject matter experts. You must show respect for their time and expertise, by your making our process as efficient as possible, and by creating content that’s worthy of their insights.
As you design a plan for working with your subject matter experts, here are a few best practices to keep in mind:
- Approach them early. Give your SMEs ample lead time to pull together ideas for the piece you have in mind.
- Make it easy for them to contribute. Many SMEs don’t consider themselves to be writers, so starting with a big, blank screen can be a scary concept. Make it easy for them by providing a template that asks the questions you want to answer in the content piece, and let them fill in the blanks. Or, even better, you can sit down and interview them in person, or over the phone. Some SMEs are simply more comfortable expressing their ideas conversationally rather than on paper.
- Give them ownership. Keep your SMEs updated on their content throughout the creation process, and be sure to send them the link once it’s been published. Remember to ask them to share with their own communities on social media, in online industry forums, and in other key areas.
Making the Most of Your Thought Leadership
As we all know, one insightful article does not a thought leader make. You need to create a steady stream of content that highlights our SMEs’ material knowledge and insights, if you’re going to make thought leadership work for your brand.
Here are a few things to keep in mind, as you put the building blocks in place for your journey to thought leadership:
- Stay aware. Pay attention to what’s happening in your company, in your target market, and in your industry as a whole. When customers know they can come to you to learn about the latest developments, what they mean, and what to do about them, you’re well on your way to becoming a thought leader.
- Bring in new voices. Don’t limit yourself to one subject matter expert. Bring in people from various different areas to share their unique perspectives (while making sure that their insights are relevant to your target audience).
- Collaborate. Seek out thought leaders in complementary industries, who are willing to collaborate with you. Connect regularly to brainstorm ideas and share knowledge. You can also curate and share each other’s custom content, to help broaden both of your audiences.
- Engage your list. Have your sales team send your thought-leadership content to contacts at the companies you’re targeting, and use your ABM platform to track their engagement.
In a world where just about everybody claims to be an expert, publishing content built around your subject matter expertise gives you the chance to prove that you really are one. By engaging your internal subject matter experts and leveraging external opportunities, you can elevate your brand to the status of a true thought leader … and reap the benefits for years to come.