Throughout the years I worked in sales, the executive assistant (aka the “sales prevention officer”) often stood as a human hurdle to making my quota. Yet, it was essential to win this person over to my side. Without their support, there was no way I was going to convince the decision-makers and budget-holders to greenlight a deal.
The same dynamic can occur when content marketers need to tap into their brand’s brain trust – the company executives and other subject matter experts (SMEs) who possess the deep insights, specialized knowledge, and wealth of experience with the topics and technical considerations your audience wants to know. These same people can also become gatekeepers to your ability to tell your best stories and profile the cool stuff your company is doing.
Unfortunately, obstacles abound on multiple levels. Some are uncomfortable with writing, being interviewed on the record or communicating with lay people. Others put a low priority on content creation or have schedules that make it hard to meet your deadlines. Some are reluctant to get involved with marketing at all.
Yet, getting technical experts and executive talent to contribute is a challenge worth overcoming. The 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer reports that 68% of respondents view the company technical expert as the most credible source of information. This makes your SMEs instrumental to creating high-value content.
How do you earn the trust of these wisdom keepers, extract their best insights, and translate them into consumer-friendly storytelling? Having spent the first 15 years of my working life in coding and software design roles, it’s a challenge that’s informed much of my career in content. But through experience, diligence, and some sage wisdom from my fellow content advocates, I’ve found a few tried-and-true techniques.
To gain internal support, start with a strategy
The fastest way to win the interest and trust of your brand’s experts is to have the way paved by someone who has more weight and authority in the company – an executive sponsor. It’s not a fast process, but it gives everything you do more credibility in the organization – and can help clear a path for more innovative ideas and better funding.
Astrid Fackelmann, brand manager at Floveyor, is an experienced brand strategist. She has spearheaded large content marketing initiatives and has a knack for getting support from some of the busiest people around – CEOs, researchers, and technology professionals. Astrid says the first step to getting the company’s brain trust to participate in content creation is to meet their needs, not yours.
“They’re not there to do you a favor,” Astrid says. “I don’t expect people to recognize what brand building is and what I do. It’s actually about demonstrating the value of content marketing in the context of the overall brand and generating commercial value with it.”
Taking time to get the strategy right and committing to key performance indicators (KPI) based on that strategy leads to securing an executive sponsor. Astrid believes this is a required step to get other organizational leaders to participate in your content projects.
“It’s essential to communicate the value of their participation in a way that makes sense to them, showing that you understand there’s a business problem that you can help solve, rather than saying, ‘Can you help us with some marketing?’,” Astrid says.
To do that, create a documented strategy based on business goals, not marketing objectives, Astrid says. Having something that shows how their expertise will be presented – and how the resulting effort’s performance and impact will be measured and reported – is critical.
“Then you have the champion who’s already got the credibility with those subject matter experts and internal stakeholders. That is your entrée into their world,” Astrid says.
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Develop a process to guide participation
While executive support is essential, don’t expect it to generate unbridled enthusiasm from your SMEs. The experts – engineers, scientists, technicians, product managers, or other highly skilled personnel – may dread the experience because they don’t know what to expect or what is expected of them.
Susan Kreemer Pickford, general manager for Western Australia at Engineers Australia, is an engineer and writer of engineering topics. She has been on both sides of the content creation equation and has a keen understanding of how to encourage internal talent to get involved with content initiatives. She believes a formalized approach goes a long way to encourage reticent SMEs to contribute.
“Engineers love to follow a process,” Susan says. She advises outlining exactly what participation entails to help an SME understand their obligation to the brand and the value they bring to a project.
Put your first outreach in writing and include:
- Full project timeline, including deadlines
- Content purpose and goals
- Indicative questions you want them to answer
- Contact details for marketing team members they’ll be working with
- Time when marketing will be in touch to speak with them
- Their deliverables and how marketing will assist
It also helps to share the internal process for content creation. By detailing all the steps required, the SME can see where they fit. It can be a simple checklist and should include security of permissions, expert identifications, steps of content creation – writing, editing, graphic design, etc., – approval process, publishing, distribution, and promotion.
“Most engineers, without that framework of risk analysis and signoff, are going to be very reluctant to contribute,” Susan says.
It’s also useful to provide content examples. Too often, technical SMEs assume marketing is nothing more than glossy brochures. They may not see how content marketing differs from traditional marketing or understand how their expertise would be used – and how it can help the company and potentially boost their reputation and professional image.
Engineers also may have personal concerns that compound their reluctance to collaborate. For example, engineers often prefer to avoid claiming individual accomplishments and marketing terminology often contrasts with that.
“(Engineers) struggle with the term ‘expert’ because we work in teams. We’re never 100% confident or feel secure in providing commentary (as an individual), especially if we haven’t been allowed to collaborate or have it checked by our peers,” Susan says.
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Translate expertise into content and do the heavy lifting
Extracting valuable insight from SMEs is one thing. Translating what they share into language your customers can understand is another. Mark Schettenhelm, senior product manager at Compuware, a BMC company, has worked in technology for the better part of 40 years.
“It can be difficult for subject matter experts to communicate effectively with consumers and laypeople because they may assume a certain level of knowledge that doesn’t exist within the target audience,” he says.
Both Susan and Mark say content marketers can help close this gap by having a face-to-face conversation about the things the experts find most fascinating about their work rather than the finer details of their work.
“I get them talking about their passion,” Mark says. He also relies on a series of questions that prompt even highly technical people to share their knowledge in a way easy for anyone to understand:
- Why do you feel this is important? What does this mean to you? Why does this matter?
- What don’t people understand about this? What common knowledge or assumptions are wrong? What details do they commonly overlook or misunderstand?
- Why don’t they understand it? Is this new knowledge? Does this go against what has been taught and known for years? Do they have a way to get by and fail to see a reason to make a change? What are their barriers to changing their view?
“Then I ask what can be done to correct those mistaken impressions and ask if they would be interested in working on that together,” Mark says.
Use approaches that minimize the strain on your brain trust
Collaborating with your SMEs – rather than expecting them to write something – can help your team steer the content into areas with wider appeal. It also can take some pressure off for those who aren’t natural communicators or who feel uncomfortable taking on creative tasks in a different format.
Mark says he’s found a universal truth about executives and SMEs: They are short on time for projects that don’t interest them. The more your team can reduce the burden on their schedules, the better the chance they’ll contribute.
“If writing is a weak skill (for SMEs), they may question whether their time may be better spent doing something else,” Mark says.
Another challenge: The expert may fear revealing too much information, lest it weaken their personal brand or harm their standings within the company.
“They could be protective of their knowledge since it is a source of power. If others know what they know, what is their value,” asks Mark. “More often, though, you’ll find the opposite to be true: They have a strong desire to share their passion and are eager to have others join them on their journey of discovery – they just do not know how best to go about it.”
Mark says being curious, asking questions at a higher level, and letting their answers guide the conversation will help SMEs cast their experiences in a different light – one that can lead to more insightful and impactful storytelling.
“It forces them to break down complex ideas and make them more explainable,” he says. “It will reveal their passion as they open up. It will make them organize their thoughts in a way they don’t have to do when speaking to their own peers in the industry. This will provide the basic outline you need to get their expertise across to your audience.”
Building trust leads to lasting value
In my sales roles, I learned that the best way to gain influence with sales prevention officers was to charm them into compliance. With enough persistence, common courtesy, and (sometimes) the odd box of chocolates, I eventually got the meetings I needed.
Unfortunately, the same doesn’t always hold true when working with those in your organization’s brain trust. They are often cynical about marketing, too busy to see it as a priority, or both.
If that’s the case, quit talking about marketing and brand, and, as Astrid advises, put everything in commercial terms that they can understand and appreciate.
- Start with a documented strategy. It can gain you support from the executive team and open more doors than any charm offensive.
- Invest time in creating good processes and a clear, understandable structure for the content efforts.
- Recognize you’re dealing with people who have different motivations, pressures, and comfort levels with content initiatives. Approach the ask on their terms.
- Guide your experts through each step, holding their hand if necessary and helping fill their content creation skills gap.
- Be patient, yet persistent. Maybe the timing is off, the story is the wrong fit, or they don’t see the point in working with marketing. That might not always be the case.
Making the experience as pleasant as possible is the best way to groom enthusiastic experts. The end result is highly credible content trusted by the people who need it most. You may even find a new ally to champion your marketing cause and collaborate with you again and again.
This article is part of CCO magazine. To subscribe to the quarterly digital edition, sign up here.
Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute