Daniel Burstein

Content Marketing: You must overcome The Jackson 5 Effect to find subject matter experts

May 19th, 2017

Subject matter experts (SMEs) are crucial to content marketing success, especially in B2B. Whether accountants advising about amortization or IT managers contemplating the cloud, vital information that will help your audience — and thus help you create great content — lies trapped in your SMEs’ craniums.

It’s your job to tap into those big brains and free the content.

There are many well-noted challenges to working with SMEs that you’re probably well familiar with. They’re busy. They don’t know how to create content. They don’t create good content.

However, today on the MarketingSherpa blog, I wanted to bring up another point I don’t see discussed as much — you’re overlooking a plethora of untapped SMEs.

Sure, your CEO is a SME. The head of Sales. You likely have someone in an evangelist role of some sort who is also a SME. But what about the customer service rep? The middle manager? Credentialing specialist? Purchasing associate? Transportation coordinator? Senior systems manager?

They (and many inglorious but essential functionaries in your organization) are all victims of what I like to call: The Jackson 5 Effect.

We value least what we interact with most

Before Michael Jackson was the King of Pop, he was a kid in a family band — The Jackson 5.


Source: Wikipedia

Eventually, Michael would go on to become one of the most famous and successful singers the world over. So successful that he had his own theme park and monkey. But while he was in The Jackson 5, did Tito and Jermaine really appreciate Michael’s skills, ability and knowledge? Or, did they just look at him as their annoying little brother?

They likely knew he had a decent voice and could dance some. But, they were around him all…the…time. Did they hear the bad rehearsals he had? Cover their ears when he would sing in the shower? Get annoyed when he would want to tag along to the movies? They knew him far more intimately than his fans did, and that skewed their perception of him.

There’s a famous saying — familiarity breeds contempt.

I think that’s a little harsh in a work environment, so I don’t want to go that far. But, I do think we value least what is most familiar to us.

And this is the challenge you have with your content marketing. Who do you work with that you look at as an annoying little brother, but, if just given a chance, the world could see as the King of [Insert your industry here]?

Even of those you consider a SME, do you undervalue their message and impact because you’ve heard it so many times? Do you underrate those SMEs as a messenger because you know them well enough that, to you, they’re gritty and real? Yet, keep in mind, to outsiders simply reading a blog post or watching a webinar they might be perceived more as an idyllic expert in the field.

Easy as ABC, 1-2-3, Do-Re-Mi

Look, you need different levels of SME expertise. For some, you do need those really advanced, well-known SMEs able to fluently discuss deep technical specifications and major business challenges.

But, one mistake I made earlier in my career was always swinging for the fences, only focusing on writing to the most advanced members of our audience.

That was partly my own bias. But in addition, I would have regular meetings with a group of SMEs. And I found that, after anyone made a statement, they would all turn to the smartest person in the room to look for his reaction. If he grimaced or winced or looked doubtful, they would change their tune and be more hesitant to contribute next time. If he nodded in agreement, they would be pleased with themselves and more engaged.

But, the challenge was, our audience wasn’t always the smartest person in the room. Sure, some wanted the most advanced content and would gloss over anything else. But, some were new and just wanted the basics. Or, some were unfamiliar with some industry concepts.

We did not represent all of our potential audience, but we were judging the content as if we were. Simply put, they need some of that easy, basic, 101 type of content. They needed to learn Do-Re-Mi and not only advanced scales (while experts tend to get bored with Do-Re-Mi and want to only focus on what interests them — the advanced stuff.)

There’s a thin line between a mind-opening epiphany and mind-numbingly obvious content

Test out the above line anytime you consume content yourself. The first time you hear something really good, there’s this awesome “aha” moment where it enables you to see your daily tasks, your job, your career, even your life in a new way. It’s like Dorothy arriving in Oz — what was once black and white is suddenly Technicolor.

Now, notice your reaction the second time (not even the third, fourth, or fifth…just the second time) you read, watch, listen to or otherwise consume content about that same “aha.” It’s no longer surprising to you. Now it’s old hat. How quickly we lose patience! I find myself acting like a petulant teenager, sighing and practically rolling my eyes. In other words, it’s like watching your second movie in Technicolor. Big whoop.

And this is why you must fight that Jackson 5 Effect and not overlook all those other potential SMEs who aren’t the typical internal industry rock stars and leaders you’re working with. Perhaps they haven’t seen the Wizard of Oz yet. So, they can relate to potential customers who haven’t either. Or, it could just be that they’re not at the level of thinking about very high-level business concerns, deep into industry buzz, or otherwise following the herd of your industry so they can bring a unique perspective.

Now, I’m not saying to straight away hand them over the keys to your content kingdom, but do solicit their input. When they’ve got a good idea, get them engaged in your content creation.

Make sure you have some sensible guardrails in place:

  • A professional editorial process that ensures the content output will be high quality.
  • A content review process with a leader on that topic to ensure that, while the information comes from a different perspective, it is accurate and represents your firm well.

And then have a little trust with those unsung, Jackson-5-effect employees in your company. When I asked Jon Iwata, Senior Vice President of Marketing and Communications, IBM, about balancing trust with empowering employees, he told me “…if they’re not going to give away trade secrets in a parking garage at midnight, they’re probably not going to do it in the Twittersphere.”

And at the end of the day, realize — these overlooked SMEs in your organization are experts, when you really think about it. Even if they’re not at your level.

They know better than anyone else the unique way they approach their role and its tasks. And, they do that in a unique way that may be foreign to people less familiar with those roles. With some good content-crafting help, that can be all it takes to create compelling, beginner-oriented 101 content for your audience. After all, as Mark Twain said, “An expert is just some guy from out of town.”

You can follow Daniel Burstein, Senior Director of Editorial Content, MarketingSherpa, on Twitter @DanielBurstein.

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Daniel Burstein

About Daniel Burstein

Daniel Burstein, Senior Director of Editorial Content, MECLABS. Daniel oversees all content and marketing coming from the MarketingExperiments and MarketingSherpa brands while helping to shape the editorial direction for MECLABS – digging for actionable information while serving as an advocate for the audience. Daniel is also a speaker and moderator at live events and on webinars. Previously, he was the main writer powering MarketingExperiments publishing engine – from Web clinics to Research Journals to the blog. Prior to joining the team, Daniel was Vice President of MindPulse Communications – a boutique communications consultancy specializing in IT clients such as IBM, VMware, and BEA Systems. Daniel has 18 years of experience in copywriting, editing, internal communications, sales enablement and field marketing communications.

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