If you're a B2B business, or even a B2C business in certain domains, subject matter
can be a big factor in who you hire for marketing or content writing. But given the
costs, and sometimes the scarcity, involved with hiring subject matter experts (SMEs),
it's worth examining how much such expertise really matters to marketing writing
effectiveness. But before we get to that, we must first distinguish subject matter
expertise from subject matter fluency.
What Is Subject Matter Expertise?
True subject matter experts know four things. They know how something is made. They
know all the key components of that thing. They know how that thing works (and perhaps
how the components work). And they're up to date on the latest developments, news, and
gossip related to that thing.
When it comes to B2B and some B2C fields, such expertise in an industry is usually
obtained by working in it, or by being a journalist or analyst covering it, though many
B2C fields also have amateur or semi-professional enthusiasts who could also be
Most professional marketing writers, even if they've worked client-side in a single
industry/domain for quite a while, are not true subject matter experts. I worked
client-side for eight years in telecoms, and by the end of my time there, I'm confident I
knew as much about the industry as any marketing writer in the world, but I still wasn't
a subject matter expert.
I couldn't give a 50-minute talk on an advanced topic to a group of industry experts and
give unrehearsed answers to their questions afterwards, and I hadn't mastered all four of
those aforementioned criteria from stem to stern (people who do are usually engineers,
longtime product marketers and owners, salespeople, and executives). Instead of being a
subject matter expert, I was subject matter fluent.
What Is Subject Matter Fluency?
This is an intermediate level of understanding where you've mastered some of those four
aforementioned criteria but not all, or you know a little about each but are master of
none. You can follow the industry discourse, but you can't really advance it (not without
a true SME's help).
You know your way around, and you're aware of what you don't know. And while you can't
teach advanced topics to pros, you can teach the basics to newbies, and this is really
important, because much of B2B content and copywriting is essentially teaching the basics
Is SME Content Writing Always Better?
Subject matter expertise certainly saves time while writing (by minimizing your need to
research) and lends authority, and it'll certainly help you stand out from AI-generated
content. However, it is not always advantageous to have an SME write for you, even if
you're selling something technical, and you'll still probably need a professional
marketing writer or editor checking the content an SME gives you. There are three key
reasons for this.
One, even if their prose is reasonably good, SMEs tend to ramble, and often don't structure
their writing logically or coherently, making it hard to follow, by bots, layfolk, or even
other experts. Two, when allowed to choose topics, SMEs often choose geeky ones only a few
other experts in the world would want to read about, thus lowering your content's potential
reach and engagement (it's best if you already have an email list of other interested
experts if you go this route). And three, SMEs may not know your marketing goals or
messaging, so they sometimes write things you don't want them to write.
As to when to let an SME write, think about it this way. There is content meant for
consumption on the buyer's journey (usually meant to move prospects down the funnel) and
there is content meant for consumption between buyer's journeys (when prospects are not
You generally want professional marketing writers making your buyer's journey stuff, because
this content must convey what your marketing leaders want said, and most of it (but not all)
should be understandable to technical and non-technical folk alike, also because marketing
writers tend to have a better grip on things like SEO and audience perceptions and/or
psychology than SMEs.
Subject matter experts, on the other hand, can write awareness
content (usually blogs) for
the time between buyer's journeys. In fact, most of your blogs should probably be written by
SMEs. However, I wouldn't let them write about whatever they want to. I'd probably feed them
some topics that your marketing and SEO people want covered, while giving them the freedom to
choose some article topics of their own.
However, if you're lucky enough to have an in-house SME with a knack for marketing writing,
you might want to let them write some of your consideration
content might be something like "Seven Problems Solved By The Model XYZ." Or it might be
something very technical, like a deep dive into some proprietary tech you use. Or it might be
something relying on first-hand experience, like a case study or product selector questions.
Having such an SME is nice, but relying on them can be tricky, as they tend to be only available
intermittently. They may write something, and then go unresponsive for two months while they
circle the world attending tradeshows, making this something of a mixed blessing.
In general, SME writing is most useful when you're selling to other SMEs, making it most
applicable in geeky industries like software development, 3D printing, and crypto, or regulated
industries that have their own language, like law or healthcare.
Beyond that, and beyond what's already been mentioned, subject matter fluency is usually enough
in most B2B industries. Because if you're looking to grow the pie, you need writers who still
remember what it's like to not be part of the pie, and if you want to persuade non-technical
decisonmakers (usually most of the board), key benefits for your products and solutions must be
in plain English.
And There Is No "SMEs vs. Content Writers" By The Way
Some other articles out there that address the same question as this article frame the issue in
terms of "subject matter experts vs. content writers." This is a false distinction. Plenty of
content writers are ex-journos or former industry participants who are in fact SMEs. So don't get
lulled into buying this either/or distinction just because it has SEO appeal. Look at the resume.
Look at the portfolio to see who is an SME and who isn't. Do your homework.