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Unearthing gold: how to engage subject experts in content creation

Coffee meeting with subject expert

Folk in marketing, public relations and copywriting alike will all agree: writing the content is the fun part – it’s the information gathering that takes the real skill and determination.

Great ideas are just the start of the content creation process. For content to be credible and effective, expert advice and opinion are essential. It can be tempting to save time by writing a whitepaper, blog post or top tips sheet based on the general knowledge you have. However, without an authoritative voice behind it, your content will lack the depth it needs and could alienate those in your organisation who can offer detailed, valuable insights.

Your organisation is filled with a wealth of subject experts, all with gems to offer, who hold the key to setting your content apart from your competitors. A large part of my career has been spent engaging stakeholders outside the marketing department with the content creation process. Some have jumped at the opportunity, others haven’t been so willing. Here’s what I’ve learnt.

Find the right people

In smaller organisations, it can be quite easy to identify exactly who the experts are. However, in larger organisations, particularly in universities and those working in multiple countries, this can be quite time-consuming. And even when you think you’ve spoken to the right person, helpful people will come and tell you to speak to someone else.

The trick is to ask two types of people for help: those in very senior positions who may manage these experts; and those who have been in the organisation for a very long time – they’ll know the lay of the land and ‘who’s who’. Then create a database of experts (just a simple Excel sheet will do) so that you have their names, areas of expertise and contact details handy.

Don’t forget your sales team: they are on the front line and know better than anyone what your customer’s pain points are and what does and doesn’t work. You don’t want to enter into a ‘content by committee’ process so only approach one or two key members.

Always approach people personally. It’s preferable to do this via phone call, but a nicely worded email specifically for each person is also appropriate. This is very important. A blanket email with everyone included in it will not work. It is far too impersonal and significantly degrades the importance of your content and of their expertise.

When approaching people, always provide them with some background: what you are creating and why, your objectives, who the audience are, when it will be published and so on. Many people you approach may not share your understanding of what content marketing is. If this is the case, send through examples of content marketing you are doing, or that you aspire to and explain how it will benefit the organisation.

Don’t forget to answer “What’s in it for me?” when approaching people. Think of it as a pitch and explain how it will benefit them personally (e.g. profile building).

Make it easy for them The biggest hurdle you will face is overcoming this statement: “I’d love to, but I don’t have time.” For some, this may genuinely be true, but they will usually direct you to someone else who can help. For others, this is their way of saying “No” and there isn’t a great deal you can do. If you suspect it’s the former, try to ascertain exactly what worries them about the time commitment – they may believe that you are going to add mountains to their workload. Making the exact commitment you require clear from the beginning and finding out how they like to work is the first, and most crucial, step in bringing a contributor on board.

Being flexible about how you collect data will help enormously in overcoming this obstacle. Some people might want you to send them an email with a list of questions to answer, and that’s fine. I find that asking them out for a coffee and using your phone’s voice recorder or setting up a call using Webex or GoToMeeting is the best stress-free way for people to contribute their expertise without the onus of adding to their workload. This has two added bonuses: you can be completely present in the conversation without worrying about taking notes, plus the recordings are very helpful to listen back to for inspiration and to jog your memory.

I prefer meeting face-to-face. Unless you have a very specific topic in mind, begin by asking them what topics they are most interested in or what juicy challenges they are facing – the more passionate they are about something the more they’ll want to talk about it. It’s amazing how often busy people make time for you if they love the topic you are writing about!

When speaking to experts, think outside the box in terms of content formats. Some people will be happy to have prose, some want to offer quick tips, and some will offer bullet points or 'how to' advice. It’s a good idea to write an outline of your ideas and research and ask them to fill in the gaps. This helps to avoid information paralysis where people with huge amounts of information don’t know where to start.

Finally, be prepared to translate highly technical information into plain English. Sometimes people just need to download the information while it’s in their head, but it may be quite technical. It’s fine to go back to them for clarification, but do give it a go first and ask them if you are correct.

Keep in touch

You aim should be to develop relationships with long-term contributors to ensure the sustainability of your content strategy. Therefore, clear, regular and concise communication is key. Be open about your plans and keep them updated as the content process progresses from data collection to drafts and final publication.

Ask early on how they would like to be credited for their contribution and respect their decision. Some people are happy to be front and centre with a biography and a picture; others want to remain anonymous. In some cases, crediting them won’t be suitable, but if it is, always err on the side of caution and recognise people for their contribution.

Share the draft piece with them before it’s published. I’ll admit, I hate the ‘nit-pickers’ who force you to do draft after draft as much as anyone. However, having an accurate piece of content far outweighs the frustration of either multiple drafts or retracting it after it’s published. Plus, no-one likes being ambushed by being publicly credited for something they’ve not seen.

On that note, do advise your contributors when the content is live, and encourage them to share it with their networks via email or social media. I’m usually happy if they want to say they wrote it or created it: this shows they are proud and engaged. Use their social media posts as an opportunity to thank them publicly – it will go a very long way!

It’s old fashioned, but sending a thank you note with details of the successes you’ve had with the content is a vital part of your engagement efforts. They’ll see that their involvement has made a difference and will be more likely to work with you in the future.

Finally, keep in touch, even if you don’t have a specific project. You know that database you created when you were identifying the experts? It’s a great tool to help you manage these relationships in the long term. Record when you last spoke to them and when you last published an item with them and make a plan to contact them regularly, even if it’s just to ask what they’ve recently been working on, or for a referral to other experts. You never know what golden ideas you might unearth over a coffee…

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