Category Archives: Narrative Strategy

How to Optimize the Thought Leadership SME Interview


Optimize-SME-InterviewIf you’ve ever been part of a thought leadership content development effort, you’re likely familiar with the subject matter expert (SME) interview. It’s the session during which a writer helping to develop a piece of content (e.g., a white paper or byline article) meets with the SME who will be the published author of the piece. Generally facilitated by the company’s marketing professional, the session is a forum for discussing the nature and goals of the project and, more importantly, the ideas and material on which the piece will be based.

The SME interview is one of the most critical steps in the thought leadership content generation process, providing one of the few opportunities for substantive, direct interaction among the main parties in the effort. For SMEs, it’s their chance to communicate what they want to say in the piece so it ultimately reflects their best thinking and positions them well in the marketplace. For writers, it’s the prime venue for gathering the key ingredients they need to shape the SME’s thinking into a strong, compelling piece of content. And for marketers, it’s an opportunity to ensure the project stays on time and results in a document they can effectively pump through the company’s marketing channels.

How can marketers, SMEs and writers make SME interviews most efficient and effective—and the best use of everyone’s precious time? A good place to start is understanding and upholding their five most important individual responsibilities during these sessions.


  • Set the goal for the meeting upfront so everyone understands what they must achieve in the time allotted. This is your chance to make sure all participants are aligned so they’re not working at cross-purposes or bringing in tangents that distract from the main purpose of the session. It’s especially important when there is a large team of SMEs involved, each one wanting to get his or her point of view across (which may or may not be relevant to the piece at hand).
  • Get the right people on the call. In most companies, the practice leader or some other senior executive is the main author of the piece—and that’s certainly appropriate. But while these “top dogs” may see the big picture, they can’t always speak on a subject at the level of depth necessary to develop a substantive piece. That’s why someone who’s closer to the issue on a day-to-day basis should also be involved, to complement the senior SME and provide depth and examples when necessary.
  • Make sure the SME is fully briefed in advance on what the call is about, the goal of the piece being developed, and how it will be used. This will help the SME understand what’s being covered in the meeting and what will be expected from him—and prepare accordingly.
  • Know up front and communicate the timeline for the piece, next steps, and responsibilities of the various parties involved so everyone knows their marching orders after the call. Even if the discussion between the writer and SME is rich and fruitful, subsequent momentum can be killed if the SME isn’t available to review the writer’s outline or the writer takes longer than expected to produce it.
  • Monitor the conversation between the writer and SME to ensure it’s on the right track and be able to step in and redirect it if necessary. It’s not uncommon for SMEs to use such interview sessions to help formulate their thinking on a topic, particularly if the writers are asking them questions they perhaps hadn’t really considered before. Brainstorming can be valuable, but marketers need to make sure it stays focused on the topic at hand.


  • Be prepared for the call. To be sure, SMEs are very busy and client work, not marketing, is their “real” job. But if the piece being developed will represent the SME and the company in the marketplace, then the interview session is important, too. Before the call, be sure to read the materials distributed to participants and give some thought about what you want to say about them.
  • Be able to talk at some level of depth on the topic. This goes hand-in-hand with the point above. It’s not enough to have read the materials prior to the call. An SME needs to be able to really talk through the topic deeply enough to give the writer something to work with. For many thought leadership pieces, that means discussing at a detailed level the business problem (or case for action), the company’s solution to it, examples of how the solution was used in a client setting, and how the client ultimately benefited.
  • Know what other relevant materials the company has produced that are available to the writer. In large companies especially, myriad other documents may have already been published on a similar or related topic that contain information the writer can incorporate into the new piece.
  • Be able to articulate the unique angle the new piece should take. Because no SME or company wants to play the “me too” game, SMEs must be able to tell the writer what’s new and different about the message the piece is trying to get across.
  • Respect and answer the writers’ questions. Inherent in the acronym “SME” is that these individuals are experts: They know a lot about their particular area of focus. But that doesn’t mean they know everything, nor does it mean they have fully thought through a topic in a way that’s necessary to create a strong narrative about it. SMEs should recognize that good writers know the right questions to ask, and how to ask them, to elicit what’s needed to craft a story that transcends talking points in a PowerPoint deck. Trust them.


  • Do your homework. Nothing destroys credibility more than coming into an SME interview with minimal knowledge about the topic at hand. It’s critical for writers to have done pre-reading to prime themselves—not just of background or source materials provided by the client, but also of other relevant publications to understand the context and what else has been written on the topic. And if the piece in question is a byline article, it’s important to have read the target publication to understand its editorial policy, audience, style and tone.
  • Think about what you might ultimately want to say in the completed piece. It’s extremely helpful for writers to have an initial storyline or flow for the piece in mind, however sketchy and high level, when coming to the interview. Often SMEs need that kind of structure. It helps them frame and focus their thoughts and get them thinking in the way writers need them to.
  • Have in hand a full set of questions to ask, but be prepared to “go with the flow.” Some SMEs come into a session knowing exactly what they want to say and will essentially lead the discussion. More common are the SMEs (and marketers) who expect the writers to assume that duty. In those instances, writers should ask the questions designed to elicit the high-level story they have in mind. But be open to following unanticipated threads that may arise during the conversation and lead to an even more powerful perspective on the topic than what was originally considered.
  • If you’re not getting what you need, don’t be afraid to probe and ask questions in a different way. As mentioned earlier, the SME interview is one of the few chances for writers to directly interact with the SMEs. If the interview ends and a writer has failed to extract what he needs to work with, he’s created a big problem for himself down the road. Often, simply changing the wording of the question can trigger a richer SME response.
  • Respect the SME’s position and time constraints. SMEs, especially those in large enterprises, have risen to their position for good reason: They are extremely important to their company and to clients, and often are responsible for selling and managing millions of dollars in business. Remember this and be gracious (and patient) when an SME is not fully prepared or has to cancel a meeting at the last minute.

There’s no question the SME interview can be challenging to pull off effectively every time, especially when it involves multiple parties with their own time constraints, personal styles, and agendas. But if marketers, SMEs and writers can keep the above guidelines in mind, they’ll have a much better chance of making sure their sessions are content-rich, on target, and a good use of time. In turn, writers will find they spend far less time toiling on outline and draft development, SMEs will see their ideas expressed in the way they intended, and marketers will be confident they’ll have a strong document for their next marketing campaign.

How to Strategically Align Marketing Content with the Company’s Growth Goals


Strategically-Align-ContentBest-selling books, management journal articles, substantive white papers, research reports, company magazines and other publications have become critical to helping professional services firms and other B2B companies win new business and grow. However, many companies find it difficult to create content that consistently resonates with target executives and positions the company to continually engage with prospects over time.  Often, companies find themselves spending a lot of money on marketing content (because they know they have to), only to see the content fall flat in the marketplace and fail to deliver the hoped-for boost in image and revenue.

Companies can avoid this dilemma and get more out of their marketing investments by viewing their content more strategically, taking a portfolio management approach to the content reflected in their publications.  This involves collecting, assessing, developing and writing about a balanced array of ideas to ensure the company has the right mix of short-term bets (ideas ready to market now) and long-term bets (ideas needing more extensive development investment) to support demand generation in the current quarter as well as over a year or multiple-year period.

Such a balanced portfolio reflects the needs and realities of the business world today, where there is little tolerance for marketing that doesn’t produce in the short term, but also an intense need for marketing programs that anticipate market needs. A marketer who invests only in the big-bet ideas that take substantial time to develop probably won’t be around long enough to get them to market.  At the same time, stringing together only quick hits will do little to elevate the company’s reputation for thought leadership—which, for most B2B companies, is critical to building strong demand. Hence, the portfolio mix is essential for growth.

Implementing a portfolio management approach involves four basic steps: topic identification, topic assessment, idea development, and portfolio balancing.

Step One: Topic Identification

The first task in creating a stable of strong content is gathering ideas for topics internally. In some organizations, the process is informal: The company’s professionals approach the marketing team with ideas. The risk in this approach is that the ideas that surface may not necessarily be in areas needed to support the growth of the business. They could be topics in which the professional is personally interested and experienced, but may not be aligned with the business’s broader goals for the year.  In other companies, marketing is more proactive. Marketing may convene workshops with practice or business line leaders and others to generate topic ideas—especially in areas where the company has set significant growth targets.

Whatever process marketing uses to generate ideas, marketing should look to identify many more ideas than it can hope to publish on.  That’s because a significant number of ideas won’t pan out for a variety of reasons.  The professionals working on them may keep their idea development activities forever on the back burner, letting their “real work” continually cut in line.  Or when they present their ideas in the form of, say, article or white paper drafts, their lack of depth on the topic or examples to support them finally come clear. Or they may even leave the company (and take the article or white paper with them).

Step Two: Topic Assessment

Once the marketing team has assembled a collection of prospective topics, it should assess the topics through two primary lenses:

  • The market need for clarity on the topic or issue at hand. A key to publishing a steady stream of content that engages the target audience is identifying the extent to which an issue or topic is understood, and being effectively dealt with, by those executives. Topics that are not well understood by executives, or those that involve a business problem for which an effective solution has not yet been advanced, represent some of the best opportunities for a B2B company—whether it’s offering a service or product—to provide deep insights and position themselves as trusted sources for help.
  • The depth of the company’s expertise on the topic or issue at hand. It is not uncommon for companies to want to write about an area in which they have little experience or expertise.  This is most often the case when a company wants to break into a new market and use publishing as a way to establish itself as a player in that market. If a company has little experience to draw upon, the ideas it wants to put forth will need investment in research and analysis to provide the insights for a novel, compelling point of view.  On the other hand, if a company has a reasonable base of experience in the topic area, there’s a good chance that a point of view can be developed and marketed more quickly.

Once a company understands the market’s inherent need for guidance on the topic and the company’s depth of expertise, it can begin to classify the topics to understand how long and how much work it will take to develop the content around them—in other words, to the point at which they can be written about substantively in such vehicles as articles, white papers, books and reports.  A topic will typically be one of four types:

  • An emerging (immature) topic on which the company has much expertise and experience (embodied in either a service or a product) and that should be capitalized on immediately. With deep knowledge about an emerging issue, the company should exploit its first-mover status and define the market to its advantage through early, insightful publications that clearly position the firm as the leader.
  • A mature topic on which the company is well-versed and deeply experienced and that should receive ongoing attention. With plenty of insights and results to draw on, the company should use a steady flow of new content on the topic to generate as much revenue from the market before the issue is no longer relevant.
  • A topic that’s just beginning to get the market’s attention and is also new to the company, and which would best be viewed as a long-term bet. With such topics, there’s sufficient time for the company to invest in content development, and enough growth potential in the area, to merit a measured approach to penetrating the market.
  • A mature topic on which the company has little experience or expertise and that should be ignored, as it offers scant return on investment. The company is at a significant disadvantage developing content designed to steal business from established providers that already have been meeting the market’s needs.

Step 3: Idea Development

With the range of potential topics thus categorized, a company can determine how to pursue each type of topic. Regardless of whether a topic requires short-, medium- or long-term development, a fact base is needed to make the content insightful, relevant, and credible in the minds of the target audience. To be substantive and generate market interest, all points of view on a topic need evidence—examples of companies that have followed the approaches set forth in the point of view and have benefited substantially. Such evidence can come from one of two places: the experience of the company’s customers that have actually used the company’s services or products, or the company’s research (e.g., surveys and case study interviews) on companies that are not customers but have addressed the issue in a similar way. Understanding the evidence on which a point of view will be based—new research or past customer experience—is key to determining how long it will take to develop a substantive point of view and how to proceed.  Experience-based points of view can be developed faster; research-based points of view take longer.

Step 4: Portfolio Balancing

Once topics are collected and assessed and the need for further development is understood, the last step is to ensure that the portfolio is balanced. Ultimately, the balanced content portfolio has sufficient ideas in various stages of development to create an engine to meet the demand-generation needs of various parts of the business and the company overall. Short-term ideas must be marketed to keep the inquiry pipeline full while the bigger bets have time to develop.  As mentioned earlier, it is critical at the outset of a year’s publication schedule for marketers to collect many more ideas than they have budget and editorial space to support. This will give marketers multiple alternatives if some don’t come through.

When balancing the portfolio, marketers should use the company’s overall strategy as a guide.  Doing so will help ensure the portfolio is tightly aligned with the company’s targeted growth areas and avoid developing content on topics that are of little strategic concern to the company (and, thus squandering money and opportunity).

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In an era when content has become a key to attracting and retaining business, it’s vital for marketers to ensure they produce high-quality, relevant, and compelling content that can cut through the content noise while supporting the company’s overall growth objectives. Managing idea development through a portfolio approach can help ensure that a company generates content that delivers results both today and over the long term.

How to Encourage Consultants to Contribute to Thought Leadership Marketing Content


Consultant-ContributeWith consulting firms more reliant than ever on thought leadership as a driver of brand awareness, market differentiation and growth, marketers at such companies face a difficult challenge: getting enough subject matter experts (SMEs) to devote time to developing the content that fuels thought leadership marketing programs.

To be sure, demands on SMEs’ time have always been great. But today, as firms redouble their efforts to increase utilization rates of billable consultants, professionals find they have precious little “free time” left to devote to marketing. For many, the choice can come down to spending time with their families over the weekend or writing a white paper on Sunday afternoon.

Building Incentives

Some forward-thinking firms recognize the challenge and have developed ways to encourage their billable professionals to contribute to thought leadership programs—for example, by including such participation in professionals’ official management objectives or making bonuses partially dependent on authoring a certain number of white papers or bylined articles every year.

Less-tangible incentives also can be important and effective. One global consulting firm, for instance, makes it known to all consultants that becoming “eminent” in the marketplace is important to progressing in their careers. But the firm doesn’t gauge eminence with a checklist—how many white papers a consultant wrote or how many presentations he delivered at industry events. Rather, it evaluates the sum total of measures a consultant has taken to build his reputation in the industry and the extent to which those measures ultimately result in leads generated and consulting projects sold.

Some firms reward SMEs based on the personal awareness they’ve gained. For example, when creating campaigns to promote pieces of content, many firms now use the tracking ability of digital channels to help them reward consultants whose content inspired the most prospects or clients to act. These firms direct interested readers to landing pages that are either specific to the pieces or to the consultants who wrote the piece. They then recognize the “winner”—the consultant with the most unique visitors to his or her page—with a party at the local pub, a paid day off, or some other non-monetary reward. In addition to publicly recognizing consultants, such an approach brings prospective clients to the digital doorstep of these consultants, giving them a valuable opportunity to engage directly in conversations with prospective clients and cultivate new relationships.

The head of global marketing at one firm provides this very interesting snapshot of how his firm handles the issue:

“We have been focused on building a robust thought leadership/content development capability for several years. We established an editorial board comprising senior leaders that helps set strategic direction for our content and related integrated marketing programs, which elevates thought leadership development to a more prestigious level with a business development focus. 
 We also build thought leadership and innovation into the annual planning process.

Content is tied directly to specific marketing programs, many of them integrated across practices and leveraging multiple media formats and promotional channels. This creates both real deadlines as well as motivation to complete the content because there is line-of-sight visibility into how it will get to market. Internal peer review panels are assembled for most thought leadership to give our subject matter experts a sounding board as well as to apply positive pressure to make progress.

We strive to make the process as smooth and efficient as possible, so that our SMEs are responsible more for the ‘thinking part’ and less tied to the ‘getting down on paper’ part. This is difficult, though, because highly intelligent and opinionated people with a huge stake in what is communicated tend to want to be very involved in the process.”

The aforementioned firm also does a lot of internal communication leading up to and following the production and promotion of its content, which provides both a personal boost as well as a very real business outcome: Its consultants are more likely to promote the content to their clients and contacts, thereby creating lift for the SMEs’ practices.

Leveraging Writers

Another approach we have found to be a powerful incentive is teaming a consultant with a marketer and writer who can take much of the burden off the consultant’s shoulders during the content development process. An experienced and talented writer, especially, can do much of the “heavy lifting” associated with content development—such as completing an initial analysis of research data as part of an industry study, structuring and shaping the argument of a white paper, or conducting in-depth literature searches to find examples and supporting data—before any writing begins.

Consider traditional white paper creation. For many consultants, sitting down and writing a compelling, cogent and informative 3,000-word document can be an onerous (or even frightening) task. If they know they are on their own to produce a first draft of a paper, it’s understandable why many are loathe to participate. While experts in their chosen fields, consultants typically are not great writers (nor is their value to the firm measured in their prose-generating abilities). However, consultants are good talkers—meaning, most are much more comfortable and proficient verbally communicating their insights on how to solve pressing client business problems.

Thus, a writer who can have an in-depth conversation with a consultant—and use the results of that interview as source material from which to develop an initial outline of a white paper for the consultant to react to and flesh out—can save a consultant valuable time and mental anguish. (Of course, to do so, the writer must have a solid understanding of the subject matter to begin with, as well as good interviewing skills and be comfortable with talking to senior business executives.)

Consultants who know they will have at their disposal a writer who can take an active role in helping to develop their thoughts instead of simply playing the role of copyeditor are more willing to take part in the process. They know their time will be used more effectively and efficiently and that they won’t have to face the prospect of agonizing over how to “put their thoughts to paper.”

Will consulting firms ever adopt the “publish or perish” model of academia? Perhaps in some small ways they will, such as rewarding consultants for writing articles that help position themselves and the firm as thought leaders. However, a consultant’s expertise and ability to sell and deliver high-quality consulting work—not his writing prowess—always will remain the principal reason for hiring, retaining and rewarding a consultant within the firm. A firm that is able to tap into consultants’ vast wealth of experience to fuel its white papers, case studies, articles, books and other such publications without distracting them from their billable work is more likely to produce more engaging, interesting and differentiating content that connects strongly with target buyers.