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How to Become a Subject Matter Expert on a Topic You Know Nothing About

May 15, '17 / by Christina Bockisch

How to Become a Subject Matter Expert on a Topic You Know Nothing About 

Over the years, I’ve written content on a wide variety of topics including bankruptcy law, landscaping, software development, trade show management, septic tanks, rare coins, addiction recovery, information technology (IT) and more. For the most part, I knew nothing about these industries before getting started.

But there was a job to be done, so I spent the time learning as much as I could about these industries. While it was challenging at first, now, it actually sounds like I know what I’m talking about (most of the time, at least).

Content marketing requires writers to step outside their comfort zones on a regular basis and learn new topics quickly. But when you’re a new copywriter, becoming a subject matter expert on a topic you know nothing about can be daunting.

Before we jump into how to become a subject matter expert, let’s first explore what a subject matter is and why it matters when you’re writing content.

What is a subject matter expert?

A subject matter expert, also known as an SME, is a person who has special skills or knowledge on a particular topic. In other words, it’s someone who knows their stuff inside and out.

As a content marketer or copywriter, you need to sound like a subject matter expert on every topic you write about (even if you aren’t one). But writing about a topic you know nothing about – and doing it in a way that’s helpful and valuable to your audience – is often easier said than done.

As someone who has “been there, done that” more times than I can count, here’s my advice on how to become a subject matter expert on unfamiliar topics.

Tip #1: Learn who you're talking to

One of the biggest mistakes you can make in marketing is not targeting the right personas. After all, if you don’t know who you’re writing for, how can you create content that meets their needs and answers their questions?

Creating buyer personas is the best way to identify your target audience, understand their pain points and learn what types of content they’re looking for. Once you’ve mapped out your buyer personas, you’ll have a much easier time coming up with new topics and writing content.

Tip #2: Do your research (and lots of it)

The first step to learning about a new industry is to see what information is out there. What are people talking about? Are there any major changes happening right now? Who are the biggest influencers in the industry?

This step can be overwhelming, especially since there’s so much to learn at this point. Take it slow, and jot down notes to help you remember important points. Focus on the most credible sites out there, and don’t feel like you need to go through 10 pages of Google results to get the information you need. 

When you find an article that’s especially helpful, see if the website lists any related articles at the bottom of the page. These articles are a great and easy way to learn more about the topic without too much additional effort.

Also, look for and download free whitepapers and eBooks on important industry topics. Be careful, though, as some of these can get really technical and lengthy. Instead, focus on high-level beginner guides to your industry or vertical.

Tip #3: Subscribe to industry newsletters

Industry newsletters are one of the best ways to learn about what people are talking about and how they’re talking about these topics. If you’re not sure what newsletters you should subscribe to, talk to your co-workers to see what they’re reading every morning. Chances are, they’ll have some great recommendations.  

Tip #4: Follow industry leaders on social media

Even though you may not be an expert on a topic, you can learn from someone who is.

As you’re doing research, you’ll start to see the same names and companies popping up repeatedly. Take the time to find these people (or businesses) on social media, and give them a follow. They’ll share tons of information about industry-related topics, which will help you learn more about the industry you’re writing for and give you inspiration for future content topics of your own.

Tip #5: Check out your competition

You’re probably thinking, “I can’t spend time on my competitor’s website! That’s insane!” Just hear me out.

I’m not asking you to steal their ideas or copy their writing. I’m not even asking you to write just like they do. But looking at what your competitors are doing is a great way to brainstorm new ideas as well as learn more about the industry and how to write for your audience.

When you’re on a competitor’s website, here are a few questions to keep in mind:

  • How do they address your personas’ pain points? And what pain points are they addressing?

  • What questions do they answer on their website pages and in their blogs?

  • How do they talk about industry topics?

  • What types of content do they produce? Are they writing a lot of in-depth whitepapers, or do they focus their time on slide decks and webinars?

Tip #6: Talk to subject matter experts (SMEs)

One of the most effective ways to learn about a new industry is to talk to the people who know it best.

If you work at an inbound marketing agency, your clients are the perfect subject matter experts to talk to! When you’re just getting started, talk to your clients about what their company does, hot topics in the industry and their go-to resources for industry-related information.

If you’re doing marketing for a company in-house, talk to someone within your organization who knows a lot about the industry. Maybe it’s your marketing manager, a member of the sales team, an implementation specialist, an on-site technician, the CEO of the company or even one of your customers.

Don’t be afraid to reach out to these subject matter experts if you have questions when writing a blog, whitepaper or another piece of content. No one expects you to know everything ­– especially if this is your first time writing for that industry. 

When conducting an interview with a subject matter expert, keep the meeting short and keep it moving. Usually 30 minutes or so will do. Come prepared by doing your research on the topic and putting together a list of questions you want answered.

Related Content: 8 Subject Matter Interview Tips Every Introvert Needs to Know

Oh, and take it from me – record your calls! There’s nothing worse than sitting down to write a blog and realizing not only are your notes incomplete (or illegible) but you can’t remember for the life of you how the SME answered a certain question.

Tip #7: Most of all, stay calm

No one becomes a subject matter expert in a day, so don’t put too much pressure on yourself to get it right the first time. Assignments may take you longer in the beginning, and you’re bound to make some mistakes. That’s okay – it’s how you learn and get better. Just stay calm, and do the best you can when you’re given a new assignment.

As a marketer, not every topic is going to be the most interesting or fun to write about – but that doesn’t mean you can’t turn it into a must-read piece for your audience. While it may be more difficult and time-consuming than writing about things you know and love, it’s a great way to strengthen your skills as an inbound marketer and copywriter.

Now that you know how to quickly become an expert on a new subject, you can start sharing your expertise with your industry! Learn how with our ebook, The Power of the Press: The Inbound Marketer's Guide to Building a Brilliant Public Relations Strategy.

Free ebook: The Inbound Marketer's Guide to PR Strategy


Topics: Content Marketing, Blogging

Christina Bockisch
Written by Christina Bockisch

I’m passionate about helping my clients achieve their goals – whether that involves helping them show up in search engines, generate more of the right leads or nurture existing customers into brand evangelists.

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