I’ll make it my business philosophy to believe that being a great salesperson or product marketing manager implies acquiring subject matter expertise in a product.
Business is done among people. And people trust authority. This is where your first push to develop yourself as an SME should come from.
Imagine you’re the buyer for once: Would you rather purchase from someone who’s only used a product for one day or that agent who knows all the nooks and crannies of the product?
Even worse, do you want to be that person who can’t answer a prospect’s questions because you don’t know the answers either?
It’s not even all about the product. It ultimately comes down to developing yourself as an expert in your industry beyond your product marketer role.
What is a subject matter expert?
Subject matter experts (SMEs) are highly skilled employees who’ve developed in-depth knowledge around a product, technology, or process and are therefore involved in all decisional points that concern these. In plain English, SMEs tell prospects and clients how a product works and how it can help solve their challenges.
As they develop their status as SMEs, they also get the opportunity to network and consolidate their top position within the industry. After all, a good subject matter expert is capable of translating all kinds of features, functions, and concepts into SIMPLE TERMS, sharing their own know-how with clients.
I’ve emphasized “simple terms” because I believe that great product marketers should be able to look through all of their mind chaos and present information in a clearly structured manner. Customers often come to you because they’re not familiar with your product. Many haven’t even seen features like yours and won’t know where to get started if you’re just going to use the same “standard industry terms” over and over again.
So here’s where a subject matter expert’s main duty comes in:
Why you need to become one yourself
A brand needs subject matter experts for various activities from writing content, to holding worthwhile demos and representing the company at events and forums. Frankly, there’s no real way for brands to succeed without at least an SME to begin with.
Good news is that most companies start out with their founders as the main subject (or rather, product) matter experts. Along with the growth of a business, comes a huge demand for more SMEs to jump on the bandwagon.
Ideally, everyone in the team is an expert at the product, actively using and/or advertising it. There’s only so much time in a day for one person to carry the whole weight of a brand. And you certainly don’t want your product to be tied to a single person [unless you’re an individual selling a product that’s representative for your image].
As I’ve already mentioned, selling is easy when your expertise in a product or industry shows. People inevitably look up to experienced individuals since they are perceived as being more credible. Sometimes even more reliable than any online reviews.
Think influence. All in all, you’re not just a marketer. You’re also acting as a brand ambassador and voice for the company. This will, in return, also give you an extra competitive advantage boost.
An SME’s role never ends. There’s almost one more promotion strategy you can use, one more person to write to, one more article to write. These are all daily tasks to go through for maximum brand and product exposure.
Steps to take to gain subject matter expertise in a new product
Now that you’ve understood your role, it’s time to get to work to prove your value for the business.
Whenever I was lacking something I used to tell myself I just have to learn and grow since no one is just born with all the knowledge in the world. The same is valid in product marketing.
The prerequisites to becoming an SME are a strong willingness to get involved and a passion for learning. Aside from these, you can also systematically go through the following steps:
Plan out your research process
Employees spend an average of 20% of their time looking for information to do their job properly. As a beginner product marketer or if you’re getting started on a new product, we can reason that you should be putting in at least double this time.
Build and stick to a simple research process that will involve the product, team, and customers. Even a to-do list will work. Here’s an example:
- Ask the CEO for a brief (you can start with the 5 W’s here)
- Consult with the product development team or other top experts within your company
- Go through all existing learning materials
- Take part in a couple of demos
- Spend a whole day using the product
- Read “Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind”
- Get ideas from the rest of the team
- Create an outreach plan complete with achievable targets
- Join 2 Slack communities for product marketers
- Start a product marketing Facebook group
- Reach out to X, Y, Z
- Publish guest post
- Run a survey
That’s it. One list with all your goals. From here on, all you have to do is focus on each one at a time. This is a certain way for you to take the subject matter expertise acquisition process step by step and don’t get derailed.
Seeing you’ve got so many responsibilities now, this would be a great time to also start working on your time management skills. These will help you keep your workload balanced and set appropriate priorities. So for each target you have, set a clear deadline or timeline expectation and try to stick to it as much as possible.
Go through all training content and product documentation
In other words, educate yourself! Make sure you know all the ins and outs of the help page, terms and conditions, and any other learning materials you’re putting out there for your customers. Try to also find out more about how you can apply the brand’s voice and tone until you know not only what information you can share, but also how you can do it.
I was curious to see how many “product marketing” job ads actually mentioned they we’re looking for a subject matter expert but most we’re just looking for people with a willingness to go deep in the product and DEVELOP credible expertise. Safe to say no one will expect you to know everything from the start.
But [huge point to pay attention to here] never stop your learning process. As one of the primary representatives of your product, you’ll evolve along with it.
Don’t stop at your product though. Make advancements with your training towards the entire industry. Attend conferences, take some courses, or just do some research in your spare time. You can even take this opportunity to test out promotional methods you’ve had for a while and apply successful ones to the product you’re marketing.
Quick memo from me: A product marketer who has full knowledge of the competitors’ products also has control of the market.
Collaborate with your team members
One complete SME is made out of all the tiny pieces of info you can get from the rest of the team. Salespeople, customer support, marketing managers, designers, and even engineers all have their own peculiar ways of seeing a problem. Similarly, they look for different things when they interact with a product or client.
Say you’re talking to the product’s designer. He/she is likely to focus on telling you why users prefer a certain kind of layout or why the onboarding process was designed in 3 and not 5 steps. Then talk to the customer support reps. You’ll probably hear a lot more about the complaints customers have. And they’ll keep you updated on a daily basis anyway.
This is also why many teams don’t even have a product marketer. Instead, their SMEs are in support, development, or QA teams. A product reunites all the people who are behind it. So collaboration is one of the very first aspects you need to become an expert at when switching jobs. Matter of fact, as much as 75% of employers believe team collaboration is of top importance.
SME title or not, expertise is a collaborative process. And you don’t need me to go into all the communication techniques you can use to “pull” insights from your team members. Do the regular meetings, stand-ups, even friendly lunch outings. What I do know works best though are one-on-one meetings. Or at least meetings with a single department at a time so you can get a better understanding of each perspective and how that plays out on the product as a whole.
Join relevant groups
Associations like AIPMM are a good place to start, but you can also look into friendlier groups like Product Marketing Alliance [their Slack group is golden for link building btw] or LinkedIn groups. Any online community is super handy for whenever you’ve got a question bugging your mind or just some thoughts to share. Brands looking for SMEs also access these networks. Extra exposure for you.
I’ll just leave this here: YOU MUST find a platform where you enjoy making connections. If you hate Twitter, you’re clearly not going to force that medium. I for one just like talking to lots of people wherever I come across them. This gives me the opportunity to get to know them, see if there’s any way for us to collaborate, or just learn a thing or two from them right away.
This being said, set out a goal for your networking process. So you don’t end up reaching out to everyone with no real target in mind as I did at the beginning.
Ask yourself: Why are you using LinkedIn instead of Twitter? Do you want to gain a partnership or a lead after an initial discussion? Will you keep talking on a regular basis to a person who qualifies as a lead or will you just get back to them in a couple of months? Is this the right person to talk to?
Lots of questions. And you need to answer all of them before you jump straight to sending 1,000 emails in one day.
Be more active and become an educator
Spread your knowledge! I’ve already highlighted how important it is for product marketers to convey seemingly complicated processes in a straightforward manner and just get themselves out there. But you’ll also be surprised by how many ideas you’ll get from the relations you’ll make at a conference or just on social media.
Speak at an event, do more networking on LinkedIn, start a side project and get your product involved, get on a podcast, write a book even. All of these are great classic opportunities but you can look into areas that are not yet oversaturated with content on product marketing like YouTube.
Feeling uber creative and don’t want to lock yourself in constant boring talks? Get your best ideas out of the attic. Or just be inspired by how others are putting their mind to come up with unique content. These days I love what Lucidchart is doing to get their product in front of YouTube’s audience without shoving direct ads.
Once you’ve nailed all previous steps [and if you’re willing to put in a bit of time], it will be fairly easy for you to be present on all networks. Try to find an idea that distinctly defines you or your views of product marketing and promote this via your platforms of choice.
Endless possibilities here: you can teach product marketers to be productive, support video content as the way to go when promoting a product, or just showcase a bold image of an SME who likes to talk about products using images.
A subject matter expert remains a core component of any team. Bringing in knowledge, creativity, and promotional capabilities, you’re set to become a leader in your field. Diligence though will forever be a defining trait for all successful product marketers. I’ve yet to see a person who’s not actively updated with their product and participating in its development keep their role as an SME within a company.
Now, back to you.
What steps have you taken to acquire subject matter expertise in your product? Leave us a comment and spread the knowledge starting here.