Dave Burda on the Importance of Subject Matter Expertise

By Juliet Stott  |  October 11, 2016

Burda on Subject Matter Image

David Burda spent most of his career as an investigative business journalist, specializing in reporting on the healthcare sector. As MSPC’s editorial director for healthcare strategies, he is one of the subject matter experts (SMEs) employed by the company to develop and guide client content strategies.

Here, he shares his wisdom about why brands should embrace the content skills of journalists and hire SMEs to create their content.

Why should brands hire SMEs to create their content?

The greatest benefit is in content ideation. SMEs know the industry and the people you’re creating content for. They’re able to recognize potential stories everywhere and recommend them to their clients. It’s almost like hiring beat reporters—they understand what makes a good story, what an audience wants or needs to read, what would be a good profile piece, what would make a good infographic or webinar on a particular topic, etc.

How does employing an SME improve a brand’s credibility with an audience?


First, SMEs have already established a persona and reputation in their field and will bring that credibility to a brand. Second, they will come with their own audience.

Finally, another benefit for the brand is that SMEs are not starting from scratch. They’re able to converse on the same level as, say, the CEO, which establishes a bond and trust with the senior management team. As a result, SMEs can create more sophisticated content.

What value does that bring for reader?

The value is that the end user is presented with new and useful information. The SME can take the reader somewhere new and give the audience new insights and ideas, something a generalist content creator might not be able to recognize or do. A generalist may inadvertently create content that has been done before or is too basic, which shows a lack of knowledge or insight.

Should companies recruit specialist writers/trained journalists or former practitioners from their field?

Ideally, you’ll employ a former journalist who’s covered a certain topic for a while. I’ve worked at publications that have hired a practitioner—for example, a doctor—and hoped he or she could write.

The problem with this approach is the practitioners don’t come with a publishing or content creation discipline, such as meeting deadlines, accuracy, fact checking, creating a balanced piece and all of those tools journalists have. They may know the subject well, but they find it hard to produce content in a way that’s expected.

Subject specialist journalists are more detached and able to see the bigger picture, almost serving as a proxy for the audience. As a result, they can suggest stories, topics and themes to cover from a broader industry perspective.

Can some industries get away with hiring generalists? Are some sectors more complex than others?

I would argue SMEs are invaluable, regardless of industry. For whatever topic they’re writing about, they still must know what’s been said before, what the current research is and who the audience is. This requires a certain level of sophistication and knowledge.

Every industry also has its own jargon, and if you employ a generalist, he or she may misuse terms. Having subject matter expertise allows the content creator to avoid doing things that would embarrass the brand.

Are there drawbacks to employing subject specialists?

The one drawback I can see is egos. Journalists have to keep theirs in check and not presume to know more than the brands they’re working with. Delicate situations may exist where the journalist will suggest a story idea, based on his or her experience, but the marketing and communications teams don’t like it for whatever reason.

In this situation, the journalist should hold back and accept these kinds of decisions. Journalists working in content marketing must realize that brands, ultimately, are focused on sales. Content is created to drive revenue, build trust or raise a brand’s profile

What advice would you give journalists thinking about working in content marketing?

The main change will be who the audience is. When you create content for a brand, the audience is the client or the client’s customers, and that’s very different from a consumer or trade publication audience, so you have to change who you’re writing for. That can be hard for journalists to do. Although they may be writing about the same issues, some topics may be off limits.

The language you use may also change. For example, many times I’ve written the word “barrier” in my copy, but it was amended to “challenge” or “overcoming the challenge.” But don’t be put off; the value you bring is industry knowledge and the ability to create content that will be of interest to the audience, which raises the content’s authentication and sophistication.

Read next: 11 Subject Matter Expert Content Creation Tips


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