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How marketers can develop subject matter expertise quickly

Blake Thorne
Feb 25, 2019 · 8 min read

Most marketers need to know a lot more about the industry and customers they’re marketing to.

The more technical your product and market, the bigger the knowledge gap between marketer and audience. But most marketers don’t work hard enough to close that gap, and the ones who do take way too long.

They take too long because they take an academic approach, trying to start with the 101-level material and building their way up. It’s basically the same way a college would teach students who are studying in that field. It’s admirable, and valuable work. But doing it well takes years. You probably don’t have years. And if you switch to a different company or product, you’re back to start.

Instead, you want a system for querying specific information and soliciting targeted feedback precisely when you need it.

It’s never easy, I’ve struggled with this for years. I’ve still got a lot of work to do. But I have figured out one strategy that’s worked very well:

Act like a reporter on a beat.

I might be biased toward this approach. Before working in marketing, I worked as a newspaper reporter and journalist for nearly 10 years. So I know reporters have a version of this same problem all the time.

A reporter at the New York Times might get assigned to cover healthcare, or tax policy, Congress, whatever. Very dense, deep subjects. More to learn about than you could possibly read up on in a weekend.

This reporter may not have much, or any, background with this subject. In fact, it’s a classic editorial tactic to specifically assign someone who doesn’t have that background. They’re more likely to find something unexpected because they approach the subject with a beginner’s perspective. So they have a short amount of time to develop some baseline of expertise on the topic. You don’t have months to study up before writing anything, you need to start filing stories right away.

So how do you get there? You don’t get there alone, and you don’t get there hiding in a library. You get there with people.

Develop sources, build relationships

How do they do this? They develop sources, they build relationships.

Most people think of a journalist’s sources as the people who get interviewed in the story. And they are. But there’s also a big iceberg effect happening, a least with the good reporters. For every source who shows up quoted in a story, there are dozens of conversations and relationships happening behind the scenes. These sources serve as your silent tour guide.

Does this mean these are always top secret, “off the record” conversations? No. The bulk of these conversations are educational, explorative, they can even feel rambling and off topic at times.

I love this quote from Rolling Stone reporter Matt Taibbi who took on the giant task of covering the financial beat following the 2008 financial crisis:

“At the beginning I didn’t even know what questions to ask, so I was literally just calling people up and saying ‘Tell me something about anything.’ It took about two or three months before I was able to focus on some kind of theme.”

Developing subject matter sources is a super power for getting up to speed quickly, and I’m shocked more marketers don’t work this way.

I’ve used this approach to build relationships with several engineers and experts. I can bounce ideas off of them, ask them what’s new in the industry, double check my assumptions, clarify my understanding of something. And one of my favorites, sources can help you snuff out bad ideas early, which can save you weeks of time.

These sources may never show up in any customer-facing materials (maybe they will), but there’s a ton of value to these behind the scenes relationships.

Where to find sources

So where do you find sources? The two best places are your team and your customers.

Not saying you can’t find sources other places (former colleagues, friends, events) but those can be harder relationships to kick off and maintain.

Your team

Like any authentic relationship, developing sources takes patience. You aren’t going to approach someone cold with “want to be my source” (in fact, you should probably never say that).

Your team is the best place to find sources because you get to leverage a lot of common ground (shared goals, proximity, some pre-established layer of trust). And within your team is probably an outsized amount of expertise on the subject matter. If you’re marketing for a company that builds a cloud security product, for example, likely many people on the team are experts on cloud security (if not, you have bigger problems). You also have proximity on your side, and the ability to have a lot of small interactions with people over a long period of time.

Your customers

Building a long-term relationship with a customer is more challenging to get started, and has a few added complications, but it can be extremely valuable. Even if you aren’t looking to crank out content, having a few good relationships with customers is priceless for any marketer or product manager. Imagine being a text message away from some quick customer feedback or feature. Imagine working through a brainstorming meeting and getting the real customer perspective during that meeting.

How do you build these relationships?

Building these relationships takes time and a heavy dose of social grace. It never happens with just one meeting. I’ve been on both sides of too many “pick your brain” 15-minute coffee chats that fizzle off into nothing.

There are, however, some helpful and proactive things you can do to speed things along. Here are six techniques I’ve seen work well.

1. Ask to see what people are working on

Smart people usually like to show their work and appreciate thoughtful feedback. Bring genuine curiosity to the table. You might think the inner-workings of someone’s project are over your head, but most people are happy to find the right level of detail to go into and value different perspectives. Plus it gets people talking and opening up. Ask for more details, ask pointed follow-up questions and you’re already showing more interest than 99% of people they show their work to.

2. Ask for reading recommendations

Ask for a book recommendation. Be honest: “Hey, I’m trying to learn more about this topic, are there any books or other content you like?” They will probably be able to recommend a few and set some expectations: “This one’s a little dense, this is a little outdated, this one’s a nice overview.”

Now order your own copy and actually read it. If parts are too technical or don’t make sense, that’s OK. The point isn’t for you to become an expert overnight. But do some hard skimming, learn what you can. Even the most dry technical manuals typically have sections that zoom out and talk about the big picture. Write down questions and impressions you have, take notes, and then go back to your source. They’ll be impressed you actually read (or made an effort to read) what they suggested. You’ve now proven that you’re taking learning seriously and you’ve now got a lot of open doors and topics the two of you can dive into.

3. Invite them to events

I personally think conferences are a lousy environment for building brand new relationships, but a great environment for strengthening existing ones. If your company does conferences or expos, please work to send some engineers to help run your booth and talk to customers. They usually appreciate the change of pace, and you get to add an expert voice to help talk to potential customers. The combination is magical. Plus, you’ll get to spend a lot of idle time together, get to know each other a bit better, and have a better relationship in the future.

4. Sit in on things you weren’t invited to

This is one of my favorite ways to find sources. Sit in on something potential sources have scheduled that you weren’t invited to. Could be a day or half-day training session, a meet-up or a talk somebody is hosting. I once sat in on an all-day training session for Site Reliability Engineers at Atlassian. The company had been running these sessions for years, and I was the first non-technical person to ever ask if I could sit in.

Training sessions are great. You want something more substantial than just a one-off planning meeting. And you want it to be related to something with the actual work. Here’s an example. Say your company is building a product for HR teams, and you want to learn more about HR from your own company’s HR professionals. You could ask someone, for example, how HR does employee onboarding. You might find out that twice a month HR hosts a day-long orientation for new employees. That’s the kind of thing you want to sit in on.

I’m not saying you show up unannounced or without permission, of course you want to ask ahead of time, and it might not work out. But people are typically happy to accommodate.

5. Offer to help them with some marketing

As a marketer, you have experience that can be useful to non-marketers. Because at some point, everyone has a version of their own marketing challenges. Maybe they need to advocate for their team to get extra resources, maybe they need to a pitch a new project to upper management. Or it could be something as simple as proofreading an important email or adding copy suggestions for some internal documentation.

The basics of pitching, storytelling, value props, and presentation come up in everyone’s job, even non-marketers. And you could be a big help. People typically won’t ask, though, so be vigilant about spotting those opportunities and reach out offering to help.

6. Attempt to learn the topic yourself

Want more friends on the data science team? Spend a month trying to learn SQL. Want to learn more about how the IT department works, try putting together a home network setup. Most experts are happy to help people who are learning something they specialize in. It helps you level up your familiarity with the subject, and it gives the two of you common ground to kick off a relationship.

What do you do next?

Kicking off the relationship is just the beginning. You never want to, as the saying goes, burn your source. Treat this person badly and you could lose your hard-earned relationship and damage your own reputation. Here are two tips for keeping everything above-board.

Don’t treat it as a one-way street

The relationship with your source is not just about you getting information and help when you need it. An easy way to fight this is to be sure to reach out and keep in touch even when you don’t need something — or better yet, when it looks like they need something. Buy coffee and just chat, talk about life and stuff outside of work if it’s comfortable. Treat it like a real relationship and not just something transactional. One of my favorite parts of working with sources as a reporter was calling on people for no reason in particular. We’d chat about work, families, colleagues, life, the industry — whatever was on our mind. It didn’t always have to have an agenda. And it didn’t always fit nicely into a slot on Google Calendar.

Know when to back off

You have to be able to read people. If someone’s getting uncomfortable, or you get a feeling you’re pestering too much, take a step back.

Build more sources

That last point is exactly why it’s good to have a few different sources. Not only can you get a second opinion on tricky questions, but you can also spread your queries around so you aren’t constantly pinging the same person. Sources are like investments, it’s good to have a diverse collection of a few so you aren’t relying on just one.

If you enjoyed (or hated) this article, let me know on Twitter.

Thanks to Scott Atkinson for reading drafts of this piece.

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