The Yin and Yang of Finding–or Being–an Online Expert. Beyond Smoke and Mirrors.

In the “old days” finding experts was largely limited to identifying them through academic circles or highly regarded trade and professional publications. Experts were, in essence, “vetted” and those seeking their input could rely upon their veracity, authority and credentials. But, things have changed. Today, quite literally, anyone can be positioned as an “expert”–whether they really are or not. This has become possible because of the World Wide Web and a plethora of online communication channels, including web sites, social media, blogs, etc. This is both a good and a bad thing. Interestingly, it is both good and bad for experts and non-experts. Here’s why:

  • It’s very easy these days for just about anybody to present themselves as an “expert” through a well-developed LinkedIn profile and/or a well-designed web site. But these things do not necessarily mean that these individuals are really experts. For those seeking their advice and counsel–whether as sources for media interviews (which I frequently do), or as potential service providers or partners, it’s important to take the time to dig a bit deeper before deciding who among the masses is really a reliable expert. An exceptional web presence and professionally designed web site does not an expert make.
  • On the flip side, there are plenty of legitimate experts whose expertise is diminished by their poor online presence. Poorly designed web sites–or no web site at all; LinkedIn profiles with no photo, no information and minimal contacts; Twitter feeds with the ubiquitous “egg” graphic, etc.

I use ProfNet and HARO often, both when I’m looking for sources and when I’m hoping to gain exposure for my clients. I recently had one of my editors share with me a perspective that I’ve also held for quite some time now: “Be careful about the sources you find here; not all are legitimately experts.” Whether you’re seeking expertise, or hoping to position yourself as an expert–or both–there are some important lessons to be learned here:

  • While you may be able to fool some of the people some of the time, it’s not likely that you will be able to fool the most important people much of the time at all. Discriminating prospects, savvy journalists and others are increasingly looking beyond the “smoke and mirrors” to dig into the backgrounds and credentials of those they will trust as consultants, sources and service providers.
  • If you truly are a legitimate expert, and have the background and credentials to prove it, but haven’t been able to gain traction online, maybe what’s been holding you back is the persona you are projecting. Compare your online presence to your competitors. What do you see? Better yet, seek a third party perspective on how you stack up. These days that online perspective is all your potential clients may ever know of you.
  • Build your credibility the old-fashioned way–earn it. I’ve been burned by both sources and service providers whose online presence reflected a higher level of expertise than they were able to deliver. I’m sure others have been too. The danger these “charlatans” face, though, is that if they’re not able to back up the promise of their expertise through real action, word will spread. And, with the advent of online communications, it will spread quickly and far.
  • If you are looking for experts to provide consulting expertise, as sources or as potential partners, do your due diligence. Don’t be overly enamored of a flashy online presence. Dig beneath the surface by conducting broader online searches, critically evaluating LinkedIn information (e.g. who are they connected to, who has provided recommendations and referrals, what evidence can you find of what they have actually done), and seeking recommendations and referrals.
  • Don’t dismiss the value of the “old gatekeepers” when vetting someone’s credibility. Academic and trade sources can still be a good way to discern expertise.

As with most things, the cycle of easy online expertise is swinging toward greater caution and discernment, I think, and for good reason. Be careful out there!

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