In this episode, I'm joined by freelance journalist, Philippa Willitts to discuss the dreaded "insta-expert" craze and why writers of all kinds should avoid creating an air of false authority to be seen as experts before you actually are. (The risks are very real.)
If you've been following All Freelance Writing at all since this summer, you've probably seen me talk about the pseudo-expert, or insta-expert, trend.
I am not a fan.
What Are Insta-Experts?
To sum it up, this is when someone (often a writer) is trained by some marketer to "become an expert" by launching courses, releasing e-books, or launching membership sites. The idea is that expertise comes from exposure... it's just an image you're trying to build. It's about marketing yourself as an authority without actually doing the work of becoming a reputable resource for the people you're trying to teach (and take money from).
Here's the deal though: You are not qualified to teach people or to claim expertise until you actually build that expertise.
While there are exceptions, we're mostly talking about people claiming to be experts at running a successful business, trying to teach others to do the same. But those "experts" haven't actually done that yet. That's a particular problem these days in the freelance writing community where writers who have only been in business a couple of years (if that) think they're qualified to teach newer writers how to build a sustainable business (they are not).
What's the Problem with Insta-Experts?
There are some things you can teach someone even if you barely have more experience than they do. Teach them how to play a few chords on the guitar. Teach them how to macramé. Teach them how to use a productivity tool you've tested. Or teach them tips and tricks related to a particular piece of software, such as Scrivener.
That's perfectly fine. That's not what we're talking about when we discuss insta-experts. We're more concerned with those fake experts who are trying to teach people how to run a successful business.
If you haven't done that, you have no business teaching others on that front. Why not? Why it is different? Because your lack of experience can do real harm to someone else.
We're not talking about a quick software tip where, if your advice doesn't work, someone can just Google the correct information.
We're talking about people who may invest weeks or months, and hundreds or even thousands of dollars, into the training you provide. And if you screw them over by giving them unqualified advice that hurts them rather than helps them, you can destroy someone's new business entirely.
Giving business advice is similar in this sense to giving financial or legal advice. If you aren't a true expert, leave it the hell alone. Teach something simple, something practical. But don't try to teach something that requires years of experience you simply do not have.
The Birth of an Insta-Expert
Philippa and I talk about several ways writers are often taught to build false authority (or "borrow" it from others -- which totally isn't a thing). These include guest posting on high profile blogs, interviewing real experts on your own, and using round-up posts. None of these things are bad in and of themselves. But they're often abused and misunderstood by the insta-expert crowd.
We discuss these things (and how they can be used the "right" way instead) as well as the issue of getting your marketing advice from the right places.
And finally, we look at the whole circle-jerk system that puts groups of friends on the fast track to becoming insta-expert sleaze.
Risks of False Authority
Philippa and I then go into some of the risks you might face if you start acting like a niche or industry expert before you've done the work to actually build real expertise.
One of the biggest risks is that posed to your reputation. We explain how word can get around about these things and the likelihood of real experts seeing through your bullshit (and why they'll care). Coming from a PR background with crisis management experience in having to clean up these kinds of messes for clients, I can assure you, you aren't prepared for the potential fall-out.
We also touch on legal risks you might face by pretending to be something you're not.
Building Real Expertise
We close out this episode by explaining how you can do better than following the insta-expert trend -- building real authority in your specialty area in a truly sustainable way.
Philippa and I touch on education options (and why marketing blogs are not the best place to learn), the importance of understanding fundamentals over trends, the necessity of "putting the time in" and actually doing whatever kind of work you're trying to teach, and also using media relationships to help you get your name out there as a reliable source.
Links for This Episode
- Philippa's Website
- Philippa Willitts - Twitter
- Philippa's Podcast - Freelance Confidence
- Philippa's feminist article mentioned in the show (in reference to its national media pick-ups)
- The previous podcast episode on experts and trust
- My round-up post for Muck Rack (as mentioned in the episode)
- My guest post for Lori Widmer's Writers' Worth Month talking about using guest posts to land freelance clients (as mentioned in the episode)