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Episode 33: The Insta-Expert Trend and the Risks of False Authority

Episode 33 - The Insta-Expert Trend and The Risks of False Authority - The All Freelance Writing Podcast

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.)

Show Notes

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.

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2 thoughts on “Episode 33: The Insta-Expert Trend and the Risks of False Authority”


    Seriously, I cannot thank you enough for tackling this topic. I’m currently trying to set up my own blog, but I’m really discouraged because wherever I go for help, I have to battle being sucked into a Ponzi-scheme-esque universe of people purporting to be “experts” because they were successfully able to convince enough people that this was the case.

    I make it a habit to do further research on anyone making such claims, but it becomes EXTREMELY frustrating when the Google search links are filled with (paid) affiliates and (biased) students and friends. Criticism isn’t the enemy, neither is hearing from people who weren’t happy. Good and bad criticism, money well spent and money wasted all bleed together to create an accurate picture.

    But the true nightmare is that there is this sense that today’s blogging world is being held together by people who are successful bloggers NOT because they have something important to say, but because of empty promises that “you too can swim in thousands of dollars per months!” and the answer isn’t that you are a writer with something to offer…but that “you too can have these things if you convince enough people that you are expert!”

    It’s exhausting, it’s frustrating, it’s dishonest…and it’s heartbreaking. I genuinely want to help writers be their best selves, but I’m petrified that the only way to reach people is to create this faux veneer of expertise where the end goal isn’t to help, but to fleece.

    ….Sorry word-vomiting all over the place, I’ve had this topic on my mind for a minute, can’t you tell?

    Anyway, THANKS AGAIN for addressing this trend-that-needs-to-die-already!

    • No need to apologize! I think you nailed some really important aspects of the problem — namely the issue of convincing people you’re an expert without actually offering expertise and the problem with affiliate promotions.

      The latter is a serious problem with some of the more well-known in this group. I’ve seen exactly what you’re talking about when you mention searching for these people of programs. You’ll find very little unbiased feedback where people aren’t being compensated through the affiliate programs. (And I’ve seen them distribute dofollow affiliate links — a black hat paid link tactic that boosts their own site’s rankings illegitimately too).

      There are ones who automatically make all of their “students” affiliates too — therefore incentivizing them to say good things (and only good things) so they can profit through the existing exposure of that “expert.”

      In one case brought up in another writing community a while back, the pseudo-expert took it much too far. It was related to a course. There was a writer who wasn’t really getting what was promised out of the course and they weren’t entirely happy about it (they were getting that help for free from those of us in this other community instead). But they didn’t demand a refund for the course because the sleazy POS running it had an offer going that made it possible for “students” to get their money back if they finished the course.

      The problem(s)? First, refunds are for when you don’t make customers happy; not when you do. Second, whether or not students passed the course was entirely subjective and in the hands of said “expert.” But third, and most importantly, the student would only get the refund if they left a positive testimonial after finishing the course.

      So here we had an unhappy student who was essentially being bribed to lie and say this course and its teacher were great.

      Now, the rest of us tried to talk the student out of falling for this bullshit, but I don’t know what they decided. The issue then becomes one of a scam artist leading others into equally unethical behavior (which can put their own reputations at risk — not something anyone legitimately wanting to help you would ever do). Basically, if the student did write up a positive review and such, knowing the course didn’t deliver everything promised, and they did so for their own financial benefit, that’s kind of the very definition of fraud. And the part that pisses me off is that it would entice other newer writers to pay hundreds of dollars for that same course moving forward.

      Another student of the course chimed in too. They did leave before finishing the course because they weren’t happy (good for them!). But why don’t unhappy students, members, etc. speak up with public negative reviews? Because they don’t see other people doing it. They’re afraid to be first or are afraid to be in the minority. And that’s something these “experts” count on. The more they hype their own shit up, and the more exposure they build (earned or not — usually not), the more afraid newer folks are to stand up to them. When no one else speaks up, they assume the problem is them.

      Fortunately though, the peers of this variety of asshole are generally well aware of what they’re up to and are quietly steering people away from them. So the best thing I can recommend is asking around before signing up for any membership site, course, etc. Don’t ask other new writers. Don’t even ask people who have come onto the scene within the last 3-5 years (when a lot of these pseudo-expert types started sinking their claws into new entrants in the writing community — they’re already buying into the bullshit because they didn’t learn better when they were new like you’re trying to do).

      The whole thing is just one big virtual shit storm really. Good for you for seeing through it though. Not enough newer bloggers and freelancers do.


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