An Expert With No Experience

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What constitutes an expert?

One of the major conversations that still takes place online revolves around the question, "who is an expert?" Big business is looking for a reason to engage in these many online channels, they just don’t want to be taken for a ride by someone with ten thousand followers and no experience. So, what should your business do?

What constitutes an expert? Some argue that it’s impossible to even call yourself (or be called) an expert in Social Media simply because the channels and platforms are so new that we have not had the time required (Malcolm Gladwell‘s 10,000 hours theory from Outliers) to really identify who the experts are. Others argue that the Internet has been commercialized for over fifteen years and even though it has changed in dramatic ways, there are still those who have proven – time and time again – that they are apt and capable at delivering real and tangible results in these channels. I am of the opinion that just because an individual can create some kind of community and audience for themselves, it does not mean that they can do it for others. A real expert might be someone who can create community, conversation and conversion for others as simply as they can for themselves.

The truth is, we have had many missteps that should be cause for concern.

In the past year, there have been many instances where those who are revered for the breadth and depth of their online social networks have really stumbled (or dropped the ball entirely) when it comes to trying to replicate what they have done for themselves for others. On top of that, there have been many instances where big-named agencies who work with some of the world’s biggest brands have used the channels in a very traditional (re: manipulative) way that wound up causing more negative PR than positive brand experiences.

The lesson is crystal clear: an expert without real business experience is no expert at all.

There are those who spend a lot of time talking (be it on Twitter, through a Blog/Podcast and even in books) and very little time walking that talk. Put yourself in the client’s shoes: you’re working with a "Social Media Expert" – someone with thousands of followers, a highly trafficked Blog and hefty "friend" base on Facebook. Their mandate is clear: to help your company engage in the many online social networks and Social Media platforms. How is this work going to get done if most of that individual’s day is spent focused on their own Twitter feed and Blog? Where, exactly, is the team behind this "expert"? The strategy, design, content, technology and marketing to really push your story out to the online channel? Great results require a strong team – not just one individual and their many followers.

Ken Wong says that these channels could well be what Marketing, Communications and Advertising is really all about, but we need the right case studies to really push it forward.

He’s right. But, it’s not just the case studies… it’s the experience first. This is all healthy and normal. We’re in the middle of a renaissance period for the Marketing and Communications industry (some – including myself – might even argue that all of business is going through this), and we’re going to need a few more years of trying, testing, learning and experimenting not just to reach the point of commercial success, but to get all of the kinks out of the system. We’re going to do this by having some of the real online experts bring in their strong pedigree for measurable metrics, better web analytics, strong development and client services teams, and more strategic brand insights, so that it’s not just about what’s happening right now on Twitter and Facebook, but it’s all about how people are searching, finding, engaging and conversing about the brands.

It’s a tall order, but I think our industry is up for it. What do you think?


  1. You know I’ve been beating this horse for a long time. I want desperately for social media thought leaders to tell me what they’ve actually done, not what some company should have done. Being a pundit is really easy in the co-dependent world of social media these days.
    This is a big reason why I started a wiki ( to allow those Canadian consultants who are counselling clients to upload their examples and create a resource for others to follow. It’s sparsely populated as far as I’m concerned and that may speak to lack of promotion, lack of examples or an uneasiness to share with the world.
    The more people who share more than just their opinions means that there are more examples and more cases for everyone to learn from and show to clients and prospects.
    Another great resource is the Social Media Business Council ( Companies interested in working with an expert should reach out to some of the members of that organization and ask who they work with and who they’d recommend. We all know that word-of-mouth is the best advertising 😉

  2. Good post, Mitch and right on the mark. I have written about this topic (authoritative opinions in a world of authorities) before, and it worries me that so many self-appointed experts keep popping up. What can we do about it?

  3. Mitch, you nailed it.
    The people who are the best at a particular activity do not necessarily make the best teachers or coaches.
    It’s like my Sifu once said: what matters is not what the instructor can do, it’s what his students can do.

  4. Excellent,
    thank you for a much needed and desired write-up. I’m not sure if you have followed my blog or Twitter posts, but you express the message crystal clear.
    I have been preaching this for years and you hit it spot-on with this article.
    My question are these:
    1. What makes an expert?
    2. Who says who is an expert?
    3. Who approves who an expert is?
    4. By what standards do we justify and declare and expert?
    These are some qualitative measures that we can take that justify and predict who an expert is, (An expert is someone who can understand and implement 5 books on the subject and has contributed 10,000 hours to the craft,) but what really constitutes who and what is an expert?
    I call myself an expert, but only because of the generation that I was brought up in. I learned all things by pencil to paper without the concept of human factors and mouse to screen methodologies and theory.
    I have the underlying foundations that justify the right for me to call myself and expert, but by what standards.
    Good write-up Mitch. I luv it.

  5. In new media where the biggest changes often come fast, and 10,000 hours is simply impossible to accumulate before there’s an outcry for certain kinds of support, there’s a certain demand for experts-out-of-the-box.
    While I agree that the line of “Who is an expert” against “Who is a poser” is getting thinner and more difficult to understand, the capabilities you’re asking for force me to question what you’re wanting.
    If you’re looking for metrics, how can we identify which ones are useful? Anyone can build software to track anything (cough-Google-cough) once this happens.
    If we’re shooting for advice on how to approach new channels, I’d say marketers are poised to do this, and I listen to enough Six Pixels, Media Hacks, Marketing over Coffee and so on to know that the information is being generously donated to anyone skilled enough to read between the lines.
    If we want credentials, all we need is a good design and a shopping cart to fill with over-the-net courses to get educated and credited. Even if the sources are spurious, diplomas never lie, right?
    So where do we find experts in the new and great? How can we determine who can put it all together and give us the newest thing we need to track/monetize/commercialize the other newest thing?
    Find me the nearest twelve year old, and I’ll show you a real new media expert.

  6. “Find me the nearest twelve year old, and I’ll show you a real new media expert.”
    That’s sort of like saying that anyone over the age of 30 is a TV expert isn’t it? Just because we use a media, channel or platform heavily doesn’t make us an expert either. There are millions of people who enjoy stand-up comedy, does that mean that they would be great at stand-up or that they even know what makes something funny?
    I eat three times a day (sometimes a little bit more), and I would never claim to be any sort of expert on food or nutrition. Yes, I understand what constitutes a “healthy meal,” but I am no expert.
    I’m not being confrontational with your comment (which I thought was spot on), but more often than not, I am meeting many Digital Natives who are heavy users of New Media, but have zero clue about how these channels work or what they can do from a business perspective. Which simply makes me think that you may have sparked another interesting Blog post: “Just because you use it a lot, it doesn’t make you an expert either”?

  7. Excellent point. I think people with depth in PR or Direct marketing are likely the first to emerge as experts. These individuals have depth in thinking through all the business issues associated with running successful campaigns that engage audiences. As these people refocus and learn the new engagement dimensions, new tools and underlying measurement frameworks, they will continue to lead the charge. What I find interesting is what happens to the old silos that exist in larger organizations. Will PR and Direct Marketing groups merge?
    Years back, I was doing some work for the PRSA in New York. Over lunch, we got to talking about convergence of industries…then functions. I boldly asked, “in 10 years, will the Direct Marketing Association merge with the Public Relations Society of America?” A fork dropped and it got silent for a few seconds, then someone jotted down a note in their meeting book.

  8. Being an expert doesn’t constitute the size of followers or friends on various social media networks. This doesn’t reflect anything professional at all. These metrics can be cheated and manipulated. Perhaps, looking at the portfolio, work experiences and the actual value that this person is offering will determine an expert within your standards. Everyone has their own definition of experts though generally people recognize individuals who have proven something of

  9. The 10,000 hours theory is a great title, a great book and some great conferences. But, sorry, IMHO, it’s not a great idea. Some years ago a “web technology” expert was not someone who has worked 10,000 hours, but anybody able to produce a 10 pages website that will give minimal results for his client.
    In 2009, a social media expert is not someone who has billed 10,000 hours. It’s someone who knows things, understands his client and gets results (for his client, not for himself). Many self-called experts know thing but understand noting about their clients, so they can’t get any result except billing hours.

  10. I think what makes an expert is in a way his/her peers agreeing or proclaiming him as an expert. In today’s world you cannot be a self-proclaimed expert, people have to say you are. In a small industry like ours, where there is like 1-2 degree of separation between pretty much all the relevant players, the clowns are found out sooner or later right? Yes the social media is still new so there will be some “impostors”, but I cannot see how they can survive very long, we are all too connected and “aware”, especially more and more the clients. Or am I being a bit naive?

  11. Great post Mitch!
    I would like to add as an example that I give more value to the quality of Tweets someone has on Twitter and/or Twitter then his/her following. I also try to avoid the ones that are into pure self-promotion. I don’t care how good you think you are, I want feedback from the people that know you are.
    That being said, if you have a LinkedIn profile, then you should have between 5% and 10% of your contacts that can recommend you.
    Quality, not quantity should be the motto.
    Since none can claim to be an expert, I would trust someone with business experience and less tech experience more than the other way around. The former can communicate the exact needs of the customers and that is harder to do the other way around.

  12. Interesting article.
    How many people have 10,000 hours experience in social media? Very few. Anyway, ‘expert’ sounds so academic.
    If someone wants to give themselves a label then ‘entrepeneur’ sounds much better than ‘expert’. An entrepeneur is someone with hands-on experience. They’re in the cut-and-thrust of making social media work in order to help their business, or the business they are supporting, work. Entrepeneurs are risk-takers and innovators. They look at what others do and they do their research but they, also, experiment and try things that others haven’t done (or couldn’t imagine / wouldn’t dream of doing). Sometimes the risks fail. But when they succeed they succeed well.

  13. I’ve been seeing more traditional companies hire young social media interns or recent graduates to run campaigns based on their familiarity with all things digital. And in the right context, I think that they lend valuable insight and enthusiasm. But to your point, there must also be a a strategic approach to accomplishing and analyzing business goals.
    I agree with Andy that marketing and PR professionals are poised to adopt social media tools to expand and adapt their current efforts. But there must be a passion for how communication channels are changing. Otherwise, it’s the same traditional efforts being squeezed to fit new broadcast mechanisms instead of being adapted for the audience at the other end based on how they interact.
    I realized my career path was changing when I brought my PR ideas to our Interactive Director to look at community trends. Every day I learn something about SEO or analytics that compliments my marketing efforts. Whether it is how to measure success or think differently about how people are talking about things and what keywords they are using- partnering with experts outside of your field and sometimes your comfort zone, is an important step for traditional marketers to understanding online behavior.
    Great post. I look forward to reading more!

  14. This is exactly what I was thinking about “what is an expert ?”.
    For me, Mitch is an expert. For my friends or co-workers, I am an expert but I am surely not as expert as Mitch.
    Can we define an expert as someone who knows pretty much more on something than ourself ?

  15. Show me the hard data linking social media tactics and actual sales (whatever) results important to a company, and I’ll show you the expert. And don’t quote the Dell $3 million example. Yeah, right. Out of 60 billion in revenue. To me, an expert is first someone capable of demonstrating actual correlation between strategy/tactics and results through data. The rest is hot air… which the Web is really full of.

  16. Social Media experts eh? Thanks for having this forum that provides so many great comments about the what, where and when of social media. Particularly thought provoking comments about what constitutes an expert in Social Media marketing.
    But it’s the Who that is most important. I have a problem with the term expert. I prefer “Thought Leaders”… much less arrogant than “expert”. We all have good ideas and comments as witnessed by this very forum. And I suggest that there are many “Thought Leaders”. It’s usually those who are willing to take action that stand out.
    So why is “Who” so important?
    Because it is the “Who” that will create change in marketing communications. Who will lead marketers away from the inefficient traditional marketing into a targetted, interactive marketing mode that helps the consumer make purchasing decisions. Yes, the “Thought Leaders” play an integral role in this process. Kudos to Mitch Joel and his Six Pixels of Separation communiques and other thought leaders. (Sucking up time.)
    There is another “Who” that needs to step up. It’s the educators. And dare I say, in the past we have moved a bit slowly in adopting new concepts. But some of us are moving a bit faster these days. Along with the “Thought Leaders” Ontario College faculty can really start the change meter spinning by spreading the gospel to the thousands of students in our Schools of Business. Sure our University faculty colleagues too, like Ken Wong of Queen’s, who Mitch referred to in one of his comments, are important to the change process.
    It’s time to form partnerships between the “Thought Leaders” and college and university faculty. I, for one, am ready and willing.

  17. Then from an internal marketing perspective, the problem is that everyone thinks they’re an expert because they have a facebook page.
    Instead of chasing down experts to advise on a social media strategy, most organizations would be better off putting the reigns in the hands of a bright mind internally and letting her run with it. Trust. Commitment.
    Focus on jumping – not what it will feel like in the air, how warm the water is etc.

  18. Like what you state in your article; “A real expert might be someone who can create community, conversation and conversion for others as simply as they can for themselves”. That’s the best thing to do as follower to say if you really follow the real expert. Thanks for posting this article.

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