Experts: Perception vs Reality

I’ve been considering an often overused term: “expert.” My focus is on two areas:

  • Media & Journalism: Whether traditional media are full of experts and new media and social media are full of amateurs.
  • Online Education: With the proliferation of online courses, what differentiates someone who is knowledgeable vs someone who is an expert?

Dan Blank
Valeria Maltoni linked to an interesting post yesterday: “In Defense of Experts,” in which they debate the value between crowdsourced reviews (of 200 non-experts) and a review by a single expert.

This got me to consider why we assume that people associated with a well-known brand are inherently ‘experts,’ and that their value could potentially be more authoritative than the opinions of others.

This relates to traditional media – newspapers and magazines in particular – where their is a halo effect around contributors and reporters. Part of this is clearly the institutional code of ethics of large established brands. The other depends on the individual. Some have a long history of experience, and have been on staff for years. Others are contributors or columnists – people who we assume are experts, since the newspaper or magazine has spent money to put their words into ink on paper.

I was chatting with someone recently who was surprised to learn that some journalists in niche B2B media brands are not topic experts. They cover a particular market, let’s say it’s chicken farming, but they have not experienced chicken farming or studied it. They are journalists, whose talent includes covering any topic in an objective manner. Their ability lies in finding stories and communicating them effectively.

The conversation had us discussing whether this was of more value, or hearing from an actual chicken farmer whose hands dirtied the keyboard as they typed because they were just wrangling chickens a moment earlier.

There’s no clear answer, especially not when generalizing in a made-up example. But it speaks to the changes that media is undergoing, and why some in traditional media are convinced that their industry will never experience the shift that the music industry has. That there will always be a future for reasonably paid full-time editorial staffers for niche publications.

But suddenly, Chicken Farmer Digest is competing with the very people they are serving. Their sources are now their competition. The question is: has the value of CFD editorial reporting decreased now that their sources are covering themselves?

Actual experts spend a lifetime building their experience, connections and credibility. Compare this to some online experts, who are no doubt knowledgeable, but whose experience is short, and focus on a topic fleeting.

Tim Ferris discussed this in The 4-Hour Workweek:

“Expert status can be created in less than four weeks if you understand basic credibility indicators.”

He makes the critical point that “being perceived as an expert and being an expert” are sometimes two different things. His four steps to being perceived as an expert:

  1. Join two or three related trade organizations.
  2. Read the three top-selling books on your topic.
  3. Give one free one-to-three hour seminar at a the closest well-known university. Then do the same at branches of two well-known big companies.
  4. Offer to write one or two articles for trade magazines related to your topic, citing what you have accomplished in steps 1 and 3 for credibility.
  5. Join ProfNet, which is a service that journalists use to find experts to quote for articles. Use steps 1, 3, and 4 to demonstrate credibility.

Do you want to be an expert? Just do a Google search, there are lots of articles promising that you can become an expert on anything in no time. They aren’t saying you can learn about a topic, or become knowledgeable, but actually become an expert. An authority.

I am always fascinated with downloadable products such as eBooks and online courses. Are they filled with short-lived tips, or are they authored by someone with deep experience in a particular niche? Is their expertise based on perception, or reality?

This same thought-process applies to any form or online and offline content, including events.

I am thrilled at how the web has opened up a world of education, a world of learning, of sharing and connection. And I’m thrilled that people can access and become experts more easily. But I am cautious about throwing around words like ‘expert,’ because in order for it to mean something, it needs to be rare. It needs to be earned.

Let me know if I can help you in your journey: @DanBlank, 973-981-8882 or