Walking the Talk…Virtually

There's more to being an expert online than just knowing your stuff. Here are 6 ways to position yourself as the expert in online communities.

"That's a great question. Here's how I've handled it with one of my clients…."

"I used to do it the way you suggested, but then one of my clients and I found a more efficient solution. We …. "

One of the essential strategies of new media marketing is to position yourself as an expert on your topic. You can do this via a variety of methods: publishing articles, blogging, creating and posting video tutorials, podcasts or talk radio, webinars and so on. But one of the easiest and still most effective is by participating in a group -- a discussion list, forum or a sub-group within a social networking site.

For example, you are a lawyer advising executives on compensation issues. You can participate in your class listserv or in some of the many online communities for executives in different industries. Whenever a compensation issue is discussed, that's an opportunity for you to share some of your hard-won insights.

Contrary to popular opinion, effective marketing in forums and discussion lists is not about volume, it’s about presence and positioning.

If you want to be perceived as an expert, act like a true expert

Seems like a simple enough concept, right? If you want to be thought of as an expert in your field, besides just knowing your stuff, if you could figure out how experts -- not wanna-be experts, but true "A-list" experts that people respect, quote, hire and buy from -- act, then acting like them, rather than acting like a wanna-be, should boost your credibility even more.

You know the wanna-be experts… you’ve seen them. They always have an opinion about everything posted in the group. They’ll ramble on for paragraph after paragraph, making their case ad nauseam. And it seems that whenever there’s a flame war, they’re right in the middle of it, even if it doesn’t look like they started it.

Over the past five years I’ve studied how "real" experts behave in online groups. And when I say "real" experts, I mean the ones who earn significant revenues from their business, have published books, speak at conferences, have peer-reviewed papers in trade journals, and so on. Are they necessarily the most knowledgeable on the topic? No. But they have the best reputations and are generally far more financially successful than the wanna-bes.

If you want to be perceived as a real expert, not a wanna-be, you need to act like one.

So how do real experts act?

In order to understand how real experts act, let’s look first at two key attributes of experts:

  1. They’re busy: They’re working -- writing, traveling, speaking, consulting for a client, whatever… Point is, they have better things to do with their time than spend all day in a discussion forum.
  2. They’re extremely careful about what they say: They know that people are paying attention to them, and that has two consequences. First of all, they know that their reputation is on the line every time they open their mouth -- that everything they say will be subject to scrutiny. Secondly, they also know that people will put a lot of weight into what they say and probably act upon it, so they feel a strong sense of responsibility to provide good information.

When you understand those things, it’s easy to see why experts behave as they do in this context:

  • Experts post less frequently: They aren’t usually heavily, heavily engaged in the group unless it’s their own group or they have some kind of leadership role. Depending on the overall posting volume, anywhere from a 2 posts a week to a few per month is sufficient to keep their name out there.
  • Experts aren’t quick to reply: They usually aren’t the first ones to join in the conversation. Remember, they’re not sitting there watching for posts as they come in -- they may only even read the group posts once or twice a week. Also, they read and reflect on the reactions of others before posting their own thoughts.
  • Experts consolidate the conversation, not fragment it: There’s a tendency in active groups for conversations to "fragment", i.e., multiple people reply to the original post, then people create replies to the replies, and so on. Experts don’t typically reply to people individually, but rather create a single, longer post that addresses what several people have said all at once.
  • Experts substantiate what they say: Experts are researchers. Sure, they have opinions, but most of them didn’t earn their reputations based purely on their opinions. So when they make statements in these groups, they often back these up by citing sources, whether it’s something they’ve written themselves or that someone else wrote. It’s especially helpful if you link to the sources you’re citing. And if it’s yourself, that’s a great promotional tool at the same time.
  • Experts keep it professional They don’t participate in flame wars, and they rarely bring their personal issues into the group. They don’t put people down — they may correct, but they don’t insult in doing so. Why? Because they’re not threatened.
  • Experts don't "act" smart -- they are smart: True experts don't talk down to people, but they also don't use jargon or complex language in order to sound impressive. In fact, they are generally more able than most to put the concepts into plain, simple language that everyone can understand, and are patient and willing to do so.
  • Let's be clear… this isn’t about gaming the system to pretend to be an expert when you’re really not. This is about making some smart decisions about how you use your time and how you engage people in online communities. You’ll find, as you put these into practice, that not only will they slowly but surely enhance your reputation, they’ll also give you more time than random, unfocused participation does. You can use that time to go do the same thing in another group or site, or to go do other things to enhance your expert reputation, like write a blog or better yet, a book.

    Act like a real expert, not a wanna-be, and you will attract more business.

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