The Expertise Paradox: Seeking Social Feedback, with Authority

My client sighed into the phone as he described a fellow author who had developed serious public interest in his new project seemingly overnight. “It seems like just yesterday he was just posting random brainstorming questions on Google+ and his blog, without even mentioning that he was going to turn it into a book… and as soon as he decided that he wanted to write a book, he had people pledging hundreds of dollars on Kickstarter to help him write it. How does that work?”

I mentioned that the author in question had been following documented social media best practices since long before this project got started, actively engaging with readers and fellow writers, spotlighting other peoples’ content as well as his own, acting as a facilitator for interesting conversations, and above all, constantly asking readers to share their own thoughts and experiences. His posts always come off as starting a discussion, not delivering a lecture. And as I explained this to my rather exasperated client, it occurred to me that my own advice might have been part of the problem.

You have to be an expert… just not THAT kind of expert.

See, when I’m talking about the importance of blogging for business, expertise is a concept that comes up a lot. People want to hire you, or buy your product, if they see you as an expert on what you do, and writing a successful, sophisticated blog on the subject (or getting someone like me to write one for you) is a great way to establish that sense of expertise. You know, “look at this guy, he looks like he knows what he’s talking about.”

The thing is, our culture has a lot of associations tied up with the word expert. An expert isn’t just someone who happens to know a lot about her favorite subject; she’s a kind of authority figure, with all that that entails. Being an expert means that you get to boss other people around, and, on the flipside, that you don’t let anybody boss you around. Maintaining authority means not showing weakness, right? And asking for help is showing weakness… and asking for input is basically asking for help… so if the whole point of having a blog is to prove that you’re a Big Damn Expert, the whole thing is totally ruined if you ever admit that you don’t know anything. Game over.

Except that in the warm, fuzzy world of social media (and for that matter, in the rest of the world outside of TV infotainment shows and certain highly contentious university departments), expertise doesn’t exactly work that way. You can be an expert and still be curious about what other people think, or even admit that there are whole sub-fields that you don’t really get. One of my favorite social media bloggers, Mitch Joel, did a great post about how he isn’t very good at Twitter. Think about the best teachers you had in school — were they the ones who thought they knew everything, or the ones who were obviously willing to learn new things from their students? You could spot the difference when you were in high school, right? Your customers are at least as sophisticated now as you were then.

(further reading: Another favorite of mine, Havi Brooks, has a great post about reconciling the desire to be an expert with the fact that you are, probably, also a human.)

Learning to let go.

Engaging on social media requires you to give up just a little bit of control. That can mean giving up the floor and inviting people to tell you things you’ve never thought about before, including things that might contradict your basic business model. And that’s okay. No, really, it is. Showing that you’re okay with that is vital to showing that you’re comfortable with the medium you’re using — it’s the equivalent of standing up at a podium and looking like you belong there, instead of awkwardly rifling through your notes and speaking too close to the microphone.

It might help to look at social media as a language — and blogging, forums, facebook, twitter, etc as dialects of that language — and to acknowledge that the question form is the key to that language. Look how many social media posts are framed as questions; it’s like Jeopardy out here. Why? Because interaction is what you’re looking for, and questions invite interaction. They signal to people that you want them to talk to you. In social media land, asking a question doesn’t mean “I don’t know this,” it means “I want to talk with you about this.” Which you totally do, right?

What if I ask and nobody answers?

That’s a scary one. If nobody’s commenting on your blog, you might not want to risk posting an open-ended brainstorming session, asking people for input, and receiving… you know, that annoying little chirping cricket sound. There’s having faith that the audience will find you, and then there’s just asking for embarrassment. So don’t do that.

Instead, start where your audience already is. Chances are, there’s somewhere online — whether it’s a Facebook group, a Twitter chat, or a forum — where people who are interested in your subject matter are already talking. Get to know the people there, and start asking questions and looking for input. Once you’ve gotten to know a few people, you can shift the discussion over to your own space, like a blog post.

For this to work, it’s important to know your audience, and how they relate to online spaces. For instance, I know that my fellow social media and blogging people like to hang out on Twitter. On the other hand, when I used to be a semi-professional Middle Eastern dancer, I always looked for other dancers on the more obscure, bohemian-targeted social network Once you’ve found a community, it’s just a small step towards starting a discussion.

What are you waiting for?

Have fun with it. Ask questions — even controversial ones. Request that your readers tell you their stories. Learn things. Share what you know.

Yes, it’s business — and yes, it’s definitely work. But if you relax a little and get past the initial fear, it can also be a lot of fun.