How to Become a Recognized Expert in your Field
There is a difference between being good at what you do, and being recognized for being good at it. But how do you become a recognized expert in your field, and establish your reputation as a thought leader?
That was the topic of a recent Umbrex Presents conversation with Dorie Clark, a Wall Street Journal best-selling author, consultant, and keynote speaker.
“We know this is a really noisy and crowded environment,” Clark said of the business marketplace for independent consultants. “We need to make sure that the people who could benefit from us and from working with us actually know who we are and are familiar enough with us to actually seek us out.”
Ultimately, that is what enables consultants to charge premium fees and have a full roster of clients.
“You want somebody to come to you as a sole source provider because they already know and believe that you have the ability to solve their problem. They already have a high degree of trust in you and your capabilities. Becoming recognized for your expertise is what enables that to happen,” she said.
How to become a recognized expert: 3 key components
When Clark started her consulting firm in 2006, she didn’t have a lot of high-powered connections, but she knew she had to find a way to break into the networks of people who didn’t know who she was or what she could provide them.
To do this she analyzed the process, gained an understanding of what it would take to get there, and then execute it. She identified three key components to becoming recognized for your expertise.
- Content Creation: Sharing your ideas and expertise publicly so people know what they are.
- Social Proof: Giving people, at a glance, confidence in who you are, your credentials and capabilities.
- Network: Knowing the right people — and as importantly, them knowing who you are.
“Those three interact as kind of a flywheel, and are what enable us to become fully recognized for our expertise,” Clark said.
Focus on your weak areas
One trap Clark sees consultants fall into is to keep doing the things they’re already good at, without expanding their horizons and capabilities.
People can be really over-indexed and successful in certain areas, and feel like they’re doing so much to build their platform and not seeing the results they want. Clark says the problem might be that they’re doubling-down on the things they’re already good at, and not lifting up the areas they have neglected.
In her Recognized Expert self-assessment toolkit, available for free, consultants can answer a series of questions that will result in a graded score that analyzes where they are on this journey, and identifies areas for improvement.
“The further along we get, we tend to have one area that is perhaps more of a weakness than others, and eventually you’re going to have to correct that weakness.”
Eventually, a consultant needs to be fairly proficient in all three components — content creation, social proof, and networking — so Clark advises that once you’ve successfully built up in one area, focus on the areas that are more lacking in your platform.
Allocate marketing time consistently
Most consultants and independent freelance professionals are familiar with the “feast or famine” cycle: you have plenty of work and are busy doing that work, but when those projects end suddenly you’re left without an adequate project base.
Clark says the answer to that is to make sure you are always allocating a certain amount of your time to marketing yourself and building your platform as a known expert.
If you’ve been a consultant for a while and are quite busy with work on a regular basis, perhaps that allocation is only 10% of your time — and that’s fine, Clark says.
But if you have had this kind of choppy business model where it’s so much work, then no work, on repeat, that implies that more resources should be spent on marketing your brand and business.
“I think that most people need to keep a steady drumbeat of time allocated for marketing,” Clark told the audience. “I would say probably 25 or 30% of your time is not a bad ratio. You have to be doing the work now so when your current projects are ending you will have other new things coming to you, and you won’t have to stress out about it.”
Finding your breakthrough idea
In Clark’s book, Stand Out: How to Find Your Breakthrough Idea & Build a Following Around It, she writes, “To make a name for yourself, you have to capitalize on your unique perspective and knowledge and inspire others to listen and take action. But becoming a recognized expert is a mysterious and opaque process. Where do the ideas come from, and how do they get noticed?”
She says many successful consultants are great at what they do and have a high level of expertise, but they may still struggle with identifying their “breakthrough idea” or their own unique value proposition.
She advises people to be gentle with themselves about this process — it’s a long-term undertaking that is built gradually.
“It took me about seven years to figure out what eventually turned into the thing I became known for,” she said. “That doesn’t mean we can’t start striving for that earlier, but I don’t think we should be beating ourselves up.”
There’s a certain amount of time during which a consultant is finding product/market fit, and as they figure that out it begins to refine into their breakthrough idea that will position themselves above the noise to become a recognized expert in that niche.
“It’s not something that happens super early on; you often have to feel your way into it,” she told viewers.
She also offered a couple of key questions to ask yourself to begin identifying this:
- Where do I have a competitive advantage?
- What’s not being talked about or being done?
How to build a following around your idea and expertise
This goes back to the three-step process Clark shared at the beginning:
- Share through content creation
- Social proof
The first step gives people something they can share to demonstrate and spread your recognition. This can include writing articles, hosting and/or guesting on podcasts, sending a newsletter, giving speeches, producing videos, etc.
“This is how people who don’t know you personally can discover you and your ideas,” she said. “Your clients know you, your clients think you’re great, but they don’t have something to pass on.”
They can recommend you to others, but that doesn’t travel very far. It’s a one-to-one concept, whereas when you give them ways to share your expertise through content, it becomes a one-to-many scenario. A piece of content gives the ability to be shared with dozens, hundreds, even thousands of people through email and social sharing.
“Over time, it begins to take on a life of its own and becomes many-to-many, which is the final stage. Friends three generations down are forwarding it, and then it becomes viral.”
In our discussion on how to become a recognized expert in your field, we took questions from the Umbrex Presents audience.
What about writing a book? What’s the right time and way to go about it?
The first step before even thinking of writing a book is to build your platform. Unless you go the self-publishing route, you will need to have an established audience and be well-known in your field to get a publisher and be a successful author.
“You have to figure out the problem of how to become sufficiently famous,” Clark answered. When she was working on her book proposals, she came up against this and in response, began building her following through blogging and speaking engagements.
“You should probably wait as long as you possibly can to get a book deal, because the longer you spend on the platform building process getting your name widely known, the better off you’ll be.”
How often should you publish content?
That varies, but at a minimum consider publishing at least once per month. Less than that, and you run the risk of people forgetting who you are.
“You do need to have more frequency so people stay with you and you can build that snowball up enough that it’ll start rolling downhill,” Clark said.
Her advice: if you currently publish content quarterly, try to do so monthly. If you publish monthly, try to up that to bi-weekly or weekly.
“If you’re doing anything weekly, bi-weekly, monthly, I think that’s in the reasonable range in terms of content creation.”
How does one get published in publications such as Forbes and Harvard Business Review?
Clark has created an entire course on this topic, “Writing for High Profile Publications.” The first step, of course, is identifying and writing an article that has high appeal for such publications.
When thinking about getting into these types of publications, she says people often fail to reverse engineer the process.
“We come up with an idea that we think is clever.” However, HBR or Forbes won’t be interested in it if it’s not in their wheelhouse, unique, and offers something of value not found elsewhere.
“You’re going to get nowhere with it, even if that’s the best article possible,” Clark said. “It’s really important to spend the time upfront to reverse engineer. Not just read [those publications] to get the content, but what are the types of content, what are the angles, what are they doing and what are they not doing, and how can I write an article that will fit in with that?”
Invest in understanding the publication and its intended audiences — that is who your article should be speaking to.
“Another key element is really understanding in-depth what has already been done. You might have a really good article, but if something similar to it has already been done by that publication, it’s no-go.”
You need to really research to see what’s been done before that’s related to it, and even link to that piece in your own article. This proves to the editor that you’re familiar with what they publish.
“Then position your thing so that it’s different,” she advised.
While these publications have submission guidelines on their websites, it’s always easiest to break in with a warm lead. This can mean getting connections with people who already write for the publication — but if you don’t already have those connections, it’s a longer process, and Clark offered a word of caution.
She has a rule called “no asks for a year.” When you first connect with someone, you don’t ask them for their editor contact or anything else right away. These are important and highly-prized connections people don’t just give out to people they don’t know.
Rather, you have to give before you get — over time, build up a genuine relationship with that connection, and be helpful to them before you make an ask.
What’s the best way to link the authority you’ve built to leads coming into your funnel?
A social connect or follow is worth much less than an opt-in email subscription.
“That’s what we should be striving for — trying to get people off social. That doesn’t mean they can’t follow you on social, but the goal is to take those followers and turn them into people signing up for your email list,” Clark said.
She had some advice on the low-hanging fruit to accomplish this:
- When you’re creating content, make sure you are meticulous about including a sign-up link driving people to your website — or even better, a simple landing page with just one call to action (subscribe, download, etc.), that can then redirect to your website.
- With a podcast or video, make sure you always provide a way for the audience to follow or subscribe, and to get in touch with you.
What about involving potential clients in content creation?
“This is a terrific suggestion, and something I would definitely recommend,” Clark said. “There’s just two caveats to go with that.”
The key phrase here is “potential clients.” If you’re writing for a mainstream publication, journalistic integrity prevents you from writing about your actual clients. But if they’re a potential client — particularly one you’d like to get to know and build a relationship with — that’s perfectly appropriate to write about.
Clark noted that when you’re creating content for your own blog or podcast, it’s fine to include your actual clients (consider if permission is needed).
The second thing she cautioned about was the potential for those you’re writing about to think of you as a journalist — not as an expert consultant with something to offer them.
“In their head, they might think, ‘Oh he’s a journalist, he interviews people.’ You have to make sure they understand that [you’re a consultant].”
In the course of the interview, you have to make sure you’re dropping in references to your work, your clients, and your services so that the subject clearly understands you are a consultant.
What are your recommendations for becoming a stand-out content producer?
Simply doing it is one way, Clark said. Through practice and repetition, you will find yourself getting better.
Another good rule of thumb is to think about whether you would be interested in reading that article or listening to that podcast. This is basic, but something many people overlook.
Content is often created simply because the producer thinks that’s what should be done or that’s what clients want. However, that topic might be something that’s been covered extensively already, rather than honing in on your specific expertise and knowledge.
“If you can come up with an article that you yourself would be like, “Yeah I would totally read that, it sounds very interesting,’ that’s the bar we should be striving for,” Clark said. “If it’s interesting for you, it probably will be interesting for other people as well.”
When it comes to ideation for your content, one good tactic is to look at the questions you get asked most often. That can be one of the best generators of content ideas, to write an article or produce a podcast or video around those questions or topics that come up again and again.
What are some tips for promoting your content?
“I think it’s true that we sometimes drop the ball right when we get to the finish line,” Clark said, adding that when the piece of content is completed, the job is not finished.
“One theme that I talk about in Stand Out is, if you have taken the time to create something that really is a great piece of content, you want to spend far more time trying to get it out than you might imagine.”
The real question, she said, is: how do you do something once, and make it count 10 times?
The trick is not to share it on LinkedIn or Tweet about it once, but rather create a strategy around promoting that content. Some ideas include:
- Pull an intriguing and relevant quote and share that, with a link to the article, two days later.
- Create a short video of yourself talking about the main insights you share in the content, or learned from creating it, and post that video on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and/or other channels.
- Take a picture of yourself at work on the piece of content (at your keyboard, in front of the podcast microphone, etc.) and post that to give a “behind the scenes” look.
- Do a livestream where you answer questions that are related to the topic.
“It’s thinking about, for all the different channels that you’re on, what is the way you could optimize this? There’s a lot of ways to continue to get juice from it far beyond what most people do.”
What about publishing on platforms such as LinkedIn, versus building your own stand-alone brand?
Anytime we are dependent on any one thing, we are taking on a higher risk. That’s true if you have just one client as a consultant, and it’s true if you rely too much on one external platform.
“For most consultants, LinkedIn is one of the best — if not the best — places to get clients,” Clark said. “I respect its reach and I respect what it can do. But I also am fully cognizant that this is a publicly traded company, and there are choices they might make in the future that could make it relatively devastating to our ability to reach people.”
While she has a large following on LinkedIn and utilizes it, she also understands that can be taken away tomorrow.
“Meanwhile, my personal email list is much smaller, it’s one-fifth the size of my LinkedIn following — but it’s actually much more valuable,” she shared. “I control it, these people have raised their hands in a super proactive way to opt in to the list.”
This allows her to build a substantial relationship with those subscribers in their inbox, rather than on an external platform that is noisy and has a lot of competition for attention.
“I would really try as much as you can to prioritize getting them onto your email list.”
Clark advises to diversify so you have multiple contact points, and make sure to meet your audience where they are at — if your target audience is not on Instagram, don’t waste your time there.
“If you want the straightest path between doing the thing and getting business from the thing, what you should probably do is create content that is tightly correlated with what you want people to hire you for,” Clark said.
The goal or ideal scenario is to create a piece of content that your ideal client will read or watch or listen to, and feel that it is speaking to them and providing exactly the information or solutions they are in need of.
“I think for all of us, one of the things we should strive for — which not only enhances our bottom line but makes for a better quality of life in the long-term — is to develop enough of a professional reputation and enough recognized expertise that people come to you. The balance of power shifts in your direction, and that makes an enormous difference.”
About Dorie Clark
Watch the video replay of Umbrex Presents with Dorie Clark.
Dorie Clark is the Wall Street Journal best-selling author of books including The Long Game, Reinventing You, and Stand Out, which was named the #1 Leadership Book of the Year by Inc. magazine. She is a professor at Duke University Fuqua School of Business, a consultant, and keynote speaker. Dorie was named one of Top 50 Business Thinkers in the World by Thinkers 50. Learn more about Dorie at dorieclark.com and download your Recognized Expert self-assessment toolkit here.