How to Become an Authority in the Digital Age

July 13, 2016

Because it’s summer, and I’m a mom without much childcare, I’m rewriting and re-running some oldies but goodies. In fact, many of you will have NEVER seen this content before! This is a post I wrote several years ago, of which I was reminded this week. I’ve updated it with some new thoughts. Enjoy!


Last week, I got an email from a follower with some questions about whether Content Intelligence Academy was right for her. But here’s what struck me about her email:



I’m just starting a new business, in a field where I have no experience or authority!! It’s just something I’ve dreamed of for years, and so I’m at the beginning of my journey. […] The point is, do you think your course can help me with this or should I wait until I actually have some authority to blog about this?


I wanted to reach through the interwebs and give her a big hug, because whether she realized it or not, she was looking for someone (in this case, me) to give her permission to start a business and a blog about her passions.


She’s actually conferred enough authority on me in her own mind, that (consciously or subconsciously) she’s reaching out to me to validate her passion, her ideas, her ambition. She wants to know, basically, if my course will help her feel like she’s qualified to follow her dreams.


WOW.


I chewed this one over and over in my head after I’d replied to her. It wasn’t so much about whether I would make the sale, but how we think about and approach authority online.


Being content creators is a vulnerable business, and yet being content creators can instantly confer on us a certain level of authority. Who decides that authority? When is it real?


That piece of paper on your wall doesn’t mean much to anyone but you.


When I first got started in my own business, I had a coach who mentioned that while she has two coaching certifications (not to mention multiple advanced degrees), no one has ever asked her about them. She’s a high-level coach, charging tens of thousands of dollars for her coaching programs and no one has ever asked to see her credentials. Why?


Because the nature of authority has changed.


It used to be, back when we lived in little mud huts and small villages, that we listened to our elders because they were, well, elder.


Then, maybe, the authorities in charge were the people who had money. (And the people who had money tended to be white men. And because they had the money, they had the power, and that gave them authority.)


I don’t know about you, but how old or how rich (or white, or male) somebody is has very little bearing to me on whether or not I trust them! (In fact, in some cases it works against them…)


Then, things got democratized a little bit, and we started conferring more authority in some circumstances on people who were more educated. (Let’s not get into the problems surrounding the cost of education…That’s somebody else’s blog!)


But nowadays, in the digital age, anyone can be an authority on anything: age, race, sex, education level, income level be damned.


In this new age of authority, you listen to me because you want to—not because somebody else told you to.


Think about your favorite bloggers, gurus, TV personalities—do you know the credentials of any of them? Do you know where they went to school or anything else? Probably not. Because no one else, no governing body or review board, has told you to listen to them. You chose to listen to them yourself.


And that can be both good and bad.


New authority still has rules.


It’s good that we’re choosing our authorities more and more because it has democratized the process to some extent and improved the diversity to choose from. HOORAY! But it’s also bad because people have figured out how to manipulate us, how to fabricate authority for their own gains.


And that’s just kind of skeezy.


So, in my view, the rules of what makes someone an authority have changed. But there are still rules if we want to call it authentic authority. I still have to prove a level of credibility before you’re going to trust me and my advice. But it’s easier to achieve than you might think if you can infuse your writing with the following characteristics:



  • Vulnerability has become something of a buzzword since the wonderful Bréne Brown took the national stage, and for good reason. Opening up and showing your vulnerability makes you a real person. You’re no longer just words on a screen, but a person at the other end of the internets. I can think of several examples where this has worked to my advantage in a very tangible way, but especially this post I wrote about some big mistakes I made.
  • Emotion follows closely on vulnerability’s heels. You can talk all day about the most vulnerable moment in your life, but if you write it like a DVR manual, you’re not going to get much response. Check out this recent post from my friend Shae Baxter for an example that combines both emotion and vulnerability.
  • Empathy cuts both ways: you must demonstrate empathy for your readers, but you really want them to feel empathy for you, too. The more your reader feels like you’re just like them, the more likely they are to trust you. This is where understanding who your readers are and what their problems are comes in super handy. Readers want to see themselves, their problems, and their worldview, in what you’re putting out.
  • Proof is perhaps the most important and the most difficult characteristic for a new authority to get, but not impossible for anyone. For someone to buy from you, they almost certainly want to see proof that your solution works. This could be a video demonstrating a product, or a glowing testimonial from happy customers. On a blog, it might be a case study. You can’t fake this stuff: people will sniff that out faster than a dog scooping up bacon on the kitchen floor. You can get proof even if you don’t have any paying customers yet: try offering free consultations (not too long or too many) in exchange for a testimonial. If you’re awesome at what you do (you are, right??), you’ll be able to get that proof you need to keep doing it.

All of these characteristics can eventually lead to a certain amount of celebrity—which can lend its own authority. One of my favorite examples of new authority is Dr. Oz; he was a successful cardiologist for years, had all the advanced degrees and probably even a degree of wealth and age (and gender, and ethnicity) that would confer authority on him by the old standards.


But he didn’t become a world-renowned household name until Oprah crowned him a health expert. Oprah’s not a doctor. She’s not the American Medical Association. Yet she gave Dr. Oz more authority than he ever could have gotten from those old school sources by saying that she chose to listen to him. That’s new authority in its most powerful form. Is it right and good? I’m not so sure about that. (Personally, I think Dr. Oz might have been a good doctor at one point, but the celebrity has gone to his head, and now he abuses his authority peddling quackery.)


Another good example is myself.


When I redesigned my website, my authority skyrocketed overnight. Because I had money to invest in a professional photographer, a talented art director and designer, suddenly I look like a big deal. People who might not have given me the time of day before, with my $ 30 website, were suddenly paying attention.


That was, in fact, part of the reason I chose to rebrand; I wanted to look more professional. I don’t think that’s bad in and of itself. But I need to back up those fancy photos and funny fonts with the goods, the real deal, in order to truly be an authentic authority.


You’ve got to have the goods (whether you have the degree or not).


In truth, I’ve got several “credentials” that make me qualified to be a ghost blogger. I’ve got three journalism awards to my name, eight years of professional journalism experience, and a track record of writing blogs that do well in a lot of different arenas.


I have to have the talent, the expertise, the experience to back up my claims.


But do you see how none of that would make a bit of difference if you didn’t like me? If you didn’t enjoy reading my blogs, you wouldn’t be here. If you didn’t think I had something to say, you wouldn’t have signed up for my newsletter or liked me on Facebook.


I could have 40 journalism awards, and it probably wouldn’t make a bit of difference.


We also have to be careful, though, of cultivating authentic authority. I’ve recently been introduced to the incredible Kelly Diels, and she has an incredible post that analyzes the techniques online marketers are taught to use to create false authority.


From Kelly’s post:



The way [Jeff] Walker advises people to manufacture authority – especially if they don’t have any external signifiers of credibility, like extensive education, deep experience, decades of devotion to a practice or in-depth knowledge – is with a rags-to-riches or makeover story. The first installment of the launch sequence is literally the “I was just like you” story. I was just like you, our new wannabe authorities will tell us, I was broke, struggling, fat, unfulfilled, lonely, and then I discovered X. I became a whole new person! I can teach you, too! This kind of story seems empowering to both parties, because it waves at our lived experiences which matter, but it actually betrays a fundamental contempt for the client. The message from authority to follower is this: you are broken. You are unacceptable. You need to be fixed. I was just like you and it was horrifying. It’s contempt, pure and simple, and that same client contempt gives entrepreneurs permission to construct authoritarian and psychologically manipulative sales funnels that disproportionately advantage sellers over buyers.


So when you see leaders – especially established ones who’s how-I-got-started story is far in the past – using makeover stories and rags-to-riches stories, lean in and ask yourself why they’re using those rather than telling you about their deep expertise and the tangible benefits and outcomes of their work. For example: you never hear Oprah telling her rags-to-riches story anymore. Why would she? She has so many more creases in her shoe leather by now. Now she talks about her cable network, her accomplishments, her knowledge. On the very last page of every O magazine she tells us what she knows for sure. To stand in and embody your true and substantial authority – leadership, knowledge, devotion, training, lived experience – tell us what you know and do, not how you used to be just like us (while implying we’re disgusting). Instead of telling makeover stories, document the full scope of your lineage and excellence. This is especially important for women and marginalized peoples because mainstream cultural narratives presume our incompetence. Resisting that assumption is how we push back and claim the space we’re often systematically denied.


So tell me: How do you cultivate authenticity and authority on your blog? I’d love to hear your thoughts and in the comments below!

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