“An expert is one who knows more and more about less and less until he knows absolutely everything about nothing.”
― Nicholas Murray Butler
You’ve all seen them on your Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn feeds. The self-described SEO, Social Media, and Digital Marketing “expert/guru”. There it rests under their name like a title handed down to them through the ages. Surely, a lady in a lake gave them this title while also gifting them a magical sword. No? Did they earn it after saving the world from an otherworldly foe? Not that either? Then, of course, it was handed to them after years of meticulous study and forward thinking in their body of work? Unfortunately not.
Believe it or not, in burgeoning industries like digital marketing, most everyone is new to this, and the result is a myriad of misrepresented titles. You can market yourself as anything. Some choose ‘SEO guru’ or ‘Social Media‘ expert. I myself like to market myself as Supreme Mugwump of the International Confederacy of jWeb Media digital services.
If anyone can present themselves as an expert, how do you tell who actually is one? Well, have no fear my friends, this is a blog, and it’d be pretty boring if I didn’t give you a solution!
Step 1: Hire a Private Investigator (Or do a quick Google search, it’s your call)
One thing is for sure, if someone is promoting themselves as an expert in any form of digital marketing, they’ll have a presence online. Whether that is a LinkedIn profile, an active Twitter feed, silly posts on blogs like these, or numerous other things, you should be able to find evidence of expertise. Here are a few things an “expert” should have under their belt:
You should be able to find concrete examples of what they’ve done to help their clients. These case studies should showcase the problem the expert’s client had and a broad overview of the steps he or she took to solve this problem. It doesn’t matter how complex or simple the solution was, just that they have found success in the industry where they claim expertise. Not all work they do is going to have a complex solution, but it should have a solution.
Take a look at what they’ve written in the past. Is there a lot of content, but little substance? Well, you’ve likely found someone who has branded themselves expert, but doesn’t really know much beyond how to talk in buzzwords. Do they have engaging and informative content? If so, you’ve found a positive indicator of someone who has a good grasp on the field they are marketing themselves in.
This is one of the tougher ones, because not every digital marketer is constantly sharing content. In fact, a lot of the brightest people I’ve met in this industry use their accounts to unwind and chat with peers (you know, keep social on social media). There are others where their accounts are a constant stream of shared blogs and infographics, but upon further examination offer no insight to what they are sharing. That isn’t to say what they are sharing isn’t useful, but it may not be the person you want overseeing your digital footprint.
Use LinkedIn to see how long the expert has been in their field. Remember that digital marketing is a very new field, so you aren’t going to find people who have been doing this work for 15+ years. However, it isn’t unreasonable to expect 3-5+ years of experience from a person marketing themselves as an expert. Is the self-described expert currently in a position outside of the digital marketing field? Have they been in a digital marketing position for less than a year? Hate to say it, but the only thing they’re an expert in is hubris.
Maybe I’m not one to throw “expert” around lightly, but it’s my belief that someone who presents themselves as an expert should be at the top of their game. This person should be an authority, and as an authority should have been published as one. This means authorship or co-authorship on white papers, books, journals, etc. Just a reminder that anyone can self publish these days, so it’s also good to see if what they’ve tied their name to has actual substance.
Step 2: Take Yourself to School (Ignorance Is Not Bliss)
Want to make sure you aren’t swindled by a fast talking person whose only marketing skill is how to take your hard earned money from you? That’s simple: do a little research.
You don’t have to put yourself on a path to becoming an expert as well, but you’ll be doing yourself a favor by knowing the fundamentals behind digital marketing as it works today. With just a bit of reading, you’ll have an easier time deciding if someone is an expert or a dunce. Below are some great guides to get yourself up to speed.
A great rundown of SEO by a company that sells SEO and social monitoring products. Moz has a great community, stocked with digital marketers willing to offer advice and instruction without much fuss. If you are looking for where experts reside, this is it and this is the guide they’ve created. The guide manages to give a great overview of SEO without being bogged down with too many boring particulars. If after reading the guide you find yourself wanting more in depth looks, make sure to check out their blog.
You want to know about SEO, why not just go to the source? Google is helpful enough to provide a lot of tools for search professionals. While this guide isn’t as easy to read as Moz’s guide, it does have the benefit of coming directly from the world’s largest search engine. If you’ve already read the Moz guide, you can probably take a more cursory glance at this one.
I swear I’m not a paid shill for Moz, they just make some really great resources. If you liked the SEO guide, this is going to be right up your alley.
There are a lot of these types of guides, some better than others. It’s better to view ones that are updated from time to time, because as an industry, digital marketing moves like no other. What is true one year might not be the next as search engines and social media sites change their algorithms and platforms. Stick to sources that keep data to back up their assertions.
Step 3: Everybody Talks
I hope you don’t have social anxiety, because you are going to need to do some talking. First start by asking around about your expert. Is he/she spoken of highly by their peers? Do most former clients give glowing reviews? Probably a good sign. Are people hesitant to give you their opinion on the expert? Can’t find any current clients? A number of bad reviews popping up online? Probably not a good sign.
An outside perspective is a great thing, especially an outside perspective with experience. No one is going to advertise their shortcomings on their LinkedIn, but you might be able to build a picture of someones strengths and weaknesses through discussion with clients and colleagues. Just remember, no one is perfect. Every person is bound to have a blind spot and knowing these up front should help find ways around them should this person become part of your digital marketing team.
Chances are if you talk to enough people, you’ll get a variety of opinions. Don’t let one negative opinion out of half a dozen glowing responses cloud your perspective. Just like how everyone has weaknesses, everyone has clients/projects in their past where things just didn’t work out. Some of these might have been catalysts to developing a different approach. Others might have been caused by outside factors out of anyone’s control. But if you see a lot of these piling up, then it might be the consequence of incompetence.
Step 4: Where Were You on the Night of June 5th?
Now for the final step, interrogation. It’s time for you to have a final face-to-face talk with your expert to determine their actual level of expertise. You are now equipped with everything you need. You’ve checked into their actual credentials, you’ve educated yourself, and you’ve done some digging into their past. What do you ask them? How about questions like these:
- We really liked your case study on the Blue Sun Corporation. Can you give us a bit more background about it? Were you the lead on the project?
- We read your blog on the migratory patterns of the African Swallow and their effect on SEO? What’s changed since then? (There is no effect, I just wanted to make a Monty Python reference.)
- How long have you been a digital marketer and what makes you an expert? (If they don’t have a good answer here, this is when you press the button that empties their chair through a trap door into the frenzied sharks below your conference room. You don’t have one of those? Us either…)
- I saw on your Twitter feed, @RastafarianJedi, that you shared a link about Google Penguin and its effects, can you explain it to me like I’m five?
- I ordered your book, love the cover art, but I’m not fluent in Klingon, could you break it down for me?
- We recently had a discussion with your former client, Elisinore Brewery. Overall they were very complimentary of you, but decided to take a different direction. What did you learn on that account that made you a better digital marketer?
- If you could be any superhero, but only under the condition that your worst enemy got the powers of their nemesis, who would you be? (This has nothing to do with expertise in digital marketing, but it’s just an awesome question.)
Conclusion: Perilous Path Ahead
You’ve had your discussion, now it’s time for the conclusion. What was the impression you got from your self-described expert? Did they give great answers that showed understanding of their vertical or did they pepper their language with buzzwords in hopes of sounding like an expert? Did they talk about themselves, and find no way to relate to the problems they hope to solve for you?
You’ll notice that at no point in my blog do I refer to myself as an expert. Why is that? Well, for one I think it is the height of arrogance to deem yourself an expert on a subject. Avoiding the term expert doesn’t mean that you aren’t highly knowledgable in your field. So, my advice: stay away digital marketing sharks who have no weight behind their actual titles. Get to know the digital marketing firm you are looking to hire, and pick their brain on what they believe they can do to help you.