How much time do you need to put into a niche before you can declare yourself an expert? Well, many bloggers seem to disagree, judging by their self-proclamations after only a few months, but once upon a time you were classified as an expert if you had spent roughly 10,000 hours on a skill, in a focused, structured manner. If we’re referring to a career job, at roughly 40 hours/week, that comes out to about five years. But when it comes to working online and establishing your expertise, the Web doesn’t wait around. Five years is too long, since Web technology is always changing.
If you’re blogging about a topic and are getting absolutely no hands on experience, whether online or offline, it’s really questionable whether you can ever declare yourself an expert. Personally, I’d say that if you don’t have at least a year’s experience for some online skill, aside from just writing about it, then you shouldn’t call yourself an expert in it. If you do have some hands on experience, then you have an advantage when it comes to blogging about the topic.
Either way, if you do have a plan for establishing expertise on a subject, that’s great. But what do you do in the meantime? The answer to that is simple: fake it until you’re an expert. Well, I don’t mean lie or write on topics you don’t know at all. What I mean is that you learn as you go, and write only about what you feel confident about so far. Of course, the more you write about something as you’re learning, the more you’ll feel confident about a topic and reinforce the learning experience. That in itself might compress the time it takes you to become what others might classify as an expert.
The following strategy is merely one of several ways that you can acquire a web-based skill and build your expertise as you go.
- Make a list of sites in your niche. Use Technorati, a search engine, or any of numerous Web tools to find relevant sites. Depending on the topics you’re covering, you might reduce your cataloging efforts using portals and aggregators. Some suggestions are Alltop, YourVersion, Google Reader, Techmeme. (Disclosure: I’m an unpaid tech evangelist for YourVersion and have share options in the startup.)
- Gain a daily overview of your niche, without fail. Do this by browsing the site list you’ve either built or co-opted through an aggregator or portal. Browse headlines, take notes. If you don’t have time to read something that looks important, save bookmarks — or use bookmarking alternatives — to keep track of Web content and revisit later.
- Build a lesson plan for yourself. How you do this really depends on the skills you want to build, but here’s an example. Say that you wan to build Social Media Marketing (SMM) skills to learn to draw customers to your site through Facebook, Twitter, voting sites, bookmarking sites, blogs, etc. First decide what you need to learn, then go about learning it. Study sites and blogs in your niche — especially those from your list in step #2 — as well any other appropriate reference materials. If you can afford the time and expense of attending workshops and conferences, do so. Sometimes the professional connections you make at such events become far more valuable than anything you learn.
- Reinforce your knowledge by blogging. When you learn a new trick, and provided you understand it well enough, blog about it. If you’re not sure you conveyed something correctly, either don’t publish the post until you research further, or write a summary of what you know and link to other posts that explaining certain facets better than you have. If you choose to wait on a post, learn what you have to, revise the post if necessary, then publish it. Make the most of your blogging time.
- Link back to your previous posts. This is a secondary reinforcement of what you know, as well as reinforcement to search engines that your blog contains further relevant information in the content archives. It also helps build site traffic.
While not all blog posts are how-to tutorials, by sharing what you know about a topic, you reinforce the knowledge in your mind. If you haven’t experienced this yet, trust me that you will. I spent several years as a college teaching assistant, and blogging often gives me the same sort of reinforcement of knowledge that teaching lab classes did, especially when I write how-to posts.
How long it takes you to become an expert is still up to you. The more time you put in to learning a topic early on, the sooner you can acquire and absorb new knowledge. The above process is only one way to go about it, and particularly suited to building online skills such as blogging, online writing (reports, e-books), web marketing, SEO, SMM (Social Media Marketing) and so on. (Offline skills take a different kind of hands-on experience.) The more you reinforce your existing knowledge, the easier it becomes to acquire new knowledge and gain confidence.
Here’s a secret: the trick to becoming an expert in a topic goes beyond just spending the requisite amount of time gaining the necessary skills. It’s also important to gain the confidence that you have those skills. Without the confidence, you’ll be hiding behind your skills, not establishing your expertise. Blogging exposes you, bares you to the world, but if you blog regularly, it helps build confidence, especially if you’re getting feedback, and even if it’s negative. Just remember that retaining the title of an expert means that you never stop learning your skill.