It can seem as if almost everyone has a podcast or a blog. But having a dedicated audience is less common, and an audience willing to pay for expertise is rarer still.
"The ways people monetize their expertise have dramatically changed and we need to get smart and strategic about it," said Dorie Clark, who teaches marketing and communications at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business. "It's now increasingly possible for people to become well known, even become celebrities in their respective fields, and yet not make any money from doing it."
Clark has been a presidential campaign spokesperson and a marketing strategy consultant and speaker for clients including Google, the World Bank, Microsoft and Morgan Stanley. She's spent years researching the process by which people became noted experts in a chosen field, and is currently studying how expertise can be leveraged to build a career.
"The first step is recognizing that it's going to take a while before that becomes possible," she said. "You first need to build an audience, and to build trust with that audience you often need to share your expertise for free for a while, whether it's in the form of blogs, podcasts or other content. That enables people to go to you as a trusted source and recognize that you have something worth contributing."
Identifying your idea
Clark has written two books about the process of identifying a central idea and building an audience for it.
"I think what is underappreciated is that you can't rely on mere celebrity," she said. "You really do need to have a breakthrough idea that adds value and contributes to other people."
Clark interviewed 50 leaders in various fields, looking for common elements.
"There's a smorgasbord of ways people came to an idea that moved their field forward," she said. "One is a niche strategy — they don't immediately try to become an expert in the most general version of their field. Pick a small niche that you can own and dominate and gain credibility in. Once people realize you know what you're talking about and you're authoritative, they will begin to come to you for other things and you can steadily and incrementally expand your footprint and what you're known for."
Another strategy is combining seemingly unrelated subjects in new ways.
"Often the root of creativity comes from bringing together two disparate elements that have not previously been brought together," she said, citing the example of biologist Eric Schadt, who used a background in mathematics and computing to pioneer the analysis of big data in biology.
"It was only because of Eric's early quantitative training that he was able to appreciate what big data could do in terms of advancing medical science," Clark said.
Building an audience
With an identified idea, building an audience involves the hard work of creating consistently high-quality content — writing, videos, podcasts and other media.
"There are a variety of different ways, but what matters is that on a regular basis your audience begins to count on receiving information from you and learning valuable things that they are proactively wanting to make the time for and seek out," Clark said. "Once you build that level of trust, the audience is very willing to invest with you."
John Lee Dumas did that through an entrepreneurial podcast that he produced daily, rather than the more common frequency of once a week or once a month, Clark said.
"He built exponentially more connections because he was interviewing people every single day who all had followings of their own," she said. "When their episode would appear, they would share it and it would build John's audience."
The frequency also increased his download rate and helped him sell advertising. Podcasts can typically draw advertising or sponsorships once they hit 10,000 downloads per episode, Clark said. But that kind of content isn't necessarily a direct source of income.
"Another possibility is monetizing around the ways that you're communicating with your audience," she said. "So for instance you may be blogging regularly, and that might be the principal way you are creating and sharing content, but that might not become ultimately a revenue stream for you. Instead it becomes a form of advertising and potential customers and clients may come to you about speaking engagements or coaching and consulting because they now trust you enough to know that your services are well worth the price."
"Once you've built an audience, it's useful to build your direct experience by providing services on a smaller, typically one-to-one or small group basis," Clark said. "For instance, if you're looking to position yourself as a marketing expert it's extremely useful to take on clients in your local area, or to do coaching with other people so you can practice and hone your skills on a small, low-pressure level. It's only then that you can move to leveraging your expertise at a higher level."
Patience, Clark said, is key.
"I think that far too many people rush to try to create big brands, they see the lure of multimillion dollar launches on the internet," she said. "You can't just jump into that, there is an essential step and that's gaining the experience in a very tactical, roll-up-your-sleeves way so you know what real customers face and the challenges on the ground. It's only then that you can build up a large enough audience and have the real skills and advice to add value to the lives of thousands of people at a time."