Authorities micro-study, pt3

Philip Morgan

Why do consultancies pay attention to Chris Do?

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Today I'm concluding this series: /indie-experts-list/indie-experts-authorities-micro-study-pt2

Aside from the list of authorities, the main outcome of this micro-study is this insight:

Authority functions more like mass market brands than specialized services do.

I mentioned earlier: authorities are not authorities at-large. They're authorities on a particular topic (like pricing) or a small range of topics. If they go too broad in their topical focus, they dilute the expertise needed to build authority.

Why then do authorities with a narrow topical focus sometimes have broad appeal?

Again, my study is constrained to those on this email list, which means it's mostly a study of a certain corner of the professional services world. That said, three different business types were represented in the study: Software Development/IT, Marketing/Creative, or Consulting/Advisory.

Some of the people y'all said were authorities are specifically focused on one of these types of business. Usually the focus is vertically defined. Chris Do of The Futr is a good example.

It says right there at the top of his website who he's focused on: creatives. That's an audience, not a specific business vertical, but it is fundamentally a vertical focus.

Every person in my micro-study who cited Chris Do as an authority listed their business type as Consulting/Advisory. Does Chris Do have a positioning problem?

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Again, the main insight coming from this study is relevant: Authority functions more like mass market brands than specialized services do.

A good way to think about this: there is a "market" for authority, and there is a different market for expertise services, and those markets function by different rules. Specialized experts may participate in both markets, and as we think about those experts, we need to remember which set of market rules is in force.

Imagine some person selling the same product on both Amazon and eBay's markets. The rules will be different in those two markets even though the product is the same.

Let's keep going with the Chris Do example. Let's imagine that he's a pricing consulting for creatives (he's not, he addresses more topics than that and functions as an educator rather than consultant, but let's imagine a simplified version of his business).

If we looked at this imaginary Chris Do's client base and found no creative firms at all, he would have a "positioning problem". His declared focus (creatives) would be completely mis-aligned with his actual client base. Setting aside whether this would actually cause any real issues for his business, he would at least conceptually have a positioning problem.

If we looked at this imaginary Chris Do's email list and found no creative firms at all, he would not have an "authority problem".

In the market for expertise services, one of the main rules is this: the expert can say no to a prospective client. They have direct control over who "consumes" their services.

In the market for authority, the expert ultimately has no direct control over who regards them as an authority. They have no control over who "consumes" their authority.

Returning to our imaginary Chris Do, if we looked at his client base and found no creative firms at all, we'd really have to ask why he's so clearly and loudly focused on creatives in his marketing and yet, every time he's presented with an opportunity to decide who consumes his services, he fails to say no to clients outside his declared focus. Does he really mean it when he says he's focused on creatives?

We'd have no such question about why his email list has whatever demographic composition is has because... that's not ultimately up to him! Anyone who wants to can opt in to his email list, and if we think of his email list as a proxy for consumption of authority, anyone who wants to can view Chris Do as an authority. (Yes, he could manually kick people off his email list if they don't fit some criteria he has, but comeon... nobody really does that, so my point still stands.)

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To ground this again in my micro-study's data, I don't see strong evidence that types of businesses have "special" sets of authorities. If an authority is popular among one type of business, they're probably also considered an authority by other types of businesses.

I hasten to add: this is certainly constrained by the scope of my study. If my study sampled manufacturing firms and NGOs in addition to professional services firms, then I wouldn't say that certain types of businesses don't have special sets of authorities. Of course the people cited by manufacturing firms as authorities would differ substantially from those cited as authorities by NGOs. But within the world of my email list and this study's data, if someone is a popular authority on pricing, they're probably simultaneously:

  • An authority on pricing to Creative/Marketing firms
  • An authority on pricing to Software Development/IT firms
  • An authority on pricing to Consulting/Advisory firms

And they're probably an authority to all three of those business types even if their declared focus is only on one of those types of businesses.

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You'll notice the word "popular" keeps coming up as I discuss this phenomena of authority.

You'll possibly also notice that my examples about people that are authorities to different types of businesses have something in common: their topic is one that is relevant to these different types of businesses!

The topics of sales, or pricing, or project management could be relvant to any kind of professional services firm. The topic of piping engineering... not so much! That topic, and the related authority (this guy: cannot possibly be relevant outside a pretty narrow partition within the world of engineering services. For this guy, his presence in the expertise services market will very closely resemble his presence in the authority market.

But for folks who are authorities on the topics of sales, pricing, marketing, and so forth, as they become more popular their presence in the expertise services market will become markedly different than their presence in the authority market. In the services market, they can be as focused as their level of personal discipline allows. In the authority market, they will start to resemble a brand like the Coca-Cola Company.

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Blair Enns has somewhere around 20,000 members on his email list. He's shared this number publicly, so I can use him as an example of a popular authority. Like Chris Do, Blair's business focus is on creative firms. Like Chris Do, it says so right there on the tin:

I have zero access to or detail-level insight into Blair's email list, but based on the data from my micro-study, I'd feel confident making this prediction about Blair's list:

  • Between 20 and 40% of his email list members are not from creative firms.

If I'm right, this is because at a certain point, Blair's presence in the expertise services market starts to diverge from his presence in the authority market.

I don't know if he actually does, but he can say to a services prospect: "Sorry, you're too far outside our focus. You should find a different expert to help with this." His presence in the expertise services market can be highly focused.

He can't say "sorry, this isn't for you" to someone who wants to sign up for his email list. They can just opt in to his list and start seeing Blair as an authority, telling their business buddies "you should really check out this Blair guy; he has better advice on pricing services than anyone else", and any other form of looking to Blair as an authority they want to engage in. The more popular Blair becomes, the more likely this is to happen because the topic of pricing is broadly relevant to a lot of businesses.

Popularity spreads authority outside the niche it originated in. Popularity does not have to do the same for the application of expertise via paid services.

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Anyone who wants to (and is very minimally qualified) can open a bank account at Wells Fargo. In fact, if Wells Fargo does anything other than very minimal fact-based disqualification of a potential customer, they are looking at a potential liability in the form of an unlawful discrimination complaint/lawsuit. You'll never hear this from Wells Fargo: "You know, something about the fit here just feels a bit off, and I'm afraid we won't be able to do our best work for you, so we're going to pass."

The Coca-Cola Company can decide not to participate in a certain geography, or perhaps not engage with some distributor and therefore they're not available in certain restaurants, but they have no customer-level discretion about who they do or don't sell to. If they did, they'd have discrimination lawsuits piled up from here to the moon.

This is how authority resembles mass market products. The "distribution" of your authority might be focused in a certain area (like Cheerwine is only regionally distributed in the Southeastern US), but anyone who wants to anywhere in the world can become a consumer of your authority.

If you view your expertise as an asset, you need to be careful to avoid letting the distribution of your expertise follow the distribution of your authority because that would be crowdsourcing your business strategy. Over time, that will dilute the potency of your expertise in proportion to your popularity as an authority. It might be exciting to see your broader "authority footprint" yield novel opportunities, but you need to be a shrewd portfolio manager as you decide whether pursuing these opportunities would increase or reduce the future value of your "expertise portfolio".

This is also why advice about marketing mass market products is of limited relevance to those of us selling expertise services. The rules of our market are different.

If we become niche authorities and then become popular niche authorities, we will be participating in two markets simultaneously. We need to remember which market we are participating in.

Should we say yes to this speaking engagement that's for an audience that doesn't match our positioning? Sure! No harm in acquiring more "authority market share" as that may lead to word of mouth and attract good services prospects.

Should we say yes to applying our expertise for a type of client we have no previous experience with? Maybe, but probably not if our goal is to maximize the value of our expertise asset over the medium to long term.

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Arguing against my own conclusions for a moment, what if I drew the partitions wrong between the sub-niches? Might a different pattern emerge showing that there are certain business types with their own "special" set of authorities?

Well, I did provide an option for respondents to provide their own partitioning scheme. On the business type questions, respondents could choose Other and supply their own description of business type and/or maturity level. Some did, but their answers there don't suggest I missed some superior partioning scheme.

That said, if we add a topical focus to the business type (ex: DevOps consulting firm), I'm confident we'd see a reversal, and I'd say: Certain sub-types of businesses do have a special group of authorities they pay attention to. For example, DevOps consulting firms often cite Gene Kim and Jez Humbler as authorities.

But what I'd really be saying is a repeat of what I've said earlier: The strongest relationship in this data is between topic and authority.

In other words, we seek out authorities because their topical expertise is relevant to our interests, and once their popularity/visibility rises to a certain level, we don't care if they're focused on a different vertical than the one we're in.

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Let's boil this down to a few key obsevations and takeaways:

  • The rules of the expertise services market and the authority markets are different. As you consume advice on positioning and marketing and expertise-based services, you need advice that is tailored precisely for the expertise services market. As you consume advice on positioning, for example, be aware that advice for product positioning operates under different rules (product sellers can't say no without risking discrimination complains) than expertise services do. And then as you consume advice on, for example, growing your already-popular podcast, feel free to consume and adapt advice meant for products or mass market brands. Horses for courses.
  • We seek out authorities because their topical expertise is relevant to our interests, and once their popularity/visibility rises to a certain level, we don't care much if they're focused on a different vertical than the one we're in. So...
  • Stick to your topic, ye authorities! As you become popular, dilution of your topic focus will be more harmful to you than dilution of your vertical market focus because your topic focus (and the resulting expertise) is how folks discover and come to trust your authority. That said, before you are a popular authority, do not dilute anything! Your vertical market focus, for example, is a powerful form of leverage at this early stage.
  • The popularity of an authority is enabled primarily by the popularity of the topic they're an authority on. If your topic is extremely niche, temper your expectations about broad reach and enjoy the relative lack of competition. Concretely: a 2,000-member email list on piping engineering could have as much market power as a 20,000-member email list on pricing. Ratios matter more than absolute size. Remember this when your authority buddies talk about their list size.
  • Popularity spreads authority outside the niche it originated in. Popularity does not have to do the same for the application of expertise via paid services, in fact it generally should not. In very small niches, find ways to extract greater value from your expertise before you entertain applying your expertise outside the niche.

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Thanks for coming on this journey with me. It took me to a somewhat unexpected place!

That's what I love about these micro-studies. More of them to come. I'll probably do one a month for a while.

A similar slightly-larger-scale study took a TEI participant from these findings to this; from a question about security practices to research findings to a piece of exterprise security software he built based on the research and is getting strong interest in.

Here's my source data for you to inspect, use, and re-mix as you see fit: