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6 Ways to Spot False Gurus

2010 March 7
tags: ,
by Greg Satell

Let me give you some advice…

In the fast moving, hypercompetitive inflection point that is business today, only the strong will survive.  You need to get with the program or get eaten alive.

There are a lot of metaphor mixing, self proclaimed gurus out there to guide your way.  You can do yourself a world of good by listening to what they have to say and then doing the opposite.

Here are six ways to spot them:

I’m So Beautiful!

As my good friend Cheryl Andonian points out, most false gurus are self appointed.  They describe themselves as with terms such as “visionary,” “expert” and “thought leader” on their LinkedIn profiles.

I had one guy come to my site, make a grossly misinformed comment and then direct me to his “award winning site.”  I went there and found that he has a preference for fluorescent pink fonts and no comments or retweets. He also writes books that he describes as “best selling” and “award winning.”  (They’re not.)

In his description of himself, he said that he “gets up some people’s nose.”  No kidding!

Everything Has Changed!

At the dawn of the internet age, the popular TV show 60 Minutes had a new media guru on who said something to the effect of “I’m in the business of putting you out of business.”

I don’t know what ever happened to the guy nor do I remember his name, but 60 minutes is still a top 20 show and the owner, CBS, made over $200 million in net income and $13 billion in revenues last year, at the height of the crises.

False gurus also have the annoying habit of asserting that everybody is coming around to their way of thinking, except for the ones who haven’t “gotten it yet.”  They say things like, “it’s all about the conversation” as if nobody has anything better to do than interact with every brand they are considering.

As Neicole Crepeau points out in a very well documented article, the vast majority of consumers do not want to have a conversation with a business (I guess they have friends).

Checking Facts is a Waste of Time

Once an ego gets big enough, facts seem to become irrelevant. Why do the hard work of research if you already know everything?

Chris Brogan and Julien Smith, in their book Trust Agents, tell us to “stop doing your own books and research.”  That’s for little people, I guess.  Being a guru is about getting the message out there.  Presumably, it doesn’t matter what the message is as long as you find your “tribe.”

When I first started blogging, I noticed a post by Erik Qualman taking Boeing to task for an ad campaign that didn’t make sense to him.  He didn’t know what the brief was, nor was he privy to the results, but nevertheless just assumed that Boeing was in error.

Qualman, who has never managed a brand himself, would tell them how to do it right, because, in his words, they “just weren’t cutting it.”

My Experience is Global

Probably the most irksome habit of false gurus is confusing the anecdotal with the universal.  I guess if you don’t check facts, then first hand experience is all you have to go on.

Unfortunately, a world of six billion people tends to be a messy place.  As I wrote in my response to Qualman, once you get out into the world a little bit, you start to realize that local environments differ widely (to be fair,  Qualman was very gracious in his response to me).

People in different places value different things.  In some places life is dear, in others it is cheap.  Some people value their health, others money, still others status.  Everybody wants something, but it’s usually something different.

If you have a story, tell it to your mother.  Don’t assume that your story is my story or that it has some kind of cosmic significance.

I’ve Done Nothing, but Know Everything

Another thing that caught my eye in Trust Agents was that Brogan took great pride in the fact that he could work out of a coffee shop.  I admit, it sounds nice.  Unless, of course, you have a business to run, staff to manage and train or any real responsibility to solve problems of any significance.

Interestingly, Brogan and Smith do give very good blogging tips in their book, a subject in which they clearly do have experience and expertise.  Unfortunately, knowledge in one area doesn’t automatically transfer to others.

I must admit, though, Brogan, Smith and Qualman are small beer when compared to the biggest sham artists of all: Al Ries and Jack Trout, who describe themselves on their web sites respectively as “legendary marketing strategist” and the “world’s foremost marketing strategist.”

They have written a host of best selling books, get astronomical speaking fees and according their web sites, have been profiled in every major media outlet imaginable.  The only thing they haven’t done is actually build or manage a brand.

I guess that actually making a contribution, like checking facts, is a waste of time for self professed marketing geniuses.

It’s all so Simple!

Why does anybody listen to false gurus?  Because they promise a simpler, easier way of doing things.  I guess things are simple if you don’t have to check facts, manage staff, deal with real world problems or fight off vigorous competition trying to thwart you at every step.

Why go through mountains of data, perform statistical regressions, design mind numbing logical algorithms or lay awake nights trying worrying about how to make the payroll if you can earn a living telling people to ignore life’s cumbersome realities?  False gurus are, in effect, cargo cult marketers for whom ideas transcend facts.

Being good at anything isn’t easy.  It takes years of hard work, stupid mistakes and all of the trials and tribulations that come with the constant struggle to get better at what you do.  That’s why there are so few really competent people.  It’s not easy, but very, very hard.

With that said, if you still aren’t convinced and would like to know a simple, easy way to get rich in online media, just send $10.00 to www.digitaltonto.com.

($9.99 for those who are wearing a “I LOVE TONTO” t-shirt – this week only!)

– Greg


132 Responses
  1. March 7, 2010

    Greg:

    Best overview of this growing phenomenon I’ve read. While, I believe, most have fallen momentary victim to the lure of the Guru at some point in their lives, I am perpetually amazed at the sheer number of people who describe their position just as you say—”Visionary Expert Social Leader Media Consultant and Chief Spelunking Tour Guide.”

    Mark Evan Strauss
    TOGO Media, LLC

    Greg Reply:

    Mark,

    Thanks. I do remember years ago people liked to call themselves “stylists.” It seemed more human.

    – Greg

  2. March 7, 2010

    But what about those of us that really are visionary expert market leaders?? 😉

    This reminds me a bit of one of the last chapters of The Management Myth by Matthew Stewart. After taking apart management consulting for most of the book, he turns his attention to gurus at the end. He outlines the formula for becoming a guru pretty accurately, I think. I don’t have the book nearby, but by memory the formula goes something like:

    – Everything has changed!
    – If you listen to me, you can survive the turbulence. Even (especially!) if you are a middle-ranking employee with little actual power.
    – Here are the easy steps to follow.

    The implication is that because everyone is capable of adapting to the chaos (step 2), and because the steps are easy (step 3), if you fail, it’s because you didn’t execute well enough, believe in the process enough etc.

    On the other hand, I still have a weakness for some gurus (e.g. Tom Peters & Seth Godin)- primarily as insprirational sources.

    I thought that Trust Agents is superb for figuring out how to create a personal online presence, still not sure how useful it is as part of promoting part of a larger organisation. Which seems to be your point as well at the end…

    Overall, another nice post Greg!
    .-= Tim Kastelle´s last blog ..Analysis and Interpretation in Innovation =-.

    Greg Reply:

    Tim,

    I’ve never read that book, but will put in on my list. Thanks for the recommendation.

    The irony is, of course, that the precondition for chaos is interdependence, so if everybody did take a guru’s advice, turbulence would in fact increase and be harder to deal with!

    I agree with your point about Seth Godin, not sure about Tom Peters (his fans tend to annoy me so I’ve never really given him a chance). Godin actually has run successful businesses and I think that helps him avoid the ridiculous.

    There are others, such as Phillip Kotler, who professes to be nothing other than what he is (a professor) and gives excellent tools rather than off the cuff advice (although, his last book, Chaotics, was crap). Jim Collins is another one who, while he has never run a business, is very transparent about his research and comes up with useful insights.

    Then there are those like Jack Welch, Lou Gerstner and Andy Grove who don’t refer to themselves as gurus, but have actually achieved something (all have written extremely worthwhile books).

    I also agree with you about Trust Agents, if you ignore the nauseating parts, there is some value there. Besides, they seem like nice guys who mean well.

    Thanks again for the comment and your support.

    – Greg

    Matt Moore Reply:

    Just because someone has succeeded at something doesn’t mean they can tell you why they have succeeded. This isn’t to defend gurus who have done nothing. But I am also wary of the executive who has had a run of successes and then publishes a book telling everyone else what to do based on that. There are three things that make these books more credible for me:
    – The exec talks about their mistakes as well as their successes.
    – They acknowledge the work & importance of others.
    – They recognise that the limits of their experience (see your point about ‘My Experience is Global). e.g. “What we did worked in the US semi-conductor business in the 70s. It may not work for your restaurant in Wisconsin.”

    I see Peters as basically an entertainer for senior execs. He’s not dumb but he basically says whatever comes into his head and refuses to be held accountable for it. I would like to see someone explore his predictions and tally up the hits & misses.

    Godin is an excellent marketer. He is a good blogger (with a tendency towards homilies). He is a terrible book writer. Tribes is basically one long blog post.

    Two really interesting books are:
    – The Halo Effect by Phil Rosenzweig
    – Expert Political Judgment by Philip Tetlock

    Greg Reply:

    Matt,

    Thanks for sharing your perspective. I agree that many CEO books are worthless, especially if they own the publishing company (i.e. Sumner Redstone).

    I actually liked Godin’s book “Tribes.” Not an all-time great, but good enough and (short enough) to be worth the read.

    – Greg

  3. March 7, 2010

    Thanks for the tip on Chaotics – I keep looking at that and wondering if it’s worth it… The Management Myth is a decent book, though I think a bit overly cynical. Stewart is a good writer though.
    .-= Tim Kastelle´s last blog ..Analysis and Interpretation in Innovation =-.

  4. March 7, 2010

    For what it’s worth, one the things I’ve learned about False Gurus is that they are essentially Street Pimps that pimp out “Business Enlightenment” instead of women/men for sex. Believe it or not, there’s often a great deal that can be learned from what they say and do. In order for False Gurus to convince their fans of their awesomeness, they have to pick up buzzwords and kernels of truth. It’s comparable to how Bees work. I’d be willing to bet no Bee leaves the hive thinking “I’m gonna pollinate a ton of flowers today”. Nope. The Bees go from flower to flower, gathering nectar or pollen to take back to the hive, and it just so happens that the pollination happens.

    False Gurus tend to either befriend real gurus or at least read their books/articles/blogs/etc and learn just enough to be dangerous. If there’s one truth I’ve learned about working in any area of media is that research becomes second nature, like Medicine Ball exercises to a Boxer. False Gurus are often great for inadvertently providing sources or clues to sources of information. From there you can find it on your own, sort the facts from the fallacies, and maybe even get a chuckle or two from how far off the Fake really is.

    Again, False Gurus tend to befriend Real Gurus, not only for the additional source of information but the fact that False Gurus can’t afford to have Real Gurus as enemies. The only thing worse than that is pissing off journalists. 😉
    .-= Max Nomad´s last blog ..BGP’s Spyglass Spotlight — Umami Treats =-.

    Greg Reply:

    Max,

    I agree, everyone has something to teach us. Although, some more than others and some less nauseating than others.

    – Greg

    Max Nomad Reply:

    For what it’s worth, YES, everyone has something to teach but, as you know, most of the time you’re not directly learning *from* that False Guru. You’re basically learning from source(s) the False Guru has inadvertently turned you onto after you track it down for yourself. 😉

    As a matter of fact, you might be amazed at just how many False Gurus we encounter in the business arena on a daily basis. In some areas like IT Network Security consulting (which I still do occasionally), out of the companies I’ve been contracted by, roughly 80% of the situations I was brought into were due to at least ONE False Guru in management. The major difference is that instead of having the luxury of big followings and book deals, they’re just confined to a captive audience within their companies.

    How does that happen? Pretty simple. Call it a variant of “The Peter Principle” as coined by Dr Laurence J Peter and Raymond Hull:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Peter_Principle

    What generally happens is that the IT Manager wasn’t a Manager when s/he got hired, the network was already a hot mess, but because of whatever reasons they could never get it 100% cleaned up on their own. Half the time they’ve never dealt with basic security issues at all. The CEO finally decides to bring in some “outside experts” which, on a personal level, I’ve never considered myself an IT Security expert. I am, however, someone who has maintained an intimate understanding of computer hacking since my teen years back in the 80s. And thanks to being in business, I know first hand the problems that commonly affect the network infrastructure of small media companies (e.g. – undocumented network growth, hardware/software that needs upgrades, staff members accidentally introducing trojans onto the network while secretly downloading music or porn using Limewire, and etc).

    Usually within three hours of my team members and I arriving at the client’s office, I have to have “the talk” with the IT Manager, the False Guru. In a gentle way I have to say “Hey, I know you’re in over your head with this, but we’re not here to take your job. If you work with us (and not against us), when I write the final report I’ll make sure you end up looking like a platinum-hot Rock Star in the eyes of management.”

    4 out of 5 times they will quietly agree. Long story short, the IT manager provides the info we need to make things go easier, we do all the analysis, run all vulnerability and penetration tests, do all patches and upgrades, and in the end I make good on my word in the final report. The network gets clean, the CEO is happy, the IT Manager is now able to puff his chest out with pride (and learns a few things), and we get a check for the last installment of our fee.

    My point? Like with pawns in a Chess game, always remember that False Gurus can be useful… even profitable, all depending on their position — and how you position yourself.
    .-= Max Nomad´s last blog ..BGP’s Spyglass Spotlight — Umami Treats =-.

    Greg Reply:

    Max,

    Good points. Thanks.

    – Greg

  5. Nick Ratcliffe permalink
    March 7, 2010

    Having engaged Social Media people who “know the answer”, I did laugh at your blog. The main thing they “know” is how to never actually tell you anything other than their invoice is outstanding!

    Greg Reply:

    Nick,

    Thanks. I gather that my $10.00 will be perpetually in the mail?

    :-))

    – Greg

  6. March 7, 2010

    Greg,

    Another wonderfully insightful post. Thanks.

    You got to the heart of my biggest issue with gurus. They tend to say, “I have THE answer.” The implication being 1) there is only ONE answer, and only I have it, and 2) nobody else can really help you. Both of those are dangerous for businesses who buy into it. But it’s also damaging to hard-working people out there who want to do the right thing and work hard for a solution. If they come in after the guru, the client is so suspicious of every move that it’s almost impossible to succeed.

    I will say that, if you can get through the titles and self aggrandizing, there is a lot of truth in some of what some gurus say. “Positioning: The Battle For You Mind” almost single-handedly sparked my interest in marketing and advertising. The problem comes when you eat the beast whole, not accepting that you have to take good wisdom where you can find it and not subscribe to everything one person (or two, in the case of Ries and Trout) says.

    Great stuff! Thanks again.

    -John
    .-= John Cavanaugh´s last blog ..Old Spice ad: Damn near perfect =-.

    Greg Reply:

    John,

    It’s funny, but “Positioning” was the first book to really spark my interest in marketing as well. Although, later I became considerably less enthralled when I realized that many people use it as an excuse to go ahead and do whatever they want. Moreover, all of the “case studies” were either imaginary or borrowed.

    – Greg

  7. March 7, 2010

    Great piece Greg. I’m always of the mind that if you are really out running a successful business then you don’t really have time to be a guru because REAL gurus understand that today will not be the same as tomorrow and every situation is circumstantial and like you said in your last paragraph “Being good at anything isn’t easy. It takes years of hard work, stupid mistakes and all of the trials and tribulations that come with the constant struggle to get better at what you do.”

    The is one of the issues I have with the “social media echo chamber”. They present what they do as if it is the product, and not the tool (and will launch you into the ‘success stratosphere’). You can throw every online network (in the world) at the market, discussing your product or service you want, but if the actual product sucks, and doesn’t address client/customer needs, wants or what they yearn for (that results in some type of value that they will pay for) then you’re on a path to a product that 1. isn’t scalable because 2. it isn’t built with a sustainable business model.

    Greg Reply:

    Rasul,

    I couldn’t agree more. Pretty soon I’ll be posting an article about the difference between social media and social networks.

    – Greg

  8. March 8, 2010

    Greg,
    I think the thing about the self appointed guru is that he/she is only spewing what they know their followers want to hear. It fills some sort of void and affirms that they too can achieve “success,” filling some empty spot that the followers can’t seem to fill themselves – very cult-like really. Unfortunately for the followers, there are varied paths to success (or failure). As Malcolm Gladwell points out in Outliers, success can be attributed to a combination of elements like being in the right place at the right time, having access to opportunities, being born into a particular family situation, living in a particular geographical location, having money or not, having certain personality traits, physical abilities, talent or intellect, or even having the right birthday. Most false gurus seem to me to be simply masters of self promotion. I’m not sure they’d be masters of promoting anything else other than themselves and their own guru-ness. Remember, a lot of people followed Jim Jones, and we all know what happened to them.
    Cheryl
    .-= Cheryl Andonian´s last blog ..The Cashier At Walgreens Is My Consultant =-.

    Greg Reply:

    Cheryl,

    I think you hit upon an important point. Gurus tend to marry one unequivocal solution, which tends to be much easier to do if you are detached from real life.

    – Greg

  9. March 8, 2010

    Greg, way to shake the apple cart. I have been in the online marketing industry for almost 15 years now and I have often had conversations like this (albeit not as articulate) about how so many in the industry proclaimed themselves “Experts”, wrote books, started trade shows and never once worked on a marketing campaign.

    I started in this industry working for what is today one of the largest search engine marketing agencies. The world of SEO seems to have more of these “inexperienced experts” per capita than any other.

    Thanks for the honest and uncensored thoughts on this subject.
    .-= Morgan Moran´s last blog ..Creating a Brand Online =-.

    Greg Reply:

    Thanks, Morgan.

    Best of luck to you.

    – Greg

  10. March 8, 2010

    Hi – I agree with all this, but I think we’re missing the point. “Gurus” succeed because people want them. People don’t always want to check their facts, too much effort. Much of the time they don’t want real advice, they just want someone who will tell them what they want to hear. Gurus make people feel comfortable in their preconceptions, they tell them everything will be OK when it won’t, or that their prejudices are wisdom.
    Being a guru is simply a matter of telling everyone how clever you are, then making the customer feel he’s just like you (and hence a genius too), and that anyone who disagrees doesn’t “get it”.
    In one thing I do disagree – such gurus are very good at marketing – it’s just that all they market is themselves.
    Unfortunately, they also tend to win in the long term. Napoleon became popular by setting up newspapers which promoted his victories, even when they were actually losses. Caesar wrote his “Gallic Wars” in which he lied through his teeth about his accomplishments and hid his errors. Nelson, Churchill, De Gaule, Patton, the list goes on of people who exaggerated their accomplishments and manipulated the press so they could end up in the history books with reputations they don’t deserve.
    Those “gurus” we love to hate are probably the ones the world will remember as heroes, not the poor slobs who actually contribute something worthwhile.

    Greg Reply:

    Barndt,

    I respectfully disagree. In the final analysis, it is those who actually accomplish things that get remembered.

    – Greg

    Steve Levy Reply:

    Brandt-Dr. MLK is the only person other than my Mom and Dad whom I look up to. His venture into “social media” was both authentic AND sustainable something which cannot be said about green avatars for Iraq and $10 text message for Haiti. He marketed himself for certain but his cause superceded his ego.

    As far as gurus succeeding because people want them, I’m reminded of a line from The American President (no Hollywood Democrat jokes, ok?)…

    “People don’t drink the sand because they’re thirsty. They drink the sand because they don’t know the difference.”

    Lemmings follow and it’s far easier to be a lemming.
    .-= Steve Levy´s last blog ..levyrecruits: How to spot a false guru (or expert, ninja, thought leader, influencer, samuarai, toyota, hyundai) http://bit.ly/a84eiN @digitaltonto =-.

  11. March 8, 2010

    I think everything is spot on … except for the story part (“If you have a story, tell it to your mother. Don’t assume that your story is my story or that it has some kind of cosmic significance”). It depends on the story and who it’s for. Do prospects/clients/etc. want to hear MY story? Not unless I saved a child from a burning house in a war zone during an earthquake while suffering a broken leg. Stories are important, but the reader has to care and believe they’re relevant. It’s back to the WIIFM – “What’s In It For Me?” Stories are important and, if they involve the reader, can be compelling. If the story doesn’t offer them something they want or think they need, they’ll skip it. Gurus often want to tell you their story (which is what I think you meant) but, really, who cares? “Born in a coal mine to a one-legged mom and a bi-polar father … have consulted with heads of state and corporate giants … ,” is moving, sure, but what does it have to do with marketing, branding, or what the reader wants to hear? My wife is a therapist with over two decades experience and she says that a good counselor rarely ever uses personal testimony. Why? Because you’re not talking about the patient’s problem. Instead, you use a second-person account that closely mirrors the patient’s situation, and the solution in the story must have a strong possibility of working for the patient, too. Why be so specific? Because they’re paying by the minute for solutions and they want to hear stories about or for themselves. Time is money and the reader has believe there’s a payoff for their time or they’ll bolt.

    Greg Reply:

    Frank,

    I’d agree with that. A story can be a good way to illustrate a point. The problem comes when you equate an individual experience with a universal rule.

    – Greg

  12. March 8, 2010

    Greg, about these people who make lists of things or people that/who are influential, gurus, ninjas, experts, thought leaders, samuarais, hyundais, toyotas, etc…

    …and then have others perpetuate by RTing, commenting back and forth, etc.

    In the end, you’re only as good as your results.

    Can I add you to an influential list I’m working on?

    Greg Reply:

    Steve,

    Thanks, this is starting to be a very ironic post:-)

    – Greg

  13. March 8, 2010

    In the words of the great Frank Zappa, “So what kinda Guru are you?”

    Greg Reply:

    James,

    Now Frank Zappa WAS a guru!

    – Greg

    Steve Levy Reply:

    Yeah, but how many of you social media experts were alive when he performed? A standing O for my fellow classmates of UVM during the 1970’s. Kudos to yellow snow and dental floss…
    .-= Steve Levy´s last blog ..levyrecruits: How to spot a false guru (or expert, ninja, thought leader, influencer, samuarai, toyota, hyundai) http://bit.ly/a84eiN @digitaltonto =-.

  14. March 8, 2010

    Brandt,

    I have to disagree as well. The one fact that you failed to point out with all of your wartime general analogies is that each one of them won the war. So I think it is impossible to say that they never accomplished anything and just proclaimed themselves as being great through media propoganda.
    .-= Morgan Moran´s last blog ..Creating a Brand Online =-.

  15. March 8, 2010

    Greg – to quote Zappa – “Don’t touch that dial!” Once again, an eloquent and thought-provoking post. Thanks.
    Two random thoughts:
    1) Just yesterday I did a search on Twitter for Twitter Experts/Gurus. more than 15,000 people showed up (by definition, all self-proclaimed of course). Less than a year ago, it was a few thousand and at this rate, in a few years it will be more than a million. Begs the question of how all these people are investing “years of hard work, stupid mistakes and all of the trials and tribulations that come with the constant struggle to get better at what you do.”
    2) About 40 years ago I told my father that I was going to be a computer consultant and he told me that a consultant is the kind of person who when you ask him the time will ask if he can borrow your watch so he can tell you. It took me many years to understand what he meant, but your post sums it all up in around a thousand words.
    Thanks.
    .-= Eric Goldman´s last blog ..Pre-planning your Website =-.

    Greg Reply:

    Eric,

    Thanks. Your comment reminds me of a statistic I heard once, Something like 80% of people consider themselves “above average.”

    – Greg

  16. March 8, 2010

    Greg;
    Thanks for the afternoon chuckle – what a great stat!
    .-= Eric Goldman´s last blog ..Pre-planning your Website =-.

  17. March 8, 2010

    Hi there. I like this post, though I almost didn’t read it because of the title. I was expecting a rant of some sort, which it is to some degree but you also state your case and layout what your real issues are on this matter and with those who claim to be gurus. I don’t take issue with guru, visionary or expert. To each her own. At some point you have to back it up and it’s not my concern whether or not those people can do that as long as I can deliver on what I promise. I was just telling someone the other day that doing social media for business is hard work. it’s blogging about doing it, that’s easy.

    Angela Connor
    @communitygirl

    Greg Reply:

    Angela,

    Nice perspective.

    Thanks.

    – Greg

  18. March 8, 2010

    cracking post!

    I’ve read both the books and have taken a lot from both. Hopefully we’ll look back and scoff in a few years, we’re in the wrong game if we don’t. But good luck to them getting in there early. I made a video on this subject that you might think is a bit of fun – http://bit.ly/d9hBLO

    Greg Reply:

    Tom,

    Great video!

    Thanks.

    – Greg

  19. March 9, 2010

    Wow, snarky and funny and well, worrisome. As an actual guru, I liked this article because its made me think about how I am presenting myself as I start to set up my own company. Not sure totally how to process this guide as of yet, but I see myself coming back to this article for a little bit of humble pie or when I am looking to hire.

    FYI: While writing the above, this is what I was thinking: My title is “techno guru”, really , its my title on a show I do. Wait, am I self promoting? Gosh, I must be one of these gurus he’s talking about, but I’m not, am I?

    Greg Reply:

    Alison,

    I think you hit upon an important point. A lot of this “guru” stuff started out as tongue in cheek way to avoid the staid old bullshit titles that didn’t mean much. When web companies started, nobody knew what the job description should be, so people started putting unusual title’s on their business cards. It was also a nice way to show that the company was a freewheeling and fun place that didn’t take titles seriously.

    For instance, the title mentioned on your web site – “techno-fashionista guru for Verizon FiOS’s television show MyHome2.0″ actually describes quite well what you probably do. You are presenting yourself as an expert in a very specific niche in which you are employed and about which you have written a book. Besides, techno-fashonista guru” itself is a far cry from calling oneself a “strategic visionary”

    In any case, the object of the article wasn’t to pass judgement on what people want to call themselves, but how to spot people with questionable expertise who make grand claims.

    – Greg

  20. Michael Gaspar permalink
    March 9, 2010

    Greg,

    I found your post to be incredibly interesting as it forced me to do a little bit of introspection; the only real expertise anyone can really claim to have (in theory). I appreciate your blunt honesty on the matter of false gurus, as there are many in the professional landscape. Although I am a cynic in respect to the aptitude of many marketers, I still have a few questions of my own. I hear things like, and I am paraphrasing here, “self-proclaimed” gurus and experts. This made me think of how many professionals are obsessed with credentials, and would never sleep if the person they are doing business with didn’t have a flashy title. “Expert” and “guru” thus become a way to “peacock” and grab attention. So, is this a professionally malignant product of American neuroticism? Or do you feel something else is at work here?

    Being a young professional with not so much street credit but an abundance of energy and insight, I struggle to find this balance of self-proclaimed talent and being lumped into “just learning” category. I think, especially in the field of social media, there is such a push to leverage social networks for the sake of conversion and reinforcing brand identity. Since social media is virtually in its infancy, is anyone really able to say that they are experts? Or are experts simply people that can implement a social media strategy that yields good ROI for the strategist’s clients and self?

    The real issue seems to be in how we define experts. And after your very good points about how the meaning expert has changed and has become diluted, has the ambition to earn the title become obsolete and outdated? Obviously, the world still has a need for people that excel in their respective fields, but I guess this all seems to hang on the semantics of how the word “expert” is used. Personally, I would let people use the title all they want because when push comes to shove, isn’t it the integrity of the strategist’s work and self that sells?

    These questions aren’t meant to attack you Greg, but rather engage an interesting conversation – the reason we are all here, right?. In all honesty, you have surfaced an issue that all of us in the professional world need to confront. What is REALLY most important to us when we conduct business? Someone’s promise? Or someone’s delivery of that promise? I see that you noted that in one of your other blog posts as well. Now that a good majority of business is done on the web, perhaps a new marketing skill set need be adapted: the ability to tell the difference. I appreciate your thoughts and look forward to further conversation. Best.

    Michael

    PS. After reading Erik Qualman’s book, I would have to say you be a little hard on the guy, haha. He had some good material in there. But I suppose that when you publish a book on social media, you are going to appear to some as a pot of honey, and to some as a can of RAID. Take care.

    Greg Reply:

    Michael,

    Thank you for a very thoughtful comment. I think that you hit the nail on the head when you asked whether it is a concrete problem or just mere semantics. I would hold that it is considerably more than semantics (although to be honest, “expert” is not as bad as “guru” or “visionary” or “change agent” or some others).

    It used to be that those who gave advice to others were accredited (i.e. MD, CPA, etc). I don’t think that’s desirable or even possible, but still, it underlines the point that a credential is something bestowed upon by others, not by oneself. In many cases, people call themselves “professionals” which is very accurate (if you are getting paid) and actually sounds more “professional.”

    As for social media, no – I don’t think there are any experts. It’s still to new for anyone to have built up any real expertise beyond what an intelligent person could learn in six months. Moreover, I have found that very few social media people have taken the time to learn anything about social networks, even though information is very accessible (key pioneers in the field have written highly readable books).

    As for Qualman’s book, I’d have to disagree, not because he doesn’t have anything to say, (I think he might), but because he made so little effort. For instance, at one point he said something to the effect, “Let’s say that your click rate on Twitter is 10%.” (Overestimating by a factor of at least 100).

    There were lots of other places where he didn’t do the work to get his facts right, which for me, overshadowed whatever was of value because his credibility was suspect.

    Thanks again for your thoughtful comment.

    – Greg

    Michael Gaspar Reply:

    Greg,

    I must admit that Qualman’s analytical prowess was suspect. I am surprisingly an abstract thinker, and found more value in some of the ideas. I am glad to see that you see the opportunity and room for growth in social media, as not many do, YET! Since we are on the topic of relevant and effective literature, what would you recommend as reading material that really captures a good balance of theory and measurement in marketing, branding, social media, etc?

    Michael

    Greg Reply:

    Michael,

    To be honest, there isn’t one. What you’re asking about is a pretty broad area encompassing technology, statistics and brand management. If I were you, I would shoot to read at least ten books as a start.

    Previously, I published a reading list, which you might find helpful: http://www.digitaltonto.com/2009/digital-tonto-reading-list/

    I would also add to that list Kotler on Marketing, which is a general market version of his textbook and Full House, by Stephen Jay Gould, which, although, it is by a biologist, gives a nice non-technical introduction to statistics.

    – Greg

    Michael Gaspar Reply:

    I am a big reader, but mostly of fiction. This is a great list, thank you.

    Michael

    Greg Reply:

    np:-)

  21. March 9, 2010

    I really enjoy your posts, Greg – very thought-provoking!

    One quick thought though (playing Devil’s Advocate):
    Why aren’t the best sports coaches also the best players? Sometimes you don’t have to achieve greatness in your field in order to be valued as an expert. You can add significant value (even be called a guru, perhaps) by accumulating enough useful knowledge in a particular area, and then sharing that knowledge with others who don’t know as much.

    Greg Reply:

    Gavin,

    I think that’s true. However, very few, if any, of the conditions in my article would apply to great coaches.

    – Greg

  22. March 9, 2010

    Hi Greg,

    As always, you say it well. Some real good comments and followup. I think if you self label yourself with the right title, it is okay. I have noticed that nobody challenges me, as yet, when I refer to myself as a custodian. Just trying to keep things tidy.

    Thanks for your many insights. Dan

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