When people have questions about a given topic or industry, you want to be the first person that comes to mind. Establishing yourself as a subject matter expert gives you the ability to grow your opportunities and reap financial and professional benefits with invitations to conferences, podcasts, guest contributions to newsletters or publications, and more.
If you have deep knowledge or experience in a given industry or topic, and you have something to say, you’re already most of the way there.
You don’t need hundreds of thousands of online followers to establish yourself as a subject matter expert — you just need to be authentic, establish a unique point of view, post often, and be deliberate about how you engage with your audience.
This guide will provide key steps to establish yourself as a subject matter expert in your field, and demonstrate examples of what you can accomplish with that title.
While it is important to curate, edit, and be intentional about the persona you present, if you spend too much time on these aspects, your audience will be able to tell. Here’s a quick guide on how to be authentic and avoid being too salesy in your content:
But how do you stay authentic while filling a niche and providing a steady stream of specific, targeted content? Try inviting your readers to weigh in on topics you’re thinking through. Your readers are following you not just to ingest your content, but to have a conversation about their topics of interest. This plays into best practices for engaging with your audience, a topic we’ll cover further below.
One way to avoid looking like a brand rather than a person is to include some personal content among your more serious posts. This type of content doesn’t need to be hyper-personal in nature, but your followers should be able to feel as though they can get to know you through it. Sharing your thoughts and feelings openly is an effective way to achieve that and bond with followers in a human-centric way.
There’s also value in being honest about your struggles, and how they’ve helped your thinking evolve over time.
Visakan “Visa” Veersamy has built a large online following around his brand of thinking out loud, which allows his followers to feel as though they’re learning alongside him. He’s been able to leverage this following into an audience for his ebooks, and interviews with people like Twitch CEO Emmett Shear, University of Oxford physicist David Deutsch, and more.
Because Visa has been on Twitter for over a decade, his opinions have changed over time. He makes a point of revisiting these opinions, and openly expressing where his thinking has shifted. This type of content showcases authenticity, thoughtfulness, and openness, which strengthen the foundation of your expertise by building trust with your audience.
On Deck Founder Fellow Celine Halioua, founder of the canine aging research company Loyal, is open about the mistakes she’s made in her startup journey. In light of raising her seed round for Loyal, she talked about the process, the advantages she had, and some things she could’ve done differently:
“Especially when talking to tech VCs, I felt uncomfortable acknowledging the risks involved in developing our drug... This was logical, but it made these VC’s think that I didn’t understand the risks of what we’re building, and therefore made me an untrustworthy narrator of my story.”
Alongside each mistake, Celine included a lesson she learned and what she would do differently next time. It may seem counterintuitive, but you don’t have to have everything figured out. Your readers will appreciate the opportunity to follow your growth, and will feel a greater kinship with you for sharing these insights.
If you’re not comfortable presenting yourself in this vulnerable way online, take a lesson from our pseudonymous founder’s playbook: employing a pseudonym is not just for authors anymore, it is an increasingly viable option for a broad and growing swath of professions, spanning music, art, and business alike.
Pseudonymous identities have their own specific reputation, personality, and point of view, and allow you to be authentic online within those constraints. Putting on a different persona online can give you license to experiment creatively, protect your own reputation, and take bias or credentialism out of the picture.
On the other hand, you won’t be able to leverage your real-life connections, or discuss your subject matter expertise one-on-one with others. You may have a harder time gaining trust from investors and raising capital, and you always have to consider the possibility of your identity being revealed down the line.
Pseudonymity is not for everyone, but for some, it may be an ideal way to build a following while retaining personal privacy or separation from their public-facing career. Consider for yourself what strategy will best allow you to be authentic in how you present your subject matter expertise.
Share a Unique Perspective
If you want to stand out as “signal” among the “noise” of the crowded online space, your content has to provide readers with something unique; this could be your point of view, your access to information, or the type of content you share. Maybe you’re filling an underrepresented niche like Celine’s passion for both biology and canines, or Dr. Emily Anhalt’s advocacy for startup founders to build up their emotional fitness.
If you don’t know what your unique value is, consider the concept of a personal career moat, or a competitive advantage. The term “moat” is generally used in the context of business, but it can be applied to individuals as well. Ask yourself the following questions and use the answers to nail down your unique perspective:
- What is special about my professional experience?
- What is special about my personal experience?
- What information do I have access to that others don’t?
- Who do I know in the industry that others don’t?
Once you understand your unique point of view, see how (and if!) it fits into the trends in your industry today. You want your opinions to be in conversation with the zeitgeist, either commenting on it, opposing it, or furthering it in some way.
Take into consideration the “P-Cycle” of ideas, which maps how ideas turn into zeitgeist over time, and try to position yourself as early in the cycle as possible to maximize your thought leadership. This is the best way to ensure you’re not behind the game, or talking about the same thing that everyone else is.
Adria Bria’s posts position themselves squarely in the early phases of the P-Cycle. The On Deck Fellow and founder of Craft Product School showcases her unique opinions on Twitter and Medium where followers can subscribe for her expertise on startups, product design, and technology.
Lenny Rachitsky, investor in Figma, clubhouse, Substack, and more, is someone who demonstrated unique value not necessarily through his opinions, but through access to curated content, like his newsletter, a product management class, and an exclusive job board.
This job board operates as a multi-sided marketplace where Lenny’s followers can take advantage of the community that he’s built to identify opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have access to.
Your unique value proposition doesn’t have to come from your opinions or your offerings, it could also come from your experience.
Celine Hailoua used her experience in venture capital and her Ph.D candidacy at Oxford University to demonstrate her authority in her field with investors when she was raising money for Loyal. It doesn’t hurt her expert reputation that she was named to Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list in 2022, as well.
Andrew Chen is a partner at Andreessen Horowitz and a board member at Clubhouse, Substack, and Reforge. Before that, he led Uber’s Growth teams. In addition to his impressive job experience, his essays have appeared in The New York Times, Fortune, Wired, and the Wall Street Journal. In 2021, he published a book called The Cold Start Problem with Harper Business, further solidifying his unique value as a subject matter expert and helping him grow his newsletter audience.
Post, A Lot
Being a prolific writer can also help you stand out from other subject matter experts, especially if you’re in a crowded field. Whatever your chosen medium — whether its Twitter, a blog, or a newsletter — make sure you’re posting often and consistently.
Best practices vary not just by medium, but by what your goal is. For example, if you want to maximize your engagement per post, 1-5 posts per day is best on Twitter. But if you want to garner more replies, tweet as much as you want, or can.
Go outside of your medium and look for opportunities to widen your reach. Find people writing to similar audiences and form relationships with them: you can share each other’s content to your followers, guest post to their network, and otherwise collaborate in ways that will grant you mutual exposure to each other’s audiences.
You want a paper trail across more than your primary medium to best establish yourself as a name in the field. The gold standard for name-recognition and invitations to podcasts, speaker engagements, and other opportunities is often publication in industry magazines or journals.
This strategy yields high rewards, but it’s not as straightforward as it seems. Here are a few steps to get you started (or you can sign up for a MasterClass taught by Anna Wintour):
- Do your homework. Find the publication whose audience best resembles your own, and who publishes work similar — but not identical — to your writing. You want to be able to pitch something that is well within the publication’s purview without being unoriginal compared to their previously published content.
- Keep it simple. Once you know where and what you want to pitch, keep your outreach simple and professional. Include a brief biography of yourself, a short description of your piece along with a possible headline, your unique position on the topic, and why you are the best person to write it.
- Check your work. Make sure to pay close attention to submission guidelines as different publications will ask for pitches in different formats. Read and re-read these guidelines; attaching a finished piece when a publication only asks for a summary is the quickest way to get your email deleted. Proofread your email to make sure there are no spelling or grammar mistakes, and you’re proud of what you’re sending out. Here are submission guidelines for reference from some top industry publications:
Perhaps the most important takeaway above is to make sure you have a unique position on your topic. Aside from the difficulty of getting published if your opinion is the same as everyone else’s, having a unique opinion ensures that people will ask you to speak on it, and think of you if and when they read it elsewhere.
Engage With Your Audience
Earlier in this piece, we discussed how asking your audience questions can be a strong strategy for building an authentic online presence, but there are several other strategies for engaging with your audience you can employ as well, including:
- Celebrating you and your community’s successes
- Connecting your audience with one another
- Leveraging your audience for content and connections
When you talk publicly about your highs, you give your audience a chance to celebrate with you and share in some of the excitement. To maximize engagement, stay attuned to your audience’s wins as well, and give support back to your community when appropriate.
Andra Bria uses her platform to not just celebrate her own successes, but call out those who have helped her along the way, like On Deck.
It’s not a secret that humans enjoy recognition, and celebrating both yourself and others in your audience is a way to bring an element of surprise and delight into your subject matter expert strategy. It builds trust, connection, and audience loyalty.
Connect Your Audience
As your audience grows, you can provide value to your followers and build your reputation as a powerful networker by making connections between your followers when relevant, and fostering conversation through forums like Twitter threads.
For example, Lenny Rachitsky created a space for his audience to have in person meetups centered on all-things product, growth, and career. Providing opportunities like these for your audience to interact based on their shared interests will help solidify your unique value as a subject matter expert, and your reputation as a connector within your industry.
On Deck founder Erik Torenberg encourages his Twitter followers to not only engage with one another, but offer one another advice and recommendations. By empowering your following to connect with one another, you can exponentially grow the value you provide to your audience as a subject matter expert.
Your Followers Are a Community
Chances are, most of your audience will share your interest in the topics you’re discussing. In addition to this interest, each of your followers has their own background, experience, and network. What better way to further solidify your expertise than by taking advantage of this built-in wealth of information?
Andrew Chen uses Twitter to schedule his time when traveling, surveying his followers to find out who he should meet and to make introductions when necessary. This helps him not just widen his own network, but offer his followers a chance to form a deeper, more interactive and personal relationship with him.
Lenny Rachitsky uses his posts to source information from his followers that will inform his content about industry trends. For example, asking product designers what tools they use for work so he can put together a collation of the typical designer software stack to share with others.
It doesn’t take a massive following to be a successful subject matter expert. Start with what you love, and go from there. Take a lesson from the examples in this guide to champion authenticity, share your unique perspective, and engage genuinely with your audience to unlock opportunities in whatever field your interest lies.