Thoughts on Building Authority In Your Market

How to attract the best clients, who are willing to pay the most, and do business with you as quickly and with as little effort as possible.

That’s the fundamental challenge of all of sales and marketing.

What underpins it all is authority. Are you seen as one?

Building authority is crucial – here’s why.

Being an expert in your field is necessary, but not sufficient, to building a thriving business. You have to both know what you’re doing, and be known.

Easier said than done though. How do you become known? It’s a combination of activities and factors that create and solidify your presence as an authority, but ultimately it’s completely up to other people to decide if you’re an authority.

Moving up from this somewhat narrow discussion, the point of authority is to develop leadflow in your business. You want a steady and, eventually, growing pipeline of top-tier accounts and contacts waiting to work with you. Having authority also affords you the opportunity to escape (for the most part, at least) negotiations over price or terms. If you have enough of the right people waiting to work with you, you work on your own terms.

In this article, I’ll lay out the steps you’ll need to take to start building authority in your market. In my opinion, there are 4 pillars that affect your ability to develop authority in your market:

  1. Market: who you’re addressing, and what you can do for them
  2. Worldview: how you see the world differently
  3. Distribution: how you get your worldview out to the market
  4. Time: duration required to systematically distribute your views

Who are you going to help?

Before we go further into the discussion, I’ll start with a definition of authority as it applies to our discussion here (emphasis added):

the power to influence others, especially because of one’s commanding manner or one’s recognized knowledge about something

If you are to have recognized knowledge, then you must have both knowledge and recognition. You’ve already spent years developing your expertise and building knowledge, so the next question is, recognized by whom?

Choosing your market is essential so you can have some control over where and how you build your expertise. “Entrepreneurs” or “business owners” is not a market – you’ll have to get much more specific than that. Indeed, it’s easier to start in a smaller pond and expand from there as you build more recognition of your expertise. If you’re wondering “how small?,” the answer is generally “much smaller than you think.” David C. Baker recommends experts narrow their focus to markets with 2,000-10,000 prospects, though you may go up a bit from there.

We can also approach the problem with a bit of math. As a general rule of thumb, you can expect that 3% of your market is in a buying cycle at any given time. If you’re looking to land, say, 5 additional, net new clients a year, then you’ll need:

  • 20 sales opportunities
  • 20 leads per opportunity
  • (20 20) / 0.03 = 13k in your addressable market

You can play with the numbers a bit, but what’s clear is that experts can expect to address markets in the tens of thousands, or perhaps hundreds of thousands, but not in the millions. By definition, your expertise is in a particular field, which limits who you can help in the first place.

Deciding on an addressable market is not trivial, but is necessary prior to embarking on any successful authority building exercise. If you are unsure of your market focus, I can nearly guarantee that the market is too. If you don’t have clarity about your market focus, or even a single client type, but set out to build your authority anyway, the pieces are unlikely to fall into place without intentional effort and auditing.

Choosing your market is a requirement simply because all business starts with who. Who you’ll help, what they care about, how you can help them, and how they value the help you can provide. “Who” is also the underpinning of your worldview. Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity is one of the greatest advances in theoretical physics, but it would be lost on an elementary school child. Your market is your audience, so you’d better choose the right one.

What do you have to add?

Surely this discussion is about effective marketing and human psychology as much as it about creating a defensible authority position. Which begs the question “why do people buy?” And the answer is quite simple: for a better tomorrow.

Now there are dozens of factors that affect a buyer’s perception of what kinds of things would make tomorrow better than today, but what’s clear is the more compelling your promise and opinion, the easier it is for them to choose you to help them.

Unless you offer a service with no competition – and I’d argue that’s impossible – you must somehow separate yourself from the competition and give your prospects a clear choice to make. Essentially your worldview says to your market:

“If you want people who do and believe this, choose us. If you want people who do and believe that, don’t choose us. We don’t do that, and we don’t believe that.”

This is where shit gets really scary for most experts. You have to take a bold stand, because developing and expressing your worldview will turn people away, and it’s by design. In fact your worldview should cause people to viscerally agree or disagree, perhaps even instantly or violently so.

You want the super fans, not the humdrum followers.

What’s true is that there’s something impressive, different, and (at least somewhat) unique about your expertise and how you apply it. Manufacturing authority, as opposed to developing expertise, must tap into that uniqueness. But it’s not about what you do or how you do it, it’s about why you do it. As in, what do you see that others don’t that causes you to address your market’s problems the way you do?

A discussion of worldview couldn’t be had without using Apple as a shining example. Their worldview was simple, and quite groundbreaking for a technology company at the time: make beautiful things that are delightful to use, and can be used by anyone. They were, perhaps, the first technology company for everyone, not just the uber nerds. Staying on this example, they made choices like emphasizing images, fonts, and graphical user interfaces before that was a thing, and targeted creative types because those people really cared about design.

Surely you don’t need such a grandiose vision in order to successfully build authority. Someone who used the Apple example to great effect to build his own authority is Simon Sinek, in his book Start With Why. The premise of his book – that a clearly articulated vision would attract more loyal customers – was well-known to the marketing community, but the packaging and timing of the idea were perfect. His model was simple, substantiated, and was targeted at companies and executives who understood that values were an increasingly large component of consumer preferences. As consumers with buying power aged and a new generation of buyers demanded values, the companies that didn’t stand for anything were poorly positioned to survive the sea change. Sinek capitalized.

What you’ll find if you attempt to go out to determine a firm’s worldview is that there seems to be an inverse relationship between size and sharpness of marketing. The larger a company, the more watered down, gutless, and sleepy their message. When you turn to smaller firms, you’ll find that the good ones have sharper and more potent messages – at least the ones that are successfully building authority in their markets.

It’s quite difficult to come up with a bulletproof method or process to define – and more importantly, articulate – your worldview, but there are ways to recognize it when you have. A three-part test for identifying a strong worldview that will attract the best clients should meet these three criteria:

  1. It’s counterintuitive, or few other people would say it
  2. It explains a trend others agree exists
  3. It’s simple and memorable

As with both the Apple and Sinek examples, sharpening your worldview becomes the underpinning of your authority-building effort. If your authority building were a literal building, the foundation is both your worldview and your market. Think of it as symbiotic: one can’t truly exist without the other. But both are the foundation, and no sturdy building could be constructed without that foundation in place.

Is your authority believable?

We must now turn to Cialdini’s book, Influence, because it’s the seminal work on how people are influenced to comply with our requests. Since your ultimate reason for building authority is “do business with me when you need this kind of help,” this discussion may be about influence just as much as it is about authority.

In particular, there are certain reinforcement mechanisms you need to have in place in order for your authority-building exercise to succeed. These mechanisms should be built into your third pillar, Distribution, in order to maximize the impact of your effort.

Commitment and consistency are perhaps the biggest. That is to say, you must be fully committed to your worldview and your market for your authority to truly take hold. So if your worldview, for instance, stated that “we do things right, and no other way,” you would therefore enforce standards that prioritize correctness over timeliness. There’s no other way to stay consistent with the message. You’d also have to take a stand against client demands that would cause you to do things less-than-right, and perhaps firing the client or freezing a project in order to enforce your worldview and standard. You know, to stay committed.

Articulating your worldview on a regular basis, and in multiple forms (like this article), is just as important. Staying on message is table stakes, but illustrating the implications of your worldview reinforces both your client’s understanding of you and your worldview.

Trappings of authority loom large as influential mechanisms, too. My brand is not “suited to the nines” because I don’t feel the need to wear a costume, but some circles will require you to dress sharply, or even compete on who’s wearing the most expensive watch. Ridiculous as this seems to me – and I don’t like to compete in this way – other people will observe the trappings of authority as powerful signals for authority itself.

One of the most obvious ways you can flex your authority is public speaking. The trapping, or display of authority, is the shorthand we use for public speakers: public speakers must be authoritative, and therefore you must be an authority. Silly as it may seem, speaking reinforces your authority position before a single word comes out of your mouth.

Social proof, particularly the objective kind, will act to further cement the believability of your authority. Having the endorsement of others, proving your claims with client stories, reinforcing your message with research, or even receiving the social proof of applause when you speak in front of a crowded room will help cement the perception of your authority.

Remember: you’re already an expert. Becoming an authority is about what other people think of you. Help them understand that you’re deserving of their attention.

Building authority by getting the word out.

Once you have a market and worldview, you need ways of getting it out. I prefer a multi-faceted approach. People whom I deeply respect recommend as few as one channel, some recommend two, I personally recommend three.

None of that is nearly as important as concerted and consistent effort to spread your message. There are many stages of authority building, but keep in mind that the beginning stages are easily the most painful. If you choose to write, perhaps you’re still finding your voice. If you choose to speak, perhaps you need some polishing at your local Toastmasters. Whatever you do, there will be a learning curve to both become talented at the distribution channel, and also to develop your style of disseminating your worldview. It’s worth it, I promise.

Your distribution methods and choices will ultimately determine the success of your campaign to raise awareness about your expertise. Should you succeed at this, you will have the chance to be perceived as an authority.

The obvious question at this point is how to choose your distribution channels, and why one may be more powerful than the others. Let your market focus decide for you. However your market consumes information and makes buying decisions should dictate your strategy. Wherever they are, be in those places. If they read blog articles, create wonderfully useful information they can consume at their leisure. If they listen to podcasts, make a remarkable podcast. If your high-end buyers will only consider you an authority after you’ve written a book, prepare to bleed at the typewriter. If they discover industry trends and ideas at conferences, be on stage speaking.

The number of options are much too numerous to cover here, but it’s worth noting that repeated execution will favor results more than unrelenting planning and analysis. Yes, it pays to do it right, but it’s more important to get started and transition from consumer to creator.

Welcome to the long game

Let’s get honest about something: this shit is really fucking hard and takes a lot of time.

Time is the unspoken “secret” ingredient – along with luck – that most people neglect to mention when they reminisce about their rise to the top. Time is not a catalyst in and of itself, but rather an inescapable ingredient for most. Simply put, word of mouth, influence, and the creation and distribution process all take time. There’s no way around it.

How much time is determined by frequency, “luck,” and “brute force.” The more often you distribute your views, the more likely you are to reach more people. The more people you reach, the more likely you are to “get lucky” with virality and word of mouth to accelerate your distribution. Likewise, the longer you embark on your authority building exercise, you produce and distribute higher volumes of authority-building opportunities. Other authorities or market organizers (like conferences, associations, and the like) are more likely to take notice of your work over time, and accelerate your reach distribution.

And finally, applying brute force through systematic, tactical distribution methods can act as yet another accelerant, typically referred to simply as “marketing.” Advertising and other forms of push marketing can serve to accelerate the process, but not make you an authority simply because you do them – you still have to be worthy of the attention you request if you are to sustain it.

One question you might have at this point is how long it should take to successfully build your authority. That depends on how you define successful, but count on at least 2 years at a minimum, luck notwithstanding. Your content efforts will take months to get off the ground, and if you plan to publish a book, it’ll take at least 6 months (but probably 1-2 years) to write, publish, and market your book. I know I sound like a broken record, but it’s worth repeating:

This shit ain’t easy, but it’s worth it.

How you know you’re building authority. That’s a question.

Brand marketing is famously difficult to measure, but when it comes to driving your authority it’s certainly worth it. Building your expertise into an authoritative position will greatly enhance your lead flow, pricing power, and the overall positive impression of your brand.

But there’s a bit of a problem. This is going to take years to achieve your ultimate goals, so you’ll have to prepare yourself for the inevitable ebb and flow of your excitement about (and perhaps commitment to) the process.

It’s easy to say you’re fully committed to the process for 2 years, but it’s another thing altogether to write 2,000 words every week with little to no feedback or market endorsement. Still you must persist.

The question to ask as you ponder building authority in your market is this:

What are some leading indicators of success?

In the beginning, effort and execution are almost certainly the most important metrics. Are you putting in the effort to get things done, and are you regularly meeting your deadlines. In the earliest days, this is all you’ll have to go on. As you begin to gather market feedback, the next leading indicator may be third-party endorsement or net new conversations, especially with total strangers. Measuring high-quality leads and additional revenue is the easy stuff – what will you do before it’s easy?

Building authority starts somewhere: right here.

No matter how you came to read this article, I implore you: start building authority in your market if your goal is to deliver expertise.

If you choose not to, you’ll be forced to spiral down the abyss of commoditization, with decreasing prices and increasing competition.

To recap, building authority has 4 components:

  1. Market: who you’re addressing, and what you can do for them
  2. Worldview: how you see the world differently
  3. Distribution: how you get your views out to the market
  4. Time: duration required to systematically distribute your views

The process is messy, and difficult, and frustrating, and you’ll often feel like giving up. Keep going, it’s worth it.