How I transformed my career from lawyer to ESPN reporter to sports marketing consultant by becoming a “visible expert”
Last year, I was on a panel at the Jacksonville Women’s Leadership Forum entitled “Game Changers: Career-Defining Moments.” At just 33, why was I chosen for a panel on career-defining moments?
It was probably because of that big career switch I made five years ago when I left my law practice and became ESPN’s sports business reporter on my way to becoming a nationally recognized expert on the business of college sports.
As I prepared for my panel, I struggled at first to pinpoint the exact moment that changed my career.
My gut reaction was to say it was when I got my first book deal. Except, I wouldn’t have gotten that first book deal if I hadn’t written a legal journal article on the same subject or blogged about it for months afterwards. So was one of those my game-changing moment?
It took me a few weeks, but I finally figured it out. All those things — my legal journal article, my blogging, my book deal, my eventual invitation to write for Forbes and appear on television for Comcast Sports Southeast — they were all stairsteps on my way to my true game-changing moment: when I became a “visible expert” on the business of college sports.
What is a visible expert?
According to professional services marketing firm Hinge (who first coined the term in its e-book Becoming a Visible Expert: A Guide for Professional Services Executives), a visible expert combines the qualities of high awareness or visibility with specific areas of expertise. She is someone who is well known in her industry, usually for a specific area of expertise. She might be blogging, podcasting, writing books, speaking at events or any combination of these and other visible activities. She has built a reputation for herself within her particular field.
How do you become a visible expert?
Historically, the best way to become a visible expert was to publish a book. Writing a book and having it published by a reputable publisher rubber-stamped you as an expert. Essentially, publishing houses were the arbiters of who was and wasn’t an expert and everyone else took their word for it, because how else could you identify these people?
With the advent of blogging, podcasting, social media, self-publishing and other ways to broadcast your work, anyone with the passion and commitment can transform into a visible expert.
Your visible expert action plan
1. Establish a portfolio
The good news is that the means for building a portfolio of work is easier today than ever before. If you like to write, you can go with blogging and perhaps even write white papers, e-books or publish a traditional book. If you’re a more dynamic speaker, you can podcast and produce webinars.
I started out with blogging — nothing fancy, just a free WordPress blog I started one day. I learned how to use social media to promote my blogging, and after a while I was asked to join a larger blog . . . and then a larger one . . . and then Forbes. Once a media outlet like Forbes takes you seriously, everyone takes you seriously.
The bad news is that you still have to do the work. I’ve been blogging fairly consistently on something related to sports business for eight years now. In addition, I sought out opportunities to be a guest on podcasts, radio and TV shows, and I offered myself up as a speaker in undergraduate and graduate classes.
All of those experiences make up my portfolio. When I need to credential myself, I can point to all of that work and send links for review. If someone searches my name on Google, they have no problem finding me and my work, because there’s simply so much of it out there.
2. Find your niche
Ideally, you’d find this first. For me, I didn’t develop my niche until I was about four years into blogging about sports business.
How did I find my niche?
I listened to my audience. I started out billing myself as an expert on Major League Baseball’s (MLB) collective bargaining agreement. It was the subject of the legal journal article I wrote in law school and the initial focus of my blogging. In fact, it was holding myself out as an expert in this area that I got my gig writing for Forbes.
However, it was at Forbes that I developed my true niche: the business of college sports. After writing for Forbes for a year, I took a look at how my posts were doing, and I found that a series of five posts I did on the finances of various college athletic conferences received exponentially more views than anything I’d ever written on any other topic — including my beloved MLB collective bargaining agreement.
I almost immediately founded BusinessofCollegeSports.com, which I maintain to this day. I realized that if my focus was going to be the business of college sports going forward, I needed a blog dedicated to that subject where someone could find all my work in one place. Luckily, Forbes let us republish our work, so I would write on Forbes and then republish on my site. I also started adding in additional blogs and commentary that weren’t the right fit for Forbes but worked well for my own site.
Today, BusinessofCollegeSports.com is nearly six years old, and it’s been quoted by virtually every major sports network and newspaper in the country, including last year in the Sunday edition of the New York Times.
3. Be patient and consistent
This is where I see most people fall short of becoming a visible expert. They are really interested in blogging . . . for a month. Or, they have a great idea for a book . . . but never finish writing it. Becoming a visible expert is a marathon, not a sprint. And, unfortunately, there’s no finish line. You have to continue to be educated about the most up-to-date information in your field and share that with your audience.
I always share my blogging stats for the 16 months before I joined ESPN with students when I guest lecture, because I’ve found they have some illusion that ESPN just called me at my law office one day and randomly offered me a job.
I wrote 178 posts for Forbes and BusinessofCollegeSports.com in the 16 months before joining ESPN. That’s an average of 11.1 posts per month, or 2.8 posts per week (and that’s not counting a blog a week for Comcast Sports Southeast most weeks). I started BusinessofCollegeSports.com on April 18, 2011, and wrote until I started at ESPN on October 10, 2011. During that time period, I wrote 133 posts in 175 days (while practicing law full-time). Just weeks before getting the job offer from ESPN, I also got a book deal from Wiley to write the first book to ever be published on the finances of college sports: Saturday Millionaires.
Once you find your niche, the key is to provide added value. I’m more often an analyst than a reporter, which means I don’t have to break news. Ten other people might have written about the topic before me, but my goal is to find a new angle. Maybe my legal background gives me a perspective your average sports reporter hasn’t considered. Or perhaps the databases I keep on various intercollegiate athletic financial reports and contracts provide me with additional information to share.
You can’t write or speak on your topic once a year and expect to become a visible expert. You should be using multiple mediums to produce content on your topic and putting out something new on a regular basis. If you’re blogging or podcasting, I recommend at least once a week. But that content absolutely must contain value-added information. Take your time to really research the topic and develop your commentary. You don’t have to be first — you simply have to improve the conversation around the topic.
I literally started from nothing and in four years built a website that ranks in the top three for virtually every long-tail keyword I want. On day one, I had a free WordPress blog, five blogs I’d written on the finances of intercollegiate athletic conferences to republish and about 750 Twitter followers. Four years later, BusinessofCollegeSports.com ranks at the top of search results for some of the terms I covet most: “business of college sports,” “business of college football,” and “college sports naming rights.” I’ve gone on to write a book on the subject, work for ESPN and grow my Twitter following to nearly 30,000. The keys to my success? Consistency and value-added information.
4. Create your own opportunities
In addition to your primary efforts — whether that’s blogging, podcasting or something else — I’d be looking for opportunities to be a guest on other podcasts or on TV and radio. My first podcast was with someone who probably had 20 listeners a week. But, it gave me experience, and someone listening had a podcast with maybe 100 listeners a week and invited me to be their guest next. Eventually I was able to parlay that into small-town radio. Eventually I made my way to national television and radio.
Also, seek out speaking opportunities. My very first speaking engagement was at Georgia State University. I simply emailed a professor who taught a class related to my area of expertise and volunteered to guest lecture. After that, I emailed a professor at another university. Then Harvard Law School found my blog and invited me to come speak on a panel.
If you find your niche and start consistently putting out quality content, people will find you. Then you’ll be like a snowball rolling downhill, constantly picking up additional credentials and opportunities.