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When she needs the right medicine, she calls me. I’m a pharmacist.
When I want to build crazy shit, I call my cousin. He’s an engineer.
When I need graphics, I call my friend. He’s a designer
We trust and defer to others in situations where their expertise is best suited.
the confident quality of someone who knows a lot about something or who is respected or obeyed by other people
power to influence or command thought, opinion, or behavior
There’s no catchall for authority and it can seem so damn hard to establish it.
If you haven’t been building a name for years, don’t have a strong network, or a huge budget then authority will slip you by — right?
Authority comes in degrees and once it’s in your grasp it grows. That’s when you activate the authority bias — more on that in a second. You’re able to wield influence in your field and that influence bleeds over into other areas.
John isn’t an authority — not in the traditional sense. He loves art in all its forms; music, painting, web design, hand lettering, drawing, acting, and writing, all pique his interest.
He learns by trial and error. John has a website he uses to take detailed notes on what he’s learned. There’s no rhyme or reason to the layout, but the content is great and he’s testing his design skills on it.
All his visits to the drafting room, tours through art galleries, web design experiments, painting — both good and bad — and music fails are documented.
As time went by and people searched Google for things like “how to start painting,” “beginner writing,” or “web design novice” his site started appearing organically in search results. He got comments and emails encouraging him and asking him for advice.
John saw the power of his website as a tool to help people and started taking it more seriously.
He made it easier to navigate, overhauled the design, and added sign up forms. Eventually, he even shipped a course that performed better than he imagined.
John is an authority.
But how do you do it?
How do you gain the benefits of the authority bias for your brand?
How do you build authority in months instead of years or weeks instead of months?
Buckle up; we’re going deep into the psychology of authority and HOW to use the authority bias for your brand — even if you’re utterly lost right now.
The authority bias is:
The tendency to attribute greater accuracy to the opinion of an authority figure (unrelated to its content) and be more influenced by that opinion.
The authority bias is a simple cognitive bias we fall into regularly. Think about how it affects you every day:
It’s baked into our DNA.
Stanley Milgram, a Psychology Professor at Yale University, carried out an experiment in 1961-62 that formally identified the authority bias.
Prof. Milgram placed an ad in the paper offering $4 for volunteers to participate in a memory and learning study. When people showed up, Milgram performed an experiment that had nothing to do with memory and learning.
Under the watchful gaze of Milgram, the volunteer – labeled “the teacher” — read out a string of words to his partner, labeled “the learner.” The learner was hooked up to an electric shock machine in another room.
If the learner made a mistake while repeating the words, the teacher would deliver an electric shock of increasing intensity.
The starting shock was 15 volts and the maximum shock – a lethal dose – was 450 volts. Some people refused to do it and stopped the experiment early. Other people continued with Milgram urging them that “the experiment must go on.”
These people were conditioned to obey authority and continued even when the learner pled for mercy, warned the teacher about their heart condition, and fell eerily silent after a “fatal” shock.
In one variation of the experiment, 65% of the participants went all the way.
The most interesting part is they believed the electric shocks were real until they emerged from the lab and were told the truth. The cries of pain were recorded and the learner — Jim McDonough— was in on it.
The experiment showed Milgram and the rest of the world what we already kind of knew.
We obey authority.
Airlines have changed a lot over the last 20 years. In the old days, a pilot’s will was law 30,000 feet up. No one could question his decisions, hell, as the co-pilot you wouldn’t even raise objections when you knew something was wrong. The pilot was infallible.
Problems with the authority bias came to light when a veteran pilot allowed his teenage son to take over. They were thousands of feet in the air. The co -pilot kept silent.
The boy — naturally — made huge mistakes while trying to steer the plane to its destination. Before his dad could take the controls back, he lost control and the plane crashed. Everyone died.
After that — in addition to other disasters — the airlines made sweeping changes called Crew Resource Management (CRM). It encouraged other members of the crew to voice their opinions, objections, and feedback.
This may be an extreme case of negative effects the authority bias can have, but it’s by no means the only case. It happens often.
Every organization has them, but some organizations manage them more effectively through checks and balances.
I know what you’re thinking, “that doesn’t happen with us, my friends (colleagues, partners, peers, classmates, or whatever) respect my ideas.” You know what I’m going to tell you? Test that assumption.
What is Social Proof?
Social proof is the concept that people will conform to the actions of others under the assumption that those actions are reflective of the correct behavior.
Social proof has been used for as long as marketing has existed but the rise of social media has made it ubiquitous.
Uberflip has a nice way of showcasing expert testimonials. Instead of just slapping them on a page, they pair them with different features of the tool.
Kelly loved them and left her own dreams and aspirations to help Uberflip grow.
They even got a widely regarded marketing expert — Neil Patel — to give them a glowing testimonial. Notice how his endorsement reflects the feature and benefit they’re promoting. Neil is well known in marketing circles and his content is well tailored to his audience.
Putting his endorsement right below that feature helps build authority and strongly predisposes you to be swayed.
Kristi Hines is a writer, blogger, content marketer, and SEO specialist writing about blogging and content marketing – so meta. She shows her authority through badges throughout her site and a dedicated testimonials page.
The testimonials are powerful because they all come from business owners and executives — authorities in their own right.
I grew up with these commercials. Randy Savage was my favorite wrestler for a long time. When he jumped into making Slim Jim commercials I would save my money to buy them. Over time, I associated Randy with Slim Jims and Slim Jims with Randy.
That meant it was a man’s snack. The snack for people who’re ready to take on challenges and get the work done. The snack for people who were strong and unafraid. Thanks Randy.
I’ve seen her all over the internet and magazines like GQ. Over time, I’ve come to associate the brand and Jennifer with class. Smartwater is my go to bottled water whenever I can find it.
In both these examples the celebrities are paid to be brand ambassadors, spokespeople, and models for the brand they’re promoting. Over time, the qualities of the brand and the qualities of the celebrity rub off on each other.
Ideally, it’s meant to be a symbiotic relationship. That’s why celebrities lose endorsements when they get involved in scandals or do stupid shit.
You don’t need a professional wrestler or a movie star as your celebrity endorsement. You can choose a niche celebrity to achieve the same effect.
This one is better than sliced bread. When celebrities with huge social followings can’t stop gushing about your products and services — even when you didn’t pay — you’re in for good things.
The epitome of this effect is Oprah’s Book Club. If you’re a struggling author and somehow manage to slide across Oprah’s desk and into her book club then your problems are over.
In 2009 the author of Say You’re Not One of Them, Uwan Akpan, had about 77,000 books in circulation. After Oprah added it to her book club that number skyrocketed to 780,000 books. They were printed with the “O” symbol.
Whiz Khalifa also got in on the action when he made multiple endorsements for Blue Bombay. The guy genuinely likes the drink and uses it in his music and miscellaneous videos.
You’ve got to love Whiz… 🙂
The easiest social proof to display is your share count and follower numbers.
This works well if you get a large number of shares. Jeff Bullas has been doing this for a long time and as a result, his website gets a lot of shares.
If the number is large enough, showing your subscriber count is a really great way to go to unlock the authority bias effect.
The rationale is pretty simple, if everyone else is signing up then they must 1. Know what they’re talking about 2. be doing it in an interesting way.
Hubspot literally has hundreds of thousands of people receiving their emails. The placement of an optin at the end of the post will capture the most engaged visitors to their website.
Darius doesn’t have nearly as many subscribers as Hubspot but he’s not afraid to show his subscriber count and show the authority he does have.
You don’t need a hundred thousand subscribers before you’re considered an authority. In fact, you only need a few more than a thousand for the authority bias to take effect.
Sweaty Betty takes user reviews much more seriously than most brands. Instead of just asking for their opinions, they also ask them for their height, size, activity level and other pertinent details.
This makes it more useful to the person reading it while lending authority to the review which rubs off on Sweaty Betty.
Threadless has a unique way of indirectly using reviews. Instead of showing us the written review, they bring back popular clothes from the vault and showcase them prominently on their website.
People bought what they’re selling and were happy with it. Everyone can’t be wrong, can they?
Check out this article for more examples of social proof.
As I’ve been alluding to throughout this article, you can’t be an authority in everything.
Let’s say you’re trying to get in shape. You and a friend start working out together. You go to the gym every day for an entire month while he only goes three times a week — what a slacker.
While you’re there you do rigorous aerobics and strength training. You feel the burn and your body is slowly but surely starting to transform.
Sometime during your fourth week, you pull a muscle in your arm and need to heal up for two weeks. One thing leads to another, life gets in the way, and you don’t go to the gym for six months.
Meanwhile, your friend has been going three times a week for the last six months. He’s made some really good friends, is a part-time instructor, and looks amazing. You went hard for a few days. He worked on the same areas consistently for six months and has the results to show for it.
He’s built authority at the local gym.
This inconsistency is quite common. It happens when people are learning new skills, move out of their comfort zone, and try to build authority in their niche.
Their biggest inhibitor is failing to show up consistently.
On Copyblogger, there are over 500 pages in the blog archive. Not 500 articles — 500 pages of articles.
Now, it’s one thing to show up consistently, but it’s another thing to leverage it for the authority bias to take effect.
If you’re showing up twice a week to the gym and work on a different muscle group every time then you’ll never see any results. You’ve got to choose a few muscle groups to really target and work on them over and over again.
The same is true of your brand. You can’t talk about food today then cars tomorrow and hope to become an authority with either one.
You won’t be noticed by everyone in a day — No matter how viral your content. Some articles will fail. Some will really hit a cord. Irrespective of that, you can’t build a thriving tribe or business from one viral marketing campaign.
That’s just the beginning.
It’s what comes after that matters. It’s your ability to continue to show up and bang out quality content, great products, and maintain your focus that builds authority.
The beautiful part is that it has a compounding effect.
Let’s say you started an Ecommerce site selling hand crafted leather goods. You don’t have much of a marketing budget so you decide to invest what you do have in Instagram marketing. In your first thirty days, you amass 500 followers and a trickle of traffic goes back to your website.
Not so good.
The next thirty days are much better; you get 1,500 followers and are starting to understand the nuances of the platform.
You keep this up consistently for 6 months then gauge your progress. You’ve gained 50,000 targeted followers that supply you with more user-generated content than you know what to do with.
You’ve got the authority bias in your back pocket. Whenever you release a new line of leather goods, you’re sure people will line up to buy it. Not only that, you’ve developed a real relationship with your customers and use the insights you’ve gained to inform your products.
Keep showing up.
I’ve heard the argument “if I give it all away then I won’t have anything to sell.” Well, you don’t need to give it ALL away, but you do need to let some of your knowledge go for free. Strategically of course.
When you’re giving, you’re also receiving at the same time. You receive friendships, you receive recognition, you receive brand advocates, and you receive — wait for it — authority.
You have to give something before you can ask for something E.G., the sale — especially if you’re not established. Brands give away free samples, free training, or test drives all the time.
Don’t be uptight, the world loves a cheerful giver.
To build authority that lasts, you need to help others become better versions of themselves. Writing great content is a tried and true method of showing you understand the principals involved in solving their problem.
However, you need to demonstrate a deeper skill if you want to avoid the same criticism academic professors face — no real word applications.
One of the easiest ways to do this is to provide discounted or pro bono work for people who wouldn’t normally be able to afford your services. They can pay you with a testimonial or a case study (be careful with free work so it doesn’t bleed into time reserved for paid work).
In any niche, there are dozens of Twitter chats, Facebook groups, and forums where your people meet up. Join the conversation by answering questions, sharing insights, and giving your opinion.
I’ve met countless people through forums, slack chats for entrepreneurs, and community sites like Quora and Medium. I help others, but I honestly believe they’re helping me much more.
Do a Google search for your industry name + slack chat, industry name + twitter chat, or industry name + forum. You’re bound to find a few places where you’ll fit in.
Once you see a few you like, join up with one goal in mind: to help other members.
Once you’ve gotten a little clout in the community — by giving genuinely helpful insights — your authority will grow and the authority bias will become more prominent.
The authority bias also kicks in when you’re able to leverage the influence of widely regarded experts. There’s a right way and a wrong way to go about it.
Don’t settle for smaller websites because they’re easier. Many times, they have no real social media presence and a shady revenue stream. I understand the need to work your way up the ladder. Still, choose your prospects wisely.
A backlink is only a small portion of the benefits you’ll receive from guest posting. To build real authority, you need to be interacting with a real tribe.
It’s not easy to get on these websites but that’s what makes you creative. Pitch a guest post right, get it read, and accepted. Once you do that, write the best article you can. Make it stand out among the content of your host.
If it blends into the background then your hard work has been for nothing.
Remember to take your brand voice with you.
In the end, everything you do is focused on establishing authority. If it’s not the central focus of what you’re doing online, there’s a problem. Authority is within your grasp, it’s just a matter of making the right choices.
It’s going to take a bit of time, but it’s more than worth it. Once you have it, it keeps on growing.
Take a look around for any opportunities to showcase the results you’ve gotten for people or endorsements (solicited and unsolicited).
If your numbers are large enough display them prominently throughout your brand materials and website.
More important than that is showing up every day for an extended period of time. People will come to rely on your insights and trust what you say.
Help as many people as you can — both paid and unpaid work —because the biggest example of your authority doesn’t come from you. It comes from the people who make up your tribe. The people you’ve helped become the best version of themselves.
Let me know what strategies you’re using to build authority in the comments.