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9 minute read

What’s the threshold for being able to call yourself an expert?

Usually, experts have years of experience in their chosen profession. They’re at the top of their industry, and they shape the path of progress. We wouldn’t typically say that someone without leadership experience or an advanced educational background is an expert.

And yet, there’s no shortage of so-called “digital marketing experts” or “gurus” online whose only real experience seems to be an online certification course, knowing how to set up a Facebook Ad or create graphics in Canva.

The rise of the so-called “digital marketing guru” coincided with the practice of personal branding on social media. While social media has undoubtedly created fantastic opportunities for real experts to connect and share their knowledge, it has also opened the floodgates for a tsunami of self-titled “gurus” looking to flog their book, consulting sessions, training program or online course.

Digital marketing, being a relatively new profession, seems to attract this type of person like moths to a light, and that’s likely because it’s a low barrier to entry. Many “gurus” conflate posting to their own social channels or writing a blog with managing marketing for a major company which it’s basically the difference between running little athletics and competing in the Olympics.

With that in mind, it’s become all the more important for real estate business owners to become extra-vigilant when it comes to the companies or individual consultants who they trust to manage their brand’s online presence. After all, a slip-up can be both financially and reputationally costly and there is no shortage of stories that we’ve heard from business owners or agents who have been at the receiving end of this situation.

The Problem with Gurus

I’ve been working in real estate most of my working life – from working inside the four walls of real estate businesses to running a successful digital marketing advisory firm within the real estate industry – so I say this with much respect to our colleagues and clients… the real estate industry is very easily sold to.

Business owners and agents are busy listing and selling and running a business so when the next bright shiny ‘thing’ comes along that promises to improve our business growth or efficiency, we jump on it because we don’t want our competitors to beat us to it.

As more and more people label themselves as digital marketing experts with no real background in marketing or business development, it’s becoming more and more difficult to identify who’s the real deal.

From social media “gurus” who are selling consulting or training sessions and do-it-for-you Facebook Ad services (many of whom are ex-agents themselves who have not been all that successful at being an agent themselves but are now self-proclaimed marketing “gurus”) to dodgy SEO companies who email you to tell you there is something wrong with your website when there isn’t (dodgy SEO companies now under the microscope of the Australian Small Business & Family Enterprise Ombudsman), there is no shortage of unsolicited marketing emails hitting the inboxes of real estate business owners and agents from these “gurus” today.

A very common example: 

One of our clients, a large multi-office real estate network, reported to us that one of their business owners was being solicited by an SEO company and asked for our analysis of the proposal. This SEO company was reaching using a report from Google’s Page Speed Insights test claiming the agency’s Google rankings were at risk of being penalised if they didn’t take action. And wouldn’t you know it… the SEO company could solve all their problems if you paid them a small fortune.

There are a lot of factors that go into how your website will rank on Google and Google’s Page Speed Insights only provides recommendations for speeding up your website (it’s important but it is still only a very small factor when it comes to ranking on Google Search Results). Dodgy SEO companies, like to use strong language when it comes to Google’s recommendations to make it sound like they are ‘urgent’ matters that are hurting your business rather than merely ‘recommendations’. This is a common tactic used by dodgy SEO companies to scare you into buying something from them that you don’t actually need, or worse, won’t come close to returning on your investment.

We invited the real estate business owner to run the same test used on their website by the SEO company to check how the SEO company’s website scored. The results? They were bad. Really bad. It’s never a good look when someone giving you advice doesn’t follow the same advice for their own business. Suffice to say our friend won’t be handing over their cash to this particular SEO firm.

How to Spot a Guru

Gurus talk a big game. They may even have a significant number of followers on one or more major social network. But remember, that doesn’t mean they’re an expert. After all, snake oil salesmen also knew how to draw a crowd.

Many online digital marketing courses promise to transform their students from absolute novices into experts in a matter of hours, but that’s far from the truth. In reality, these courses provide participants with scripts and roadmaps for providing very simple services to clients, encouraging them to use blanket statements and one-size-fits-all approaches to the task. They may know how to run an ad campaign, but they don’t know the “how” or the “why” behind the action. There’s no strategy, just blind execution. And when you’ve finished the course, they have another one ready for you to sign up for.

That’s why the best way to spot a faker is to do your homework and ask questions. If you suspect that someone is feeding you a script, try to get them to talk more candidly. Tell them about the particular challenges that your business is facing and see if they’re able to explain the reasoning behind their recommendations. If you feel like your contributions to the discussion are being ignored, it’s time to move along.

It also never hurts to ask for case studies and examples of their previous work. Find out exactly what they were doing before they became a “social media guru” or an “seo ninja.” If their specialty is (supposedly) social media marketing, then you should be able to look to their own social channels as proof of their experience. Low engagement, low numbers of followers, and a general lack of content are all huge red flags that you shouldn’t just ignore if you’re going to trust someone to manage your business’s online social presence.

You should also be able to gather reviews and recommendations from the agency or individual you’re looking to hire. If you can’t find any, that’s another red flag. I’d also recommend picking up the phone and calling one of their clients to see what their experience has been like.

Now, these tips may sound a bit obvious, but the tricky thing about digital marketing gurus is that they’re charismatic. A silver tongue and a convincing script are often all it takes to convince someone they know what they’re talking about. Often, the only way to get past the bluster is to ask for concrete, results-oriented examples of their work.

Experts versus Explorers

The title of ‘expert’ should only be a term imposed on others by others and you should always be sceptical of anyone who self-proclaims to be an expert (go check their LinkedIn profile!).

A recent episode of Jay Acunzo’s “Unthinkable” podcast sums this up beautifully.

“We live in a society that seems to value the ability to have the answers, but the path to making work that matters just might mean admitting, “I don’t have the answers, but I’m going to figure this out.” What if we stopped acting like experts and started acting like … well … something else?”

A sure-fire way to pick a digital marketing “expert” from an “explorer”:

  • Experts will talk mostly about themselves and why you should spend $x on ‘this or that’. Experts prescribe a ‘one size fits all’ approach.
  • Explorers will ask you about your business and marketing goals and share documented case studies of other similar businesses they’ve worked with, describing the steps they took and the strategy that was implemented to achieve the desired result for that particular client.

Be aware of the digital marketing “guru”

The easiest way to spot a faker is when you see someone outright refer to themselves as a “guru” (or ninja, or evangelist, or any other cringy title).

To call oneself a guru just because you know how to run a Facebook ad is, needless to say, more than a little self-important.

To combat the scourge of digital marketing gurus, the real estate industry has to get smarter. Those of us who could actually call ourselves experts need to put more work into providing value and demonstrating our knowledge upfront. We should promote transparency and be able to “show our work” when a client asks for our reasoning behind a decision.

The business of real estate is, well, busy. We don’t often have the time to read up on all the latest trends in digital marketing and not every business has a dedicated in-house digital team. And so we rely on “experts” to advise us on what we need.

Real estate business owners and agents need to become savvier about who they choose to hire. Ask more questions. Do your research. And always be wary of the people who call themselves “gurus” or “experts”.

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