Expertise is a Blessing–And a Curse

I regularly work with people who have no background at all in communication and social marketing. They’re public health professionals, prevention specialists, educators, program evaluators—mighty experts in their own fields, but not in this one.

The experts I’m talking about spend the better part of their days implementing programs and services that they know will change lives for the better. They know their community’s needs down to the zip code. They understand how their programs should be implemented and evaluated, and they can prove it with plenty of data, too.

But this same expertise can be a curse. Experts may well assume that they can simply transfer their wisdom (their facts!) to the masses. The masses, in turn, will become enlightened as if the expert truth has somehow them free. People will change, the world will be a happier place, and everyone will live happily, healthily ever after.

It’s a lovely fairy tale, but it’s not grounded in reality.

The Curse of Expertise

Consider the public health professional who is dedicated to violence prevention using a public health model. She defines the problem, identifies risk and protective factors, develops and tests prevention strategies, adds to the evidence base, and works to ensure that successful strategies are widely disseminated.

Do you see all the public health jargon in that last paragraph? “Risk and protective factors,” “evidence base,” and “dissemination” are just a fraction of the public health terminology that regularly appear in “expert” messages. That’s great if you’re delivering an academic research paper at a CDC conference, but it’s not so great if you’re trying to get local buy-in for your strategies with people who know that violence is a horrific problem but have absolutely no shared expertise. To these audiences, that jargon sounds like this:


What happens next?

What happens when experts build beautiful initiatives and are baffled when no one else seems to recognize just how important they are? What happens no one participates in their programs or follows their advice?

Often, these same experts end up blaming the very audiences they seek to serve: what’s the matter with these people? Don’t they know what’s good for them?

The communication gap between experts and audiences widens. But there is a way to close it.

Moving from an “expert” mindset to a “marketing” mindset

If you want to close that gap between your expertise and your audiences, the you need to shift to a “marketing mindset.” When it comes to successfully talking with your audiences, just remember one key concept:

It’s not what you want them hear. It’s what they’re ready, willing, and able to hear.

You may be an expert in a public health approach to violence, but you aren’t (yet) an expert in the audiences you want to serve. Your expert message can’t resonate with:

  • The father whose youngest son has just died in gang violence
  • The woman who is locked in a bathroom dialing 9-1-1 while her abuser tries to take down the door.
  • The pastor who wants to help get guns out of the hands of youth.
  • The police chief who feels unsupported and without the tools to keep the city safer.
  • The mayor who is in a tight race for re-election and knows this is a hot button issue for voters.

A marketing mindset puts all of the focus on meeting your audiences where they are right now—matching their priorities, solving their problems, and overcoming barriers to knowledge and action.

If you see yourself in this article, or if your outreach efforts to date haven’t gotten the traction you’d hoped for, then it’s probably time to start thinking like a marketer.


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