Once upon a time, I worked as an evaluator of information systems, which apparently nobody thinks are important in Walla Walla, but which trust me, they sorely need. The usable Web sites are few and far between around here, even for well funded organizations and businesses. But I digress. I bring up information design when talking about online presence because both of them, for me at least, start with the same set of questions.
What am I trying to accomplish? Who is my audience? What is my product or service?
These are not wildly exciting questions, I know, but they sneak in a big payoff for people willing to really address them before venturing into the virtual hinterland. Focus now means that activity later won’t be as scattered, redundant, or worse, at cross-purposes.
Now then, who am I to be parceling out advice? Nobody, really. I don’t have 30,000 followers. I’m not a bestselling author, and I only have a couple of short stories published to date. But the good news is that one doesn’t have to have those things to make sense with regard to marketing and network building, and the even better news is that those things don’t necessarily represent a great online presence. I would much rather have 5,000 quality fans who are likely to buy my first novel or my memoir than 30,000 mostly spambot accounts. So here is what little ole me has learned so far in my personal grand experiment in finding an audience.
1. Quality begets quality. There are a lot of writers out there who have gulped the Kool-Aid and write catchy headlines on their blogs, grabbing lots of hits. Trouble is, the posts themselves are watered down or generic, saying the same thing everyone is saying about writing, the author’s favorite topic, or their latest project. Whatever is on the blog needs to offer something fresh to readers, and inspire comments from people. And when people comment, respond. They came to drop off a thought related to the post, so give them the courtesy of thanking them and engaging with them. Read what else is out there and be better or more interesting.
2. Stop belittling Mom. I’ve read it countless times now: “It doesn’t matter if your mother likes your book; it still sucks.” This could be true, given the day, book, or mother. But people who are close to you still count as part of your audience. Those people out there buying millions of books and ebooks? Many of them are someone’s mother, after all. It’s just that we need a broader base of readership. If we stick just with people we know, we’ll never sell more than 100 of anything. So feel free to start with your support base, but look to expand and focus on readers who will get excited about your work.
3. Grow smart, not fast. I can’t say it enough that there is no such thing as an overnight success. Stand up comics spent years in dive clubs getting heckled. Lots of artists wait tables. Writers scrap around for no money for long stretches of time. The writing needs to happen for the love of it, not the allure. So pick one of the big networking sites and start there. Don’t jump into all of them at once—nobody can sprint for a marathon—or you’ll burn out. I began with Twitter. Twitter is interesting because you can quickly find people by interest, using hash tags or a very popular person’s lists. Take a moment to see what those people are tweeting before you follow them. Look for folks who retweet and engage with others, not who just send out the same status or who are tweeting about their lunch choices. After a quarter of a year building up your first Web site foray, join another one. Rinse and repeat.
4. Consistency and publicity. Somehow Facebook has become the This Is Your Life game show of the Internet (don’t know what that is, go watch it on YouTube). Everything said is in front of one’s 6th grade teacher, college buddies, parents, ex-coworkers, and boss. And linkages between accounts on FB, LinkedIn, Twitter, Tumblr, WordPress, etc. all means that everything one writes online can be accessed, more or less. So be sure that if you’re using the Web to promote your work and yourself, don’t take off your work mask. Be gracious, entertaining, bright, and generous to your colleagues. Nobody hangs around Debbie Downer or an assclown. Focus on a consistent message, and be genuinely interested in other people’s projects. You are acting as your own publicist; don’t put yourself in the position of needing to fire yourself, because it’s not possible.
5. Learn what the technologies do to maximize their effectiveness. Twitter is great at finding like-minded people, but it nearly always links people to something else. So think of it as your shared bookmarks, your fast conduit to your latest blog post, and so on. Facebook has an event scheduler, LinkedIn a way to share testimonials, WordPress and Blogger have tons of plug-ins to help evaluate who is coming to your blog and when, so you can place links to your content on those other sites and have a good idea of when you’ll get lots more attention and visits. It’s okay to start out not knowing anything, but pick that first Web site and get to know it and its strengths.
I’ve gone from 50 people in my active reading audience to 3,000 in two years. Those numbers may not be outstanding, but I can see already that growth is an exponential prospect, and I’m happy that the great majority of my people are voracious readers, writers excited to share tips and tricks, agents, editors, and my wonderfully supportive friends. I’m looking forward to the rest of this year and where my network will be by then. And I wish the same for my fellow writers who are working toward the same.