At writer’s conferences and in critique groups people throw phrases like “social networks” and “platform building” around like cheap confetti. Judging from the glazed look on the eyes of many writers, there seems to be a disconnect between knowing one should work on their online presence, and how to do just that. It’s not enough to tell folks to build a network, because that’s too abstract a concept in a universe of hundreds of social networking Web sites and applications. Worse, all of the jargon is so intimidating many writers begin to justify their absence from the market. “Well, I need to have time to write, not promote myself,” one romance writer told me at this year’s PNWA. Others that I’ve spoken with don’t see the benefit to all of these online sites—it looks to them like a lot of time spent tooling around the interwebs for next to no return on their investment. And that’s a shame.
When I was working in the usability field—trying to match people’s needs with the design of the Web systems they were using—one of the recurring issues I ran into was language. Someone looking for “Data” as a topic in a list of items is likely to miss their target if it comes after the word “Healthcare,” as in “Healthcare Data.” Tiny differences in inches or color contrast or expectations around word choice throw people off more easily than we as confident humans would like to admit, and attitude makes a big, big difference. So if I may pull a little from my past professional experience, let me boil down a few simple steps to establishing an online presence.
1. Start with a blog—WordPress, Typepad, and Blogger are some of the biggest blogging sites out there, and they all run pretty much the same way. My blog is on WordPress; one of the advantages of this site is its long list of free templates, called themes. But before you select a theme, you need to sit down with paper and pencil and sketch out what topics you’re going to cover on your blog. There are all kinds of strategies for this, and all manner of opinions, so feel free to search online and read a few. Here are a couple of my posts on the subject, but seriously, read more than these:
2. Schedule time to write posts for your blog—This is the big complaint I’ve heard from writers who don’t have a blog or who never really got one going; they claim they don’t have enough time in their lives for writing new posts. To that, I say gently: hogwash. Posts needn’t be but 500-800 words for the most part (though I wouldn’t go much shorter). As a writer I keep a little tally of blog ideas in my head and in my notebook, and if I’m really busy, I feel free to sketch out a couple of paragraphs so I can return later and finish up when I have time. The big point here is not to bite off more than you can chew; whatever pace you set for yourself is what your readers will come to expect. I aim for 3–4 posts a week. And since I have such a “backlist” now I can pull up an older but still relevant post and market that link if I don’t have time on a given morning to write something new.
I admit it, getting a blog up and running takes some front-loaded time, but you will build momentum if you stick with it. And here’s another usually overlooked point: don’t start telling everyone about your blog when you’ve finished your first post. Get a few in there so folks have multiple things to read when they first land on your site. Nobody wants to hang around a wasteland.
3. Get a Twitter account and use it to market your blog and make connections—Why Twitter first? Because I think it’s the simplest and packs the most punch. Twitter, like Tumblr, is a microblogging site. Twitter is limited to 160 characters per “tweet,” or message, because once upon a time, before the popularity of smartphones, text messages were limited to 160 characters. What it means for writers is that one needs to get to the point quickly and leave enough room for a link (preferably a shortlink) to their post. Twitter is great for practicing log lines, which are usually concise. But the other good thing about Twitter for folks new to blogs is its ability to get like-minded and interested people together.
Put in a picture of your own face and your real name on your Twitter account because remember, this is your branding and your marketing. This is you finding your audience. Keep your tweets relevant and friendly. If you’re having a terrible day and got three rejections in your inbox, DO NOT TWEET IT. At least, laugh about it and tell folks you’re getting back to writing. Use the “similar to you” feature to follow other Twitter users, up to 50 new ones a day. Don’t expect them to follow you back right away. Don’t tweet about nothing, or brushing your teeth, or anything you’d find annoying if you read it from someone else. Whatever topics you selected as the focus on your blog—yoga, mountaineering, famous shipwrecks, Harry Potter—those should be the primary focus on Twitter, too. Now your blog and your Twitter account should reinforce each other.
Go to the links of the people you’re following, and comment on their blogs. Fill in that line with your URL, so readers who liked your comment can come over to your blog and see your writing. On Twitter, retweet (this is shown as RT) items other folks have written that resonated with you, or comment back to them with a reply, but don’t get overbearing.
Above all, be patient. Networks aren’t built overnight. Yes, start off by telling your friends and acquaintances that you’re working on building an online presence, but be prepared to meet total strangers online and talk to them about your and their work.
We’ve only just begun…