by Linda Thompson
I’ve seen the questions come across the 10 Minute Novelists’ feed:
What is this thing called “platform”?
Should I be building one?
How would I do it and what would I even say to the world?
I’m well familiar with the angst behind those questions. I’ve also sat squirming in front of an editor at a writers’ conference who seemed intrigued by my story, but wouldn’t take the next step because my platform metrics failed to impress. So I know that angst too!
I’m in the “pre-published” stage myself. I definitely do not have all the answers—although I have a stumbled and bumbled my way to a few tactics that are generating consistent growth for my platform. And since I’ve spent a couple decades as a marketing professional, perhaps I have a slightly different vantage point on this subject that might be worth sharing.
As a marketing professional, I see fellow authors investing their marketing effort in ways I’m pretty confident are mistakes.
“But, Linda,” I hear you say. “I don’t even have a book. Why should I worry about building my platform?”
Because social media is a bit like investing.
Your nest egg grows over time. So the earlier you start, the more time you have for your following to snowball to the point where it can give you needed momentum for your book launch. Start building your platform now then later, when it matters more, you’ll have something to brag about.
First, Some Fundamentals
“Marketing” can be a scary term, especially for the introverted writer-type! But in truth marketing is the art and science of finding the best fit between a product and an audience who will delight in it. When it’s done right, the result is the proverbial “marriage made in heaven” and mutual joy!
That’s the result we all want, right?
There was once a misconception that marketing consisted of slick people sitting around in conference rooms coming up with clever slogans designed to manipulate the public into buying stuff. Perhaps marketing looked a little more like that in the days when the main avenues to talk to buyers were mass-market channels: TV, radio, newspaper or magazine ads.
But if that was ever really the model, the Internet has largely done away with it. Today you can micro-target your exact customer. For most businesses, that makes way more sense than blaring a message out to a broad audience.
Which leads us to…
Strategy #1: Be Clear About Your Audience
Marketing today is about defining your audience as precisely as possible so you can speak directly to your highest-probability customer. I recently heard a social media maven go so far as to state that, if someone’s not your ideal customer, your marketing efforts should scare them off—so you won’t be tempted to waste time with them!
I wouldn’t go that far, but I do think of my potential platform audience as a bullseye with my highest-probability reader in the center. And where am I aiming my outreach efforts? At the center of the bullseye, for the most part. The people who not only are likely to enjoy my story, but who will also identify with the passion behind it. My “why” for writing. Those will be my “lifers” who will follow me book after book and might even be prepared to forgive me the occasional awkward sentence or flat stretch of dialog.
Which in turn leads us to…
Here is the biggest point I hope you’ll take away. I see a lot of writers who seem to spend the bulk of their time and effort talking to… other writers. Writing blog posts focused on writing. Putting up writing-themed updates on social media, tagged to #amwriting and #amediting. Exchanging follows with other writers on Instagram and Twitter.
This is a great strategy if you’re hoping to sell craft books or editing services to writers. But if you’re hoping to sell books to readers, you need to spend most of your effort developing relationships with them.
Do we need some time to recharge around Katharine’s invisible snack table with our 10 Minute besties who understand our secret struggles in our writers’ garrets? Sure. Plus, relationships with influential writers will be important when it’s time to seek endorsements.
But at some point, we need to leave the space where the (virtual) coffee is warm and the donuts are fresh, and get out there and talk to readers.
My novel is based on a true story. In 1942, my protagonist watched her little brother die on the street, a casualty of the first Allied bombing raid on Japan.
By 1948, the war has reduced her to a street-hardened prostitute consumed by her shame. The U.S. airman responsible for her brother’s death returns to Japan as a Christian missionary. She resolves to restore her honor by avenging her brother’s death—even if it will cost her own life.
An author friend of mine put it this way. My best reader will be someone who cares about three things—Christian faith, military aviation history, Asian culture. My second-best reader will be someone who’s passionate about two of the three, but I can convince them to care about the third.
So my “bulls-eye” reader will be a passionate Christian who is also interested in military history and in Asian cultures. They’re going to skew middle-aged or older and conservative in values. They might well be veterans or members of military households. I believe my storyline has appeal for both men and women, but women read more fiction, and more historical fiction, so on balance, I expect more female readers.
Wow, that’s pretty specific. Is that audience big enough?
According to Facebook’s ad manager, that audience has hundreds of thousands of English-speaking members. Definitely enough to make my li’l old book a success, if I connect with them.
I certainly hope these will not be the only people who will read my novel—it’s a bit like preaching to the choir. But the choir is the best place to generate some volume. These should be the people who will line up to buy my book at launch and give it awesome reviews so other readers will discover it. This is another great way to build my platform.
Strategy #2: Show Up Where Your Audience Is
Understand how they shop for books. Understand how they read—print, Kindle, iBooks etc.
Above all, understand where to find them on social media. I try to make myself visible on Facebook groups for people who fit my target audience—in fact, it’s been my most productive tactic so far. I started by friending a few people who post regularly in each group. I get notifications when those friends post, so I get reminded to go see what’s up in the group.
Quite a few of those folks have supported my author page and my blog.
Katharine Grubb’s wonderful eBook, Conquering Twitter in Ten Minutes a Day, has some great strategies for finding your people on Twitter.
Mistake #2: Focusing Marketing Efforts on Avid Readers
What? Didn’t you just tell me to focus on readers?
Yes, but there are readers and then there are those who identify as avid readers. And this one is probably not a mistake, but it’s a tactic many writers appear to rely on too much. The right strategy will make all the difference in your platform.
Let me expand on what I mean. Goodreads, Bookbub, Facebook groups like “Books Place” are all tools for reaching the avid reader. Unfortunately, in our day and age, those readers are a small percentage of the total audience. Absolutely, we should reach out to them. But viral sales won’t happen there—and to be honest, I’m actually suspicious authors outnumber readers on those venues!
Our best sales success will “only happen when we mobilize that fat part of the bell curve—those who aren’t avid readers but will read one or two books per year—yet these people are, by definition, the hardest to impress.” (Kristen Lamb, Rise of the Machines: Human Authors in a Digital World. Awesome book on book marketing if you haven’t read it.)
Classic book marketing strategies won’t work for these fat-bell-curve readers. If they ever even see our “buy my book” ads, they’ll take one glance, think, “Fair enough, if you’re one of those readers” and move on.
That’s why you need to be hanging out where your targeted, non-avid reader hangs out. Because they’re way more likely to choose your book for their one or two a year if they have some kind of relationship with you.
Strategy #3: Be Clear about Your Message
You don’t have a novel yet. But the goal is to start collecting a “tribe” who’s interested in the kind of stories you tell. Your novel is about something bigger than that specific story. You can start collecting an audience around your stance on that something bigger—your big themes.
Trust me, you don’t have to “be someone” to garner an audience on Twitter or Instagram. There are tons of accounts with big followings that we don’t even know who they are in real life! All you need is to be able to curate content that:
- Interests and engages your target reader and
- Makes you likeable and trustworthy to them
Post content on Twitter a LOT—it doesn’t have to be your own content, it can be retweets—and then look at Katharine’s book for ways to identify your target readers. Go out and introduce yourself to them by following aggressively. As long as your tweets resonate with your target reader, your following should grow over time. (People are more grudging with their “likes” on Facebook. Maybe Katharine will let me cover some details of the tactics I’ve picked up there in another post.)
Hint: if your content is mostly “let me tell you about my writing,” it’s probably not going to be as effective as you might wish, especially if your book is further out on the time horizon! A little of that is okay… you want people to know you’re hard at work on your novel. But mostly, you want to post about those big themes we discussed earlier.
In my case, I post about bold Biblical Christianity; about patriotism and WWII history; and to a lesser degree about Japanese culture. That might not make me interesting, likeable or trustworthy to your reader, but it seems to be reaching mine.
Strategy #4: Relax. It’s Actually Fun!
I thought “building a platform” would be scary and a huge time sink. And to some extent it is. But on the other hand, you’re probably writing for your audience because you like them. So it’s not actually that hard to put out your “I’m an Author” shingle (or do the modern equivalent—put up your Facebook author page 😊 ) and get out (virtually speaking) and mingle with them. In essence that’s what you’re being asked to do.
Linda Thompson has spent decades as a marketing professional, solving business strategy and awareness problems for technology companies. She’s published a long list of trade-journal articles and marketing literature, but The Plum Blooms in Winter is her first novel. Based on a true story from the pivotal Doolittle Raid of World War II, the manuscript won the 2016 American Christian Fiction Writer’s Genesis contest in the historical category. Linda is represented by Sarah Joy Freese of WordServe Literary. Linda blogs on the topic of Five Stones and a Sling: Stories of Reckless Faith at lthompsonbooks.com/blog.