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While working on the next post in this series, a client shared with me their logic model for a re-brand. Because they are a large organization, re-branding is a huge undertaking. It’s more of a refresh to update their look and clarify their internal and external brand experience. I manage a couple of their media projects so I get to see the evolution of their process.
Any time we build or revise what we have built, it takes clarity.
One area where a writer can be clear, is why you write. It’s a part of your branding and can lead to community engagement, credibility and be the reason your audience reads what you have to express.
My client shared a TEDtalk video that is one of the best explanations as to why “why” matters. Think of this as a sidebar to what we are discussing in this writer’s platform series. Take five minutes to better understand the power of why:
So how can you have an inspired writer’s platform? Begin with why you write. Not what you write or how, but why. Is that a part of your blog? Your bio? Is it part of what you share in your community? People are going to connect with why.
I’m intrigued by the application of this idea to a writer’s platform. I look at my own bio and read what and how. Why do I write? That is a question we all need to answer with clarity. What do you think?
Eight years old and sitting in Mrs. Coyan’s living room, she served me sugar cookies and tea in real china cups with dainty pink flowers. On the hillside below her house I found broken purple glass, square nails and chips of china. It was a trail I used to get to the creek that flowed through the town where I had recently moved. I never missed an opportunity to pick up old broken bits.
Mrs. Coyan who was my age times ten, with her tightly curled white perm and silver-rimmed glasses, smiled at me when I compared the cup to my collected treasure. She confided that the hillside was once a household dump. Imagine that! Who would throw away china? I held on tighter to my cup lest it became a casualty to refuse.
A lonely child in a mountain mining town found community among the old-timers. Each was housebound so I did the walking and visiting. Visits meant cookies, tea, sometimes beer, and always stories. I learned that if you wanted to better yourself in life you got an education. Mrs. Coyan told me that. To get an education, you had to read or so Mr. Parker said and he told me which books to check out from the library.
Eloise paid me a quarter to deliver her beer. She’d pop the top on her Coors, adjust the patch over her one missing eye and tell me how she used to ride her horse over the rugged Sierra Mountains to inspect the telegraph lines between towns that no longer existed.
From my first memorable community, I gained stories, a craving for adventure and a life-long love of learning and history. And a taste for tea in china cups.
In this series, Decoding the Writer’s Platform, we are examining four components of the platform itself. Later we will discuss how to apply the platform to gain greater visibility. Part II and Part III cover the basic foundation for branding. This is who you are as a writer. The next step is to build a solid community.
Your social media followers are not your audience.
This is what a keynote speaker said at a writers conference I attended in LA. It’s the comment that got me puzzling over just what is a writer’s platform and what’s the difference between community, followers and audience? If social media followers are not my audience, then why am I working so hard to get them?
Before attending the conference, my manuscript received a rejection from a publisher because I needed to “shore up my social media presence.” To me, this meant I didn’t have enough audience and the publisher had concerns regarding my contribution to selling copies of my book.
However, after hearing the keynote, I was no longer certain. At this same time, several of my writing peers were also pondering their commitment to social media. While many enjoy the social aspects, they questioned its effectiveness for their platform.
Using my marketing background and insight gained from the conference, I turned the phrases in my mind like a Rubik’s Cube. If we are building a writer’s platform what is the basic goal? Visibility. That’s when it finally occurred to me that there were two crucial steps between who we are as writers and who will read our books.
Between branding and audience is community and credibility.
Furthermore, I could clearly see how traditional publishing relies more on credibility and independent publishing relies more on community. Everyone is reaching for the prize — audience. Yet, we don’t take time to clearly define our audience. We confuse it with followers and friendly networks. Coming from a retail marketing background I know the importance of defining a target audience.
Coming from the cooperative industry, I also know the importance of building community around an authentic brand. So the keynote was right — your followers are not your audience. They are either your credibility (the more followers, the more likely you have influence) or your community (followers that you network among).
It’s important that you are authentic in your writer’s brand and clear about who you are and why you write because you will engage in many important communities as you build visibility. Successful engagement can lead to credibility and expand your audience.
We have countless clusters of community over a lifetime.
My childhood community of old-timers was relevant to shaping the person I’d become and the writer I would later be. We have these influences surrounding us including, our family of origin, grammar schooling, work experience, college, career, partnerships, extended family, friends, associates, social media. We could brainstorm extensive lists based on our specific interests alone.
With so many spheres of influence, no wonder we get overwhelmed. Community requires relationship building, and different communities require more or less levels of engagement. We also have the power to influence the spheres that influence us.
So which communities matter?
Each person might answer differently, but our personal, spiritual and professional communities most likely take priority. How our writing fits into our lives makes a difference too. For example, when I was raising three children and working full-time, fiction writing was a sporadic luxury. Now I write full-time and stay mindful of my spouse. We each find our balance within our primary communities.
The communities that matter to your writer’s platform are ones that:
- help you learn the industry,
- keep you growing in your craft,
- form the beginnings of your readership and fan-base,
- become trusted peers who can help you achieve your goals.
Your writing community is made up of many sub communities (think of those clusters). For every community yours touches, you extend your reach. It’s a hierarchy that begins to look like a robust family tree.
You want to build your community thoughtfully. Explore other writers within your genre and from other genres. Look for value. Whether you write romance, humor or educational materials, you want to connect with others who value your writing and whose writing you value. Look for peers and mentors. Offer assistance to someone who asks. Be polite. If another blogger follows your blog, at least look at theirs. Follow if it appeals to you, engage if you feel a connection and move on if you don’t.
The best core community to build is one of kindred spirits.
We each might define kindred spirits differently, and I define mine as writers who are enthusiastic about the craft of creative writing; who uphold the pillars of literature through shared reading, writing and discussion; who want to publish the best they can; and who inspire and encourage others.
Why? Because my goal is to publish novels, but my vision is to connect with writers and readers in a meaningful way. I believe in the power of imagination to create literature that moves hearts, minds and feet.
You might define kindred spirits as cat-loving romance writers who are shy. Or bold steampunk writers who want to shake up the institutional genres. Or occasional writers with casual ambitions. What matters is that you seek a core community that best fits your brand. Not only will it bring you personal enjoyment, but it makes professional sense, too.
After I left my job and moved back out west, I also left a trusted writer’s critique group. I couldn’t find one in my small community. My first year in Idaho, I drove two hours through a snowstorm to attend the closest NaNoWriMo launch party only to discover writers that had different goals and ideas about writing. I thought about attending Boise State’s MFA program but I didn’t want the debt. I found friendly content writers online, but only a few wrote creatively.
Not only did I yearn for a community of kindred spirits, I needed a core community to build literary credibility. My career had veered far from my creative writing undergrad degree. I also wanted to practice craft with other writers the way musicians get together and jam for fun.
So I created my own sandbox community, and transformed my business writing website into an imaginary literary ranch. Yes, Carrot Ranch was an intentional community. However, I had no idea who would show up. I believe that my brand — who I am as a writer — attracted those kindred writers who connected with the idea of weekly jam sessions, are talented creative writers who challenge themselves in craft and benefit from the discussion-oriented community.
From that, the Congress of Rough Writers was born, creating a core literary community of writers from around the globe.
From my core community, I have gained much value. Experience, knowledge and open discussions. I’ve engaged with other communities that have led to important connections, such as #1000Speak and a better understanding of both the traditional and indie publishing paths.
Community matters. It’s the fuel you need to drive your craft into creation.
Even big traditional publishers are overhauling their websites to improve reader engagement because they recognize the importance of community to audience. We all have communities. Feed the ones that influence you in important ways, just as those old-timers once shaped my young life. And be influential in a way that benefits others.
And consider this: it’s easier to grow exponentially within a community than it is on your own.
Basics are important. When I was advanced to a pre-algerbra class in 7th-grade, I missed crucial math basics that were taught that year in regular class. It wasn’t until I was 30-years-old that I would learn those missed basics. Suddenly math wasn’t so difficult. That’s why I’m breaking down the components of the platform so you can understand the basics and decide how to use each as a building block.
The purpose of this series is to teach other writers the marketing basics that form what a writer’s platform is and how to use it.
For twelve years, I was marketing communications manager for a natural foods cooperative in Minnesota. I built a national reputation as a brand manager: I built the co-op’s brand through communicating stories, wrote a brand case study for a marketing workbook, presented workshops on the topic and was the subject of numerous magazine articles. When I left, I freelanced over 30 articles on branding.
My personal brand evolved from my specialty; I was the Brand Buckaroo. It stuck in the minds of those I worked with, taught and networked among. I had fun with the buckaroo image, even though I was strict with our store’s branding. I created a western-themed “Branding 101” continuing education course for our workplace. Thus, staff nicknamed me, “The Sheriff.”
When I turned over the store brand to my predecessor, I kept my buckaroo image. After all, I truly was born into a buckaroo culture which shaped my natural inclination for story-telling, and I was headed west to write. I had to shape a new idea for my platform because I was identified with business and freelancing when I wanted to be identified with literary writing. Buckaroo writer and Carrot Ranch became my branding foundation.
My strongest writer’s platform component is branding. This is also an example of how your platform does not have to be like mine. I love branding, I understand it at a deep level and I use it strategically. It’s fine for you to have a simple brand that others experience. But you need to think about what it is.
As a writer, you are the brand; how others experience you and your writing is branding.
A brand creates physical, emotional and intellectual triggers in the mind of the reader. A writer’s brand is unique, identifiable and visual.
Your name, photos and even the symbols, fonts and colors that you use in your social media, marketing collateral and public relations all add up to your brand. Writers are like cupcakes: the outcome between cake, frosting and decoration is endless. Build your brand like a cupcake and be consistent thereafter.
You don’t change who you are once a month, so don’t change your brand after you’ve established it. Keep your brand as close to who you authentically are, what you write and what you publish. Be your own cupcake and maintain your personal recipe.
This doesn’t mean you can’t re-brand. Sometimes it takes a year or two to get a feel for who we are as a writer. Sometimes we begin with free templates or generic colors and fonts to set up our initial presence. As you evolve, so will your brand. Therefore, let your brand grow into something more definitive.
Take a vanilla-chai cupcake, for example. In the beginning, you put out a flavor that rocks the cupcake world. But your cupcake looks, well, overly vanilla. You spice up the look, give the decoration a flair and you’ve re-branded. But it is still the cupcake others have come to recognize and want. You are still the same writer.
What if you no longer want to be a vanilla-chai cupcake? Maybe you started out writing romances because that was the easiest way for you to earn money as a writer. Now you want to write epic political thrillers, definitely a jalapeno-dark-chocolate kind of cupcake. You are a different writer. Develop a new brand (that’s why some writers have multiple pen names, thus multiple brands). Keep in mind that managing multiple brands consistently is complicated.
Branding goes beyond the visual cues and becomes an experience.
Branding occurs the moment a reader takes a bite of your cupcake. You are not in complete control of your branding. No matter what you do, you can’t make every person like your cupcake. Maybe someone likes the idea of vanilla-chai and someone else thinks it looks too bland. Both may or may not like the taste. It’s perception. And you can’t waste your time trying to change the perception of another. Focus on those who connect to your brand.
Your branding is based on how others experience your:
- Image of who you are as a writer
- Quality and style of your writing
- Level of professional manners
- Emotional, intellectual or physical connection with your readers
Branding is how others experience the visual cues of who you are as a writer. The quality and style of your writing adds to that image. How you treat others on your blog, their blog, Amazon reviews, at book signings, in the media or in correspondence to publishers is a measure of your professionalism. Think of this as manners or customer service. All this leads to connectivity with others, or not.
If your branding isn’t connecting with others, go back to the most basic element of who you are as a writer.
Be authentically who you are: that writer who likes ballet, lyrical sentences and collects Victorian dolls. Or that writer who wiggles at the sound of a race car revving an engine, collects all things Coke-a-Cola and writes terse dystopian YA. Don’t be pictures of your iguana or sprinkle your website with cartoon butterflies if you write modern spy novels, unless you can tie it to who you are as a writer in a way that others would understand.
Think about your own attributes, interests and strengths. Think about personal relationships.
- What do you connect with about yourself?
- Why do you write?
- Who do you connect with as a kindred spirit?
- How do others perceive you?
- Ask a friend or family member to be a mirror of you at your best.
Think about longevity. Will your branding work in the future? My buckaroo brand has been with me throughout my career. It evolved from marketer to writer, and is something I can imagine in the future. I can visualize myself at 92, wearing my buckaroo hat and turquoise boots to a book signing. That I arrived by walker or horse doesn’t matter. That my book is a western, eco-thriller or chick-lit doesn’t matter, either. The buckaroo is me, not my books. My branding is built around my ability to tell stories and make emotional connections: Wrangling words for people, roping stories for novels.
Let’s examine some existing brands so you can get a feel for branding and how it works for a writer’s platform.
Norah Roberts. Her official website is clean, professional and has a romantic flair without being over-the-top. Her picture is fun and you can almost imagine her as one of her jet-setting characters. Even her husband fits the brand of a handsome spouse to the world’s top romance writer. The colors are modern and not gender specific (no obvious pinks or frills). Go to her blog and you might be surprised to find it plain and simple. She’s approachable, enjoys fun times among girlfriends, uses party-left-overs to make a vat of chicken soup and has the same complaints as others on the east coast about the long winter. Her branding is engaging and despite her opulent life, she connects with her readers by being her authentic self. Note: go to her J.D. Robb page and see how different the branding is there.
Clive Cussler. Actually, his website is under a re-brand, which is good because the design looks dated. It is heavily focused on his many books, but note that a photo of him dominates over the bookselling. Clive Cussler is the brand. He makes a surprising statement: “I have never considered myself as much a writer as an entertainer.” His branding is that he is the grandmaster of adventure. He’s lived a life worthy of fictionalized tales in adventurous novels. He is not as approachable as Norah Roberts, but he welcomes readers to his website and feels present. He does not blog. All his books are housed on this one platform.
Wine Wankers. This is blog is one of the best blogging success stories from branding to community to credibility to audience. Conrad (one of the wankers team) was among the first to follow my blog. I thought he was a nutcase. His picture made me think that this was some creepy dude that I would not want to follow anywhere, but I do look at other bloggers’ sites when they follow me. I laughed when I got to the site and read, “Smile 🙂 You’re at the best wine blog ever!” Why does this creepy picture work? First of all, it actually represents the three-man team with a knack for branding humor. The other part of their branding is an authentic enjoyment of wine beyond the pretense of the industry. It’s a wine blog for the common person who happens to love wine. They are Australian, thus they focus on their region. From their branding and community they built up credibility and the site is among the most influential on the internet. And you bet that equates to a large audience.
Here’s a chart of branding specifics that you can use to define who you are as a writer to others:
Tell me about your branding in the comments. Do you feel it is an important component of your platform? Why or why not?
“The 4 Building Blocks of a Writer’s Platform”
You will find a surplus of media discussing the writer’s platform. It’s a writer’s visibility and what a writer uses to sell books. It stands in the balance between craft and creation.
Mostly, articles on the topic agree, but each article offers different examples of building blocks. It can seem overwhelming. You might look at all the gathered lists and think, “I have to do all that?”
First, understand two points of differentiation:
- You build a writer’s platform.
- You use your platform to sell books.
Often articles about platforms mesh these two points, combining building with application. Yet, if you were to build a boat, you wouldn’t include steps in your blueprint that described how to sail it. Sailing the boat is different.
What can get confusing with platform building is that we continue to build after we’ve set sail. Think of these two aspects (building and application) as separate systems that work together in harmony with our writing craft.
As you can see in the graphic, a platform is a two-cog accompaniment to the big gear of writing. This series will examine what a writer’s platform is and define it’s components clearly before getting to the system of application.
A writer’s platform is characterized by four building blocks:
All those ways to build platform listed in most articles can be placed in one of these four categories. It might bring relief to know that you have four blocks with which to build. It also might encourage you to know that different writers can focus successfully on different block configurations or thickness.
Writers don’t need to conform to one platform fits all.
A tactic is a means to an end. In marketing, a tactic is the action to accomplish a goal. When you read articles that list ways to build platform, you can categorize the tactics before deciding if it is one for you. Use the ones that fit your goals.
Not all writers write for the same reasons or expect the same outcomes.
For example, the following is from a Writer’s Digest blog article about building a writer’s platform:
- A website and/or blog with a large readership
- An e-newsletter and/or mailing list with a large number of subscribers/recipients
- Article/column writing (or correspondent involvement) for the media—preferably for larger outlets and outlets within the writer’s specialty
- Guest contributions to successful websites, blogs, and periodical
- A track record of strong past book sales
- Individuals of influence that you know—personal contacts (organizational, media, celebrity, relatives) who can help you market at no cost to yourself, whether through blurbs, promotion, or other means
- Public speaking appearances—the bigger, the better
- An impressive social media presence (Twitter, Facebook, and the like)
- Membership in organizations that support the successes of their own
- Recurring media appearances and interviews—in print, on the radio, on TV, or online
All ten tactics are valid and from an expert, Chuck Sambuchino, who wrote an entire book on the topic. However, I don’t know about you, but when I read this I feel doomed to fail already. Public speaking appearances? A track record? Impressive?
Let me break down the list for you and then you’ll understand why it’s intimidating. Numbers 1 and 2 are audience. Numbers 3-10 are credibility. No one starts out an expert, yet this list reflects that level of expertise.
If you are an aspiring, new or emerging author it can be discouraging to believe this is what you have to do to build a platform. You start with what materials you have and you build up.
You don’t get to the master level without a platform.
This is why it’s important to understand that all those articles list tactics that you can categorize. Some articles confuse audience with community or brand with credibility. It’s important to recognize the difference and be able to pick and choose tactics according to your purpose.
From a marketing perspective, a successful writer’s platform is like a staircase building up from the bottom:
First you establish your brand because the platform is about who you are as a writer. This is your platform, not your cat’s. You build community, credibility and eventually that ever-so-important audience. This would be a strategy for building your platform.
In truth, our efforts probably look more like a game of Tetris:
And, we might focus more on building with one block category over the other. That’s fine as long as you understand that different tactics achieve different results. Once you get building, you’ll also notice that certain tactics overlap others.
Be sure to give thought to each building block in your platform.
Over the next four weeks, I will focus on each category. I am also looking for volunteers to use as case studies. The benefit to you is that I will help you understand your own platform building efforts. If you are interested, please shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
It’s no mystery that if you are going to be a writer who wants to be read you will need to establish a writer’s platform. In fact, a platform is a vital component to getting published. Literary agents, publishers and even indie or hybrid outlets will most likely expect you to have one established.
Craft is what you write whether you compose graphic novels, memoirs, poetry, genre fiction or academic literature. The end product in print or online is your creation. Platform stands in the balance between craft and creation:
With my first manuscript up for sale, I’ve given much thought to my own writer’s platform. Because I have a background in marketing communications, I have an understanding about basic marketing principles.
A platform launches one’s writing the way a rocket platform launches a space shuttle.
Despite the abundance of media on the subject of platform, I still felt that some areas were nebulous. How can my platform be a shining star for my career if its obscured in space fog? I need to clarify just what my platform is and how it can be effective to my goals.
And let’s pause and consider career and goals for a moment. The reason platforms are different is because different writers have different goals; different publishers have different expectations; thus different platform serve different roles. As you read, consider where you are at on the writing career spectrum:
There’s no right or wrong to why you write. It might satisfy your need to express and you enjoy creating word art among other word artists. You might have a compelling story to share. Maybe you’ve harbored a dream to be published one day. You might even decide that an income-generating career from written communication is one to pursue.
Be clear and know why you write. It matters to your platform.
March 28-29, 2015 I attended the LA BinderCon, “a symposium to empower women and gender non‑conforming writers with tools, connections, and strategies to advance their careers.” I was a scholarship recipient and expressed my need to better understand where I was in my writing career. I built a social media platform, a literary community and have a publishable manuscript. What next?
My biggest light-bulb burning moment clicked when I recognized certain repeated themes, community being one. I also asked questions, listened and came home with gaps in my knowledge filled. I was inspired to return to my personal essay roots after believing that outlet was long dead. I better understand how the markets have shifted, not declined.
Richard Bach once said, “We teach best what we most need to learn.” With that thought in mind, the best way for me to assimilate all the knowledge and information I gained in LA at BinderCon is to break it down into a series of posts. After much consideration, I see that decoding the writer’s platform is essential to my success and most likely to yours.
In fact, many in my community are deliberating issues stemming from platform building. Some mention the workload and others question its effectiveness. Norah Colvin wrote recently about Making Choices. Yes, we do. And I hope I can share timely and practical insights so that you can feel confident and good about the choices you need to make regarding your writer’s platform.
Therefore, I’ll combine what I gained with what I know about marketing in a series, Decoding the Writer’s Platform. Here is what I’ve outlined:
- The 4 Building Blocks of a Writer’s Platform
- Building Block 1: Branding
- Building Block 2: Community
- Building Block 3: Credability
- Building Block 4: Audience
- What You Do with Your Platform
- Time Management & Effectiveness
- Keeping Craft Creative
- Why Community Matters
- Platform Tips From the Stars
As this develops, I welcome comments to foster discussion of this topic. Examples of what you’ve learned, stories of success and questions will help us all as we decode the foundation of our careers as writers, whether we write for fun, business or realms in between.