I recently did a session on social media for writers at NESCBWI and got such great feedback that I decided to make the info available for everyone here. Let’s get into it.
My Philosophy on Branding and Platform Development:
If you’re a writer, you’ve likely heard the arguments about needing or not needing a platform or brand online. I’ve read that only nonfiction authors really need a platform, and that fiction writers should forget about it. I’ve also read that branding is somehow inauthentic, so it should be avoided at all costs. But here’s the thing: whether or not you need a brand or a platform is irrelevant. Why is that?
Because you’re going to have a brand and a platform anyway. If you’re online (and you should be), you will already be presenting yourself in such a way that people will be forming opinions about you. (That’s a brand!) You will already be known for something, whether it’s your sunny attitude, your penchant for swearing, or your amazing cat photos. There will be a general vibe and flavor you have online, whether or not you intend it. (That’s a platform!)
So, say it with me: I already have a platform. I already have a brand.
Now, since you’ve already got a platform and a brand, my vote is that you begin to craft it intentionally. Again, forget whether or not you need one—because it’s already there. So let’s get deliberate about it in a way that feels right to you, puts you in front of the right readers, and makes you wonderful connections that will help to sustain your creativity and your career, shall we? I promise, intention always beats out luck, so let’s get to work.
YOU WILL BE GOOGLED– How to foster genuine relationships using social media (without annoying the bleep out of everyone.)
As many of you know, I’m a huge fan of social media. I love hanging out and meeting people on Twitter, making videos, and ogling everybody’s instagrams and facebook posts. At its heart, social media is an incredible way to build your network of friends and readers, bonus—it can also help you grow your career. I found my agent, and the editors for both of my book series via relationships on twitter! But more importantly, social media has given me a place to fine tune my own writing niche, and interact with people who inspire me every day.
But social media can be a source of frustration and annoyance (or worse, jealousy and time-suckage). Like everything else, approaching it with a healthy attitude is key. Coming up, I’ll share my tips on what works for me. Of course, we’re all different and have different barometers of success, so take it all with a big ol’ grain of salt. I am NOT some social media guru or whatnot, claiming to have your next ten thousand followers in the bag. In fact, soon you’ll see that the number of followers is pretty much the last thing on my priority list.
First, I’ll start with a little story.
When I was first getting to know Twitter (years ago!), I was overwhelmed. So many hashtags! So many incredible people to follow! After hanging around a little bit and meeting some friends, I decided to start a hashtag. I wanted something fun, that would help me build some relationships and show people what I was all about. I decided to call it #KeatingCreature — and started tweeting out a weekly weird or cool animal, coupled with a quick fact or two, and a picture. Here’s an example:
I was surprised how quickly it took off! People came out of the woodwork and helped spread the tweets, but it also gave me a chance to chat with like-minded people. (This is a great example of how the things you post won’t intrigue everybody, but if stay true to what you love, you WILL find your people!)
So, I kept sharing creatures and chatting with people. I met a lot of awesome people through this one hashtag alone. One day, this happened:
Holy moly! Who is Katherine Harrison, you ask? Only one of the coolest editors around! My agent and I had previously chatted with Katherine a few times, and the minute she tweeted this, I pretttty much flipped out. The cool thing was, I was drafting my nonfiction book PINK IS FOR BLOBFISH at the time, all about weird animals. As you can guess, she was first on our list when the manuscript was ready, and amazingly, it was a perfect fit! And more fun: book 2 is coming out next year!
Now, to be clear, I’m not saying that twitter is WHY we sold the book. I still had to work my butt off, write a great book, and do all the hard work. But having a relationship with someone online before you start talking business can help both parties get a feel for each other. I already knew I adored Katherine, because I’d gotten to spend time chatting with her and reading her tweets.
Another fun story: Years ago, I also began chatting online with an author of funny middle grade books. I always loved her writing style, and thought it was similar to my own (unpubbed) book, HOW TO OUTRUN A CROCODILE WHEN YOUR SHOES ARE UNTIED. As I got to know her, she mentioned how much she loved working with her editor, the incredible Aubrey Poole, who has a hilarious sense of humor and spot on MG flair.
It took about ten milliseconds to realize, “Hmm…maybe I should check this amazing Aubrey out!” Fast forward a little while (because publishing is slow), and Aubrey ended up being perfect for the book, and gave us a wonderful home for the story, and two others in the series. Would my agent and I have found this awesome editor without social media? Sure. But never underestimate the power that tiny coincidences can have in your life!
Long story short, social media will NOT make or break your efforts as a writer. But it can definitely leverage your success.
There is a whole slew of people I know and love online, that I may or may not work with one day. Either way, it’s awesome knowing them, because they inspire me. That’s key.
Reading a story like this, it’s easy to think the best part of social media is the “business” connections you can make. But guess what—that side pales in comparison with the real fun: social media is where your readers are. Editors and industry people are wonderful to chat with online, and don’t discount them when you’re starting to navigate different platforms. (And sidenote: please, be cool out there, and do NOT pitch anyone anything unless you are asked to!)
But I love social media because it allows me to interact with readers, the people who are in the book trenches every day. Teachers, librarians, booksellers, educators, and students. Being an author isn’t an easy gig, and getting to spend time with like-minded book lovers is good for the soul. Since portkeys haven’t been invented yet, social media just might be our best alternative.
BEFORE WE BEGIN. SOME GOALS:
There are good goals and bad goals when it comes to social media (and everything else, really.)
Bad goals revolve around things you can’t control. Here’s a bad social media goal:
“I want J.K Rowling to follow me and endorse my book!”
Dream big, sure! But that’s a dream. Not a goal. Last time I checked, I can’t actually control Rowling OR her literary likes and dislikes. (womp womp.)
When you’re approaching social media, it’s good to have goals that revolve around you, your feelings, and what you can offer. Stuff like:
“I want to find my people!”
“I want to be inspired!”
“I want to learn/laugh/discover something new!”
“I want to expand my network of friends!”
And my personal favorite:
“I want to feel genuine while I’m doing this!”
Social media is a way to find your people, pure and simple. It’s not about pretending to be something. Or trying to get a billion people to follow you. Or landing some book deal. It’s about trying to find your people, by expressing yourself in a genuine way. Forget followers. Go for friends and people who inspire you. Think of it like landing your dream spouse. You could pretend to be someone else, and maybe convince them to love you. But isn’t it a waste of time if you’re not really being you? How annoying would it be to have to pretend all the time? With social media, you find your people by putting yourself out there, weirdo traits and all.
Finally, some tips. I offer these up purely as a way to help you stay genuine out there. This is my playbook on how to approach social media in a way that’s healthy, genuine, and leave you feeling inspired and energized, rather than exhausted and drained. Here we go!
#1. YOU GOT THIS.
I meet a lot of writers sniffing out social media and wondering what platforms they should join. They’re often overwhelmed, and there’s often this tone of panic about what they should or shouldn’t be doing. All of it? None of it? My first tip is to just relax. You got this. You are totally in control of everything you post. And if you don’t like certain platforms—guess what—you can quit and we won’t fault you! My best advice here is to not worry about the ‘shoulds’ of social media. Just have fun and approach it with a playful attitude.
#2. YOUR CORNER OF THE INTERNET IS YOUR ZOO-YOU GET TO PICK THE EXHIBITS.
Everybody approaches social media in their own way. Some people are funny. Some are snarky. Some are purely informational. One of the best ways to decide “what the heck do I even want to talk about?” is to look at your audience. You’re a writer. Don’t forget that. Do you write funny books? Scary books? The tone or flavor of your social media can be a really great way to expand your style. If you’re in doubt, look to your actual books and the stuff that inspires you for help. Start small, zoos aren’t built in a day.
#3. ADD VALUE.
I know, that’s pretty nebulous. But it’s important to remember that at literally every turn in your career as a writer, people are looking to you to add some value to their lives. You’re a person. But as a writer, you’re also “that name on the shelf”, selling something. This holds true whether you’re a brand new writer, or a bestselling author. Why do you need to add value? Because it’s fun, and it makes people enjoy ‘being around’ you!
You are NOT selling to your social media friends, but if you add value to their lives, there is a good chance that they will notice your books on a shelf one day, and think positively about it, and you. Maybe they buy your book? Or maybe they just smile. But any sort of “hey, I know that person! She’s great!” is a wonderful thing. Why? Because it’s nice to make people feel happy, and we’re all on TeamKidlit around here.
#4. HOW TO ADD VALUE? FIND AND EMBRACE YOUR INNER WEIRDO.
When preparing this chat, I decided to do some digging and find some of my “most popular” posts. I’m a zoologist turned author, so maybe I was expecting some profound, thought provoking stuff! But alas, THIS is what I found:
My most popular tweets are either ridiculous, or me quoting someone else! This last one was literally just a little ‘hang in there’ message that ALL writers can empathize with. I kept digging, and came up with these other “top posts”.
Some pretty thought-provoking stuff, right? DUCKS IN TUTUS.
The point here is, your inner weirdo is your compass to finding your people. I genuinely like weird animal news (like that reindeer patronus–hello!) so that’s something that makes me happy to share. So you’ve got to ask yourself, what genuinely makes you you? Then, share that stuff! Risk being seen in all of your glory.
- your weird talents, passions, likes and dislikes (I make a lot of friends online because I tweet about popcorn, no jokes)
- things that inspire you (even if you’re afraid it’s unpopular, like Edward Cullen or something. It’s okay. Own it. There are plenty of other twihards out there)
- the way you work! (people LOVE to see how others create, and how your work progresses)
- things that make you laugh/cry/think/wonder/feel literally anything at all
Never worry that what you’re sharing “isn’t right” for social media. If you love making pies-tweet those pies! You will find other pie people! If you knit scarves out of dog fur, show them off! Before I signed with my agent, the incredible Kat Rushall, we tweeted each other about cheese and garden gnomes. Seriously. Not only is she now my writing partner in crime, I now consider her one of my closest friends. All because we were open about sharing a love of dairy.
When you’re share the stuff that genuinely interests you, you can continue building those relationships knowing you’re being yourself, rather than trying to pretend for the sake of “getting someone to like you”. It’s rewarding, but most of all, fun.
#5. NOT EVERYONE WILL LOVE YOU, AND THAT’S A GOOD THING.
Since I’m an children’s book author and former zoologist with a love of comedy and the bizarre, a lot of the stuff I share revolves around kidlit, animals, science, and generally weird stuff going on in the world. This is great, but it also happens to pair perfectly with the types of BOOKS I write, so any kid checking me out on social media won’t get whiplash and wonder if they found “the right me”.
But, there are people that DON’T want to see ducks in cupcake wrapper tutus! (Crazy, right?) And those people just might unfollow me, and look for others that are more in tune with what they want to see and read. And this is a GREAT thing! Because I know that the people who DO enjoy it, well, those are my people!
#6. THIS SOUNDS LIKE A LOT OF WORK. INSTEAD, CREATE AND CURATE.
Coming up with interesting stuff for your people takes work. But luckily, you don’t need to always be on. One of the great things about social media is that pretty much every platform has a really easy way to share the posts of others. USE THEM. Repost! Retweet! Reblog! Retumble! (or whatever.)
You know what happens when you share the tweets or work of others?
- Your friends and followers get to enjoy some fun content, and that makes you and them happy.
- The original creator gets to see “hey! my stuff is being shared! that’s awesome!” and feels like a champ
Most of the time when I share the posts of others, they thank me. This is ANOTHER great way to connect, and boom-you just found more of your people. I firmly believe you could build a thriving social media experience by just boosting others up. Don’t discount the merits of just being nice!
#7. WHEN YOU CAN’T BE INTERESTING, BE INTERESTED.
This is a biggie. I often meet authors who want to start being more “social” online, but they don’t know where to start. When in doubt, just reach out to other people. Don’t lie or say something you don’t really mean! But DO reach out to the people who inspire you, or the people you’re thankful to have in your digital life. Tweet them! Thank them for their great book/post/picture/etc. Ask them questions! One thing that we all share is the desire to be validated—to be seen by others in a way that reflects what we feel we can offer. We want to know when people like our work, or have questions or thoughts about it. Don’t be shy, be interested.
#8. EVERYONE IS IMPORTANT.
And now, a warning. We live in a time when there are authors and celebrities and famous folk with gazillions of followers. They are lovely people! But they are NOT more important than anyone else, especially when it comes to you finding your people. It’s easy to want someone famous to follow you, or like your book or whatever, but literally everyone who is reading your posts is a potential friend, reader, and influencer. Remember what I said about social media being where your readers are? Don’t forget that. They are the people you write for—talk to them! Don’t fall into the trap of not appreciating everyone taking the time to be ‘social’ with you. Thank everyone when they say something nice! And be interested, no matter how many “followers” they have. As an author, and a person growing a craft, everyone matters. (Also, you’re a nice person and that’s just what nice people do.)
#9. BE LIKE BIG BIRD.
Next, I want you to buy a giant yellow bird costume. Just kidding. But there IS a lesson behind Big Bird. At various points in your career, you’re going to need to turn on your “sell” button. Book deals, book launches, basically anything something great happens, you need to be a little more “self-promotey” or straight up ask people to buy your book. Here’s what you want to avoid:
This poor bird. Buy my book! Rate my thing! IN YOUR FACE!
How do you avoid being like this bird? This is where Big Bird comes in. PBS is known for creating great content, reliably, throughout the whole year. Then, once or twice a year, they do a telethon-type blitz where they ask viewers to donate money to help them continue. And the thing is, we don’t really mind when they do this! Why? Because it’s just a couple times and year. AND, 99% of the time, they’re just doing their thing, offering that great content for one and all. We don’t mind Big Bird asking for money, because he reserves it for very special times. And because it happens so rarely, we’re cool with it.
If you are ALWAYS asking something from your audience, they’re going to get annoyed pretty quick. Also, personally, you’ll probably get annoyed at yourself, because that kind of social media existence is pretty sucky. We’ve all seen the profiles full of “buy my books” tweets, with zero interaction with other people. Don’t be that guy. Be Big Bird. Offer non-promotional, awesome content 99% of the time, and people will WANT to celebrate with you when good news comes along.
#10. MY SUNSHINE RULE
Everybody has their own philosophy about what they post. My personal rule (which you totally don’t have to share!) is that I never post anything negative. EVER. What?! I know. But notice I said negative. Not problematic. There are a lot of problematic things in the world, of course. If I am tweeting about something problematic, I generally choose to find people who are doing something GOOD about the issue, and help boost them up. For me, discussing these problematic things in a positive, thoughtful, respectful way is the only way I feel comfortable. I can’t stand the thought of someone clicking on a profile of mine and seeing a negative/angry/whiny post. Kids read my tweets. So do parents and teachers. If you’re a kidlit author, this is definitely something to keep in mind.
My author pal Debbie Ohi did a series of surveys recently. She asked editors and other book people if they had ever rejected someone based on their online profile. Over HALF of them (62%) said they had. Yowch. If you are lucky enough to have an editor want to know more about you, you want your online presence to represent you in a genuine, positive way. The way I see it, your online presence, like it or not, is an extension of the work you create, and are hoping to sell. For that reason, I have my sunshine rule.
And one more thing. While it is awful to think of an agent or editor rejecting you because of your social media presence, don’t forget—real life readers are out there too. And they are just as important, because they will be the ones to inspire you in years to come during your career. I don’t say this to scare you into not posting something, rather to encourage you to remain thoughtful, considerate and polite, regardless of what you’re posting. For me, the sunshine rule gives me a clear boundary of “where I go” in social media land. For you, it might be different! Wherever your boundary is, staying thoughtful and respectful online will never fail you.
This leads me to my last, probably most important tip…
#11. EVERYTHING YOU POST IS A POSSIBLE FIRST IMPRESSION.
Think about how you would prepare yourself for a school visit, or a big writer’s conference with lots of potential agents and editors. You’d do your hair. You’d check that there was no spinach in your teeth and that your fly was up. This is because your first impressions matter, and you know it! You want people (especially industry people!) to think you’re all that and a bag of chips.
But here’s the thing. You will probably meet WAY more people online, via your social media than you will in person. People from all over the world. Agents. Editors. Readers. Everyone! So the million dollar question is: are you taking as much care with your social media ‘appearance’ as you would in person? You should be.
Here’s how it plays out, every time: If I don’t know you, but I see someone retweet your post, I click on your profile. I dig around and get a feel for who are you. Whatcha talkin’ about? What do you write? Are you nice? Are you saying thoughtful, thought provoking, or interesting things? That’s my first impression of you! Those most recent 4 or 5 tweets, posts, or pictures. That’s it!
If you have any doubt about something you’re going to post–wait on it. Ask yourself, if an agent, or editor, or young reader saw this, and ONLY this, would I be cool with it? If yes, go for it. If you’re on the fence, see if you can rework it so that you can be proud of it.
#12. LOOK AT ME TAKING MY OWN ADVICE AND THANKING YOU!
As I mentioned from the top, social media advice isn’t really one size fits all. We all have different goals, different barometers of success, and frankly, different time commitments. This playbook of sorts is just my way of approaching everything in a way that feels simple, useful, and above all, let’s me stay true to how I actually want to feel as an author interacting with all sorts of people. I hope it helps you find your people!
If you think I might be your people, you can find me online on twitter @Jess_Keating, or on Facebook at JessKeatingBooks. There are also a bunch of links at the top of my website you can click. Let’s hang out!
And seriously, thanks for reading this ridiculously long post. See you online!