Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Beyond Social Media Basics for Writers

by Alma Katsu

If you’re a writer, chances are you hear the words social media and your throat starts to tighten. Writers have been encouraged to use social media to promote themselves to the point where, for some, it’s become an enormous source of anxiety. Like sex, no one feels that they’re doing it right or doing it enough.

Since you probably already know the basics of using social media—you use Twitter and Facebook, have a blog and of course you have a website – I’m going to focus on some things you want to think about when you want to think more strategically about using social media to obtain some sort of goal. And what makes me qualified to give this advice? My day job involves understanding the complex computational mayhem behind social media. I won’t say anymore about it because it would probably put you to sleep but trust me, it’s fascinating.

Now, I know some of you are going to view what I’m about to say cynically. You may look at social media as being all about hype, and hype that takes you away from doing what you want to do, which is to write. Well, the latter may be true but the former is not. Social media is about communication; it’s the primary way big parts of the world’s population communicate with each other. If you don’t believe me, well… you’re reading this in a blog, aren’t you? Not a printed copy of a newspaper. Or sitting around the cracker barrel down at the buggy whip factory.

Start early. Don’t wait until the month before you book’s pub date: it takes about a year to get a thousand followers and that’s if you are actively trying. That said, it’s definitely better to start late than to never start at all. The early months will be lonely. Don’t get discouraged, just keep plugging away. The important thing to remember is that social media is about becoming part of a community, about joining a network of people who are all interested in the same things. The reason it takes a while to build a following is that you have to become part of that community; people not only have to discover you, but have to value what you have to say, and learn to trust you (and by “you” I really mean your content – that is, what you post.) The exception to this rule is celebrity: celebrities tend to build followers more quickly because there’s no discovery phase. (So by all means if you know a celebrity, ask them to encourage their followers to friend/follow/subscribe to you.)

Use links in your content. Linking to online content – blogs, tweets, Facebook pages, Web sites – is important, because that’s how networks are built in cyberspace. The technical reasons behind this can seem a little convoluted so I won’t go into the details here, but I will give a couple key reasons. First, the algorithms used by most major search engines for indexing, or prioritizing search results, use link behavior as one factor to determine rank. So every time you link to someone’s Web site, you are doing them a favor. What you’re doing, in Internet terms, is voting for that person as a member of the community. You’re saying, I think what this person has to say is important to the discussion. Connectedness is rewarded in networks; the more connected you are, the more central you are to the community. The less connected you are, the more you’re shunted to the outskirts of the community and the lower your ranking.

The second important reason to link to other people’s content you like is because eventually, that person you’ve linked to will look their analytic stats and see who linked to them and chances are they’ll check you out. And once they know who you are, they’ll remember you, and eventually they’ll link back to you or mention you in their blog or tweet about you, and hey, you’re on your way to being a member of the community. (And if you don’t use some kind of analytics package on your website, shame on you. I suppose you’d wear a blindfold to throw darts at a dartboard or shoot arrows at a target in the dark?)

Tag everything that can be tagged. For the same reason as above: discoverability.
Whether or not you can add a tag to your content will depend on the form of social media. An easy example is Twitter: in Twitter, users can add hashtags to their tweet so that anyone searching on that hashtag will see it. For instance, you can tweet about your book, or someone else’s book that you’re enjoying, and add #reading or #amreading or the Book Maven’s #fridayreads so that people following those hashtags will see your tweet, too. Use broad or generic tags – like “write,” “books,” “fiction” – and specific tags, like “biography,” “historical,” or “romance” so you get people who are doing general searches as well as those who have specific interests.

Use a combination of social media to drive traffic to build and keep readers/followers. Sure, some of your followers use all forms of social media. They’ll follow you on Twitter, subscribe to the RSS feed on your blog, “like” your Facebook page. But others won’t. Some people connect with their friends on Facebook and rarely check their e-mail anymore. Some people follow Twitter to find out what’s happening and skip blogs (except to click on the embedded links in a tweet that will take them to someone’s latest blog post.) And some people – they tend to be older – are only comfortable with e-mail and wouldn’t venture onto Facebook if you begged them. It is incumbent on you, the writer, to use all these channels to let your readers know what’s going on. There are online tools that will push your content to all your social media, so you’re not going from your blog to Twitter to Facebook writing the same thing over and over.

And, I apologize if this seems obvious to you, but I’m surprised by how many writers I talk to who don’t use Facebook consistently. They send out e-newsletters, or use Twitter but run out of steam by the time they get to Facebook. However, a sizable number of people do most if not all of their online socializing and get their news via Facebook. (Frightening, yes, but true.) So bite the bullet and set up that Facebook page. And post to it consistently because yes, Facebook indexes its content.

Don’t be shy about asking friends to help you build your audience. On Facebook, for instance, you can politely ask others to repost your content, or post a link to your Web site. Ask them to #ff (follow Friday) you on Twitter. Be polite, don’t take it personally if they don’t. Ask again down the road, or for content that’s really important to you.

Member Alma Katsu is the author of The Taker, due to be released in the UK in April 2011 and in the U.S. in July 2011. Learn more about her at her Web site:


Alan Orloff said...

Thanks for the tips, Alma. You are so right--it may seem daunting at first, and it takes a while to develop a following, but once you do, things sort of snowball from there. Can't wait to read THE TAKER!

Tim Wendel said...

Good job with this, Alma. You brought much of this together in an understandable way.
Tim W.