Building a Professional Platform: A Brief Overview
Angela Render | May 2011
Platform is a word that gets tossed around often by agents and editors these days. They want to see that you know who your target audience is and that you’ve taken steps to reach out to them. The things you do to interact with your target audience are called your platform “planks.”
Planks can take all sorts of forms and are completely dependent on two things:
- What you’re trying to sell
- Who you’re trying to sell it to
Let’s face it, if you’re trying to reach out to Millennials as a fiction writer, giving talks at Chamber of Commerce meetings isn’t your best bet. Likewise, if you’re trying to establish yourself as an expert writer for psychology magazines, having a large Twitter following may not get you the best results.
This article is not intended to argue with you over the necessity of having a platform. As editor and publishing consultant Ally Peltier of Ambitious Enterprises puts it, “These days, publishing is about the bottom line, and books are treated more like products than art.” Your platform is extremely important if you’re trying to market a book to a traditional publisher; it’s mission critical if you’re going to be your own publisher. There are dozens of how-to books that guide you through the details. I’m here to give you an overview of how to approach the task.
Rule #1: You Can’t Do it All
No one can. Not even the big publishing houses, which is why they’re so keen on knowing what niche your book fits into. Writers love to imagine their novels having universal appeal like the Harry Potter or Hunger Games series. But while these books became cross-demographic best sellers, it’s important to embrace the fact that they were originally marketed to niches—young adult urban fantasy and young adult dystopian science fiction, respectively.
Once you let go of your aspirations for universal appeal, identifying niches who are interested in your work becomes easier. You do not have to limit yourself to one niche, but you need to be aware that each niche should be treated as unique both in where you find members and how you address them. Targeting niches also relieves you of the burden of doing “everything” and allows you to focus on specific platform planks that will bring you the most exposure, thus maximizing your return on investment of time.
Writers love to imagine their novels
having universal appeal like the Harry Potter
or Hunger Games series. But while these books
became cross-demographic best sellers, it’s
important to embrace the fact that they were
originally marketed to niches.
Types of Planks
A plank is anything that gets your name, face, or work in front of interested people. Here are some examples:
- Internet: Blogs—yours and others you write for, forums you participate in, social media, websites, e-mail newsgroups you participate in, e-mail lists you own or have access to, podcasts, vodcasts
- Media: Television exposure or contacts, radio, bylines, publications you write for or edit, previous book publications
- In-Person: Classes you teach, talks you give, book signings, clubs or other organizations you participate in (both professional and genre)
There’s a lot to choose from, so it’s important to focus. Some of these planks may be beyond your reach—for now. Some may intimidate you. After you’ve identified what you have and who wants it, you need to match those planks that will reach your audience with the planks you’re capable of executing.
The Most Important Plank You Have—YOU
All of your connections and knowledge come from you. Every platform plank you work on, every pitch you make depends on knowing exactly who you are and what you have. Before you can hope to identify why someone should be interested in your work, you should study yourself. Then, study your contemporaries to see where they’ve been, what they’re doing, how effective it is, and who is following them. After that, look at your potential customers. Learn what they want, where they frequent, and how they want to be approached.
The Most Colossal Hurdle You Have to Overcome—YOU
All of your baggage, self-doubt, and inertia come from you.
Multichannel marketing expert Monica C. Smith of Marketsmith, Inc. contends that truly great brands have people behind them who are absolutely passionate about their products. “I have learned that loving your brand makes you want to get up in the morning and face the day,” says Monica. “You know a brand is working when you hear someone say, I love my iPhone, or nothing beats the GeekSquad.”
In Guerrilla Marketing for Writers: 100 Weapons for Selling Your Work, authors Levinson, Frishman, and Larson list these among their fifteen most important marketing secrets: “Committment: You must make a commitment to your marketing program. Consistency: Your marketing must be consistent. Patience: You must be patient with your marketing. Involvement: Create and sustain involvement between you and your readers.”
Use your love for your book as a driving force. Your passion needs to infect agents, editors, and your readers so that they talk about you to their friends. If you’re not capable of pulling yourself up by your Rooseveltian bootstraps and executing the plan you come up with: beg, borrow, or hire someone to hold you accountable.
By far the highest return on investment of both time and money is an online presence. Don’t think, though, that the high return means there’s a low cost or very little time necessary, because that thought will doom your effort to failure. Writing for publication is a business and you need to look professional, so some financial outlay is necessary. Since the shelf life of Internet content is about a second and a half, you must also invest a little time each day to refreshing your content and reaching out to people. Here’s what you need to get started:
A Domain Name:
Two Simple Rules to Follow
1) Your domain name must be friendly to the “radio talk show” scenario. What I mean by that is that if someone were listening to you talk about your book while driving home from work, would they be able to remember it without writing it down? Would you have to spell your domain name in order for someone to get it right? Is it too long or complicated?
- Make it short.
- Avoid characters like “-” and “_”
- Use .com, .org, or .net
2) You’re probably going to have to combine several words to find a domain name that hasn’t been taken. If you can’t see what’s wrong with this one, washitinerary.com, make sure you get a thirteen-year-old to look over your selection before you purchase it.
As a first-time author, you may wish to select two: your name and the title of your book. There is no limit to the number of domain names you may have and no rule on how many may point to a single site.
Once you have a few choices, purchase through a domain registrar such as GoDaddy.com or NetworkSolutions.com. When choosing a domain registrar, look for 24-7 phone customer support. Call that number before you do business with them and see who picks up the phone. Are they nice? Can you understand what they’re saying? Do you feel confident that this company will be around in five years?
Your web host is the physical location of your site. This part is easy. Host your site with the company you used to register your domain name.
A blog is a type of website that is easy to update. It can look and act like anything from a single, static web page to cnn.com. I recommend WordPress. If you’ve gone with GoDaddy or NetworkSolutions, there is a button you can push that will install and set up a WordPress blog. Otherwise, go to wordpress.org and follow the instructions.
As I mentioned above, there are many other things you can do to supplement your Internet efforts. The blog is the most important because anything else you do—both online and off—needs to have a home base to refer people back to. That home base is your blog. Make sure you have a personal domain name, an e-mail address with that domain name (your host might give you fifty; you just have to set one up), and a customized look.
The following content is the bare minimum you need to have on there:
- Contact: An e-mail address at the minimum. (A contact form is also good.)
- Bio: Who you are and why you’re the best person to write your book.
- Project: What it is and how it’s relevant to the visitor.
Depending on where you are in your project’s life, you could also have the following:
- Media kit
- Purchasing information
- Sign-up for an e-newsletter
- Speaker’s page
That’s just to start. Once you have your blog functioning, you need to post regularly. You can post musings, samples, poems, news, a calendar—anything that your target audience might find relevant and think kindly of you for posting. Problogger.com has almost ten years of tips and insights on effective blogging. You’ll also find many more useful tips and tricks in the back issues of my Writers’ Journal column: http://www.angelarender.com/category/articles/writers-journal-articles/.
An e-mail list used to be the holy grail of marketing. This list represented those people who were most interested in hearing from you—so interested that they trusted you with their e-mail address and gave you an invitation to contact them. Building an e-mail list isn’t easy these days. You have to offer people a reason to give you that address—whitepaper, newsletter, something else they want—and then not abuse the contact privileges. Thankfully, in 2011, e-mail is just one of many ways you can contact and interact with your audience. For some demographics, e-mail is still the preferred method of contact.
A growing portion of the population doesn’t want to be contacted directly through e-mail. They want to see useful information and entertainment filtered through their social networks. Some Millennials don’t even use e-mail—they IM or text with their friends. The only way into a place that insular is to either become a friend—something impossibly impractical for a large audience—or offer something so cool that it will get passed around by the members of these networks.
The authors of Guerrilla Marketing for Writers say, “The identification at the bottom of your e-mail is an opportunity to mention the title of your book, your Web site, your theme, and the products and services you have available. Take up to six lines to let readers know about your books and other offerings.” I’ll add that a phone number is also helpful, depending on what you’re selling and who received the e-mail, but I’ll caution you against including six jam-packed lines of information. Your e-mail signature is not the place for your sales pitch.
This signature trick is also useful in e-mail-based forums and e-newsgroups. Just be aware that many groups don’t allow you to put scads of marketing information in your signature. That’s where having an e-mail address using your domain name is not only professional but also useful.
It’s all about angle.
Unless you’re writing a science paper
about your personal discovery of a brand-new
life form, chances are you’re covering old ground.
What you bring is your unique perspective.
I hate to break this to you, but your personal opinion of social networking in general and of specific social networking sites does not matter. All that’s important is your audience and where and how they want to interact with you. This site has a rundown on which demographics use different types of social networking sites: ignitesocialmedia.com/2010-social-network-analysis-report. Find the ones that match your intended audience.
Refer your social network back to your blog frequently, but don’t let the references get in the way of the socializing. What you’re going to post needs to satisfy and speak to your target audience in some manner. Try new approaches, but most importantly, pay attention to the response you get. Adjust your message accordingly.
Also note that social networking means you have to be genuine. If you pretend to be someone else, your audience will eventually find out and you will get called out on it. How damaging this is to you depends on how you’ve built yourself up. Just remember to be yourself. After all, people who follow specific authors often do so because they like the author as much as the writing.
If you need convincing on the merits of social networking, check out Socialnomics: How Social Media Transforms the Way We Live and Do Business by Erik Qualman. He’ll get you excited about it.
While we’re on the subject of messaging, let’s take a closer look at it. People aren’t really that complicated. With very few exceptions, we’re emotional creatures looking to become happier, healthier, wealthier, sexier, or smarter. Cater to one or more of those needs in a way that triggers an emotional response and you’ll connect. Which combination of needs and emotions you go after depends on your project and your niche. For example, animal charities use pictures of animals in need to trigger compassion, and the audience responds with donations because helping makes them feel good about themselves—it makes them happier.
It’s all about angle. Unless you’re writing a science paper about your personal discovery of a brand-new life form, chances are you’re covering old ground. What you bring is your unique perspective. Your angle on the topic is what matters and what will make “just the facts” interesting to your audience. Take them on a ride.
Matthew Bennett, the self-published author who’s sold over five million copies of his book says, “Nothing could be finer than a really good one-liner.” Your message content, particularly on the web, must be concise. Even if you’re selling literary fiction, save the verbose descriptions for your novel, samples, and short stories. In all other correspondence, take a lesson from the popularity of Twitter. You can say a lot in 140 characters if you choose the right ones. Use an active voice. Don’t bury your point. Find an exciting angle. Keep blog posts to five hundred words or fewer. E-mail messages need to be even shorter.
To keep up-to-date on marketing and on what sort of messaging the pros are using, subscribe to one or more of these lists:
Notice that all of these are marketing resources? You’ve probably figured out by now that your platform is nothing more or less than a marketing tool.
Television or radio may also serve as resources. When petitioning program managers for your spot, remember what I said about angle. Program managers do not care about you or your book. They care about selling advertising. You need to angle something to be entertaining to their audience, which in theory is also your audience, or you’ve picked the wrong show.
You also have to find a time peg. Give the program manager a reason to have you on the show today.
For this sort of media, you’re going to need a press kit too. Guerrilla Marketing for Writers has details about how to put one together.
You also need a one-sheet, which is one piece of paper that has your contact information (including a link to your blog where your full press kit is); a picture of you; three to five sample sound bytes on your topic, each with a different angle; and why your message is timely. Respect your program manager’s time and don’t make them hunt down information. Your one-sheet is another marketing tool. You’re selling yourself to a program manager. Use marketing language.
Writing articles for magazines is another valuable platform plank. When selecting publications to target, I recommend first visiting the library. Look objectively at each publication and think about how your topic can be angled to that audience. If you’re unsure of the publication’s audience, get their website from their masthead and find the link to their “media” page. If they sell advertising, there is a media packet available somewhere that details their distribution and target demographic. Study that in addition to the submission guidelines. After your library visit, go to a newsstand to find any periodicals your library might not have. Keep in mind what you learned about pitching to television and radio when you pitch your articles to these publications: who you are, what you have, why they should care, and why they should publish it now. When pitching monthly or quarterly publications, you need to approach them six months to a year in advance.
What makes these outlets lucrative is the byline: your name and web address with any other text you can get away with. Do not overload this with too many options for contact. It’s great that you’ve embraced Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Goodreads, Red Room, and MySpace, but if you give people too many options in a byline, they won’t know what to do. Send them to your blog and have the other options available there.
A speaking or teaching circuit can build your expertise and exposure, and you can even get paid for it! Starting out, especially in speaking, you’ll probably have to do some things for free. Once you’ve perfected your technique and start getting invitations to speak, you can charge a fee for your services. More importantly, you should seek out large venues that allow you to sell your books on-site. Back of room sales are where most speakers make their money, and many organizations are reducing the amount they’re willing to pay up-front because of this.
Speakers bureaus, especially the national or international ones, are not interested in you unless you already have the name to fill a large auditorium and the connections to get your own engagements. This means that by the time a speaker’s bureau is interested in you, you don’t need them anymore. Making personal connections and building your own network are the best things you can do.
Teaching tends to pay, but it doesn’t allow in-class sales. Most teaching venues will have a bookstore you can sell through, so make the appropriate arrangements to have your books carried and direct your students there.
All in-person venues offer one opportunity that the media and Internet options don’t: the ability to shake someone’s hand. Get to know people and make sure you have a handout for them with your name and web address in the header or footer of each page.
Presenting the Platform
If you’re on the hunt for an agent, you’re probably wondering where you list your platform planks. You’ll put a condensed list into your one-page query letter along with your credentials. How you intend to use your platform to help a publisher sell your book will become part of your book proposal (nonfiction) or part of a marketing plan (fiction, poetry, memoir).
If you plan to self-publish, it’s vital that you come up with a detailed marketing plan before you start that can expand and evolve as your platform does. This plan will have on it all the things we covered: Who your market is, where you can reach them, and how you intend to sell to them.
With so many options, a detailed how-to is only possible through books or online resources, but I hope this article helps you decide how to approach your platform and where to begin.
Good luck and write on!
Angela Render is an author who has been editing and developing websites for over a decade. She teaches regular classes on internet marketing. She is creating the second edition of her internet marketing workbook, Marketing for Writers: A Practical Workbook. Find her at AngelaRender.com.