Platform Building Primer

Nat RussoPlatform, Publishing, Social Media 30 Comments

[UPDATED 8/16/2014]

In a recent article I wrote that detailed the various lessons I learned from publishing my book Necromancer Awakening (now an Amazon Bestselling fantasy), I stated that having a platform is every bit as important as you’ve heard it is. Since that article was written, I’ve received countless questions asking me how I did it. 

Ziggurat at Chichen Itza

Because ziggurats are cool, and I like to say “Chichen Itza”.

In this article, I’ll show you some basic steps you can take to get started on building your own platform.

Setting Expectations

Let’s get this out in the open as quickly as possible. There are no shortcuts to building a writing platform. If you don’t have a platform today, you won’t have a platform tomorrow. If, however, you start building a platform today, and you follow some of the advice in this primer, your platform will grow over time, and you will eventually reap the benefits of all your hard work.
Yeah, but how much time are we talking about, wise guy?
Are you sitting down? It took me about two years to build a substantial following that could drive initial book sales when I finally published. I’m not going to downplay the effort it took. I built my platform aggressively, and in the beginning it took several hours per day…most of my free time. I knew it wasn’t sustainable, but I didn’t see an alternative.
Then I got smart.
As a software engineer, I follow the principle of “never repeat yourself” when I’m writing code. It occurred to me that much of what I was doing during those “several hours per day” could easily be automated!
I wasn’t wrong. Other software engineers had realized the same thing, and they had already developed some wonderful automated solutions that turned “several hours per day” into 15 minutes per day.

The Power of Automation

One of my first jobs for my current employer was developing an automated testing system. Not to get too “meta”, but an automated testing system is code that tests code—a program (or set of programs) that tests another program or set of programs. Once I had immersed myself in the subject of automation, I began to develop an automation mindset that made my colleagues laugh. Anything that could be automated, I would automate.
Within 6 months I didn’t even have to show up. I could literally send text messages to my automation system to do the lion’s share of my day-to-day tasks: generating a new software “build”, retrieving build numbers for interested parties, kicking off tests and retrieving test results, and a host of other tasks including file transfer and reporting/messaging.
I tell this story for a reason. As much as automation freed up my time in my day job, it also freed up my time for writing when I used it to assist in building my platform.
The key word here is “assist”. Again, there are no shortcuts. There’s no program I could write that would build my platform for me. But I know enough about computers to know what they’re best at: handling mundane, repetitive, time-consuming tasks.
I approached social media automation in much the same way I approached my day job. I asked myself “what, exactly, do I do most often?”
  • Tweet #writetips
  • Tweet links to my blog
  • Follow new people
  • Unfollow people who aren’t following me (after a certain period of time)
  • Chat with folks on Facebook and Twitter
  • Post things of interest to writers on Facebook.
  • Promote any works-in-progress and published works
As I looked over the list, there was one that jumped out at me: “Chat with folks…” Clearly that isn’t a candidate for automation! (I hope you see it this way too!)
I discovered 3 tools that could help with all of the rest.

[Note: Please read the update at the end of Using Twitter Effectively: Part 3 of 10 – Building a Meaningful Following for why I don’t use JustUnfollow anymore. I no longer recommend this tool for people with more than 60k followers/following.]

The first two tools allow me to establish a “queue” of tweets that go out whenever I schedule them. I use HootSuite to handle my #writetip and #HorribleWriteTip tweets, as well as a small handful of blog posts. I use Buffer to handle the lion’s share of my blog links.
I think I could probably forgo the use of Buffer and use HootSuite exclusively, except for one limitation of HootSuite: it only allows me to queue up 350 tweets at a time. That’s not enough for a week’s worth of tweets when I want to share 2 blog links per hour with my followers, in addition to the #writetips and #HorribleWriteTips.
Both HootSuite and Buffer allow you to automate posts to Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and several other social media outlets. Both allow bulk uploads, and this is very important. You don’t want to be typing in that many tweets manually. This is about working smarter, remember?
JustUnfollow is a great tool to manage your followers/followings. Managing these numbers effectively is crucial when you have under 2000 followers (for the details on why this is the case, see my Using Twitter Effectively series). In this early stage of your platform-building process, you do NOT want to follow people who are not following you back. Not yet. Those “slots” are invaluable, and you need to make sure that they’re reciprocal as much as possible, until you reach a certain threshold. JustUnfollow will allow you to identify anyone you are following who is not also following you back. This way you can easily unfollow those folks so that they’re not stopping you from achieving the numbers you need to be effective.
Social media is going to be a vital part of your platform. But it’s only one part. Social media is not going to sell your books. Social media is going to drive people to your content.
Where is your content?

Blogging / Content

If you’ve followed me long enough, you’ve probably heard me shout “Be a content provider first and foremost!” from the rooftops of Twitter and Facebook. In this new age of publishing, you’re not trying to sell books. Not directly. You’re trying to establish a relationship with your potential fan base. The way you’re going to do this is by providing content that they find engaging, entertaining, and perhaps even informative.
But how do you know what is engaging, entertaining, and perhaps informative? My best advice is find a niche that you’re already an expert in or can become an expert in over time
That last part applies directly to me. I wasn’t a grammar or writing expert when I started blogging. I started blogging for no other reason than to document my journey as I completed a work-in-progress. Over time, I developed an expertise in the key areas that were important to me during my writing process. I could speak with authority in these areas because I had put in the time and done my research. Moreover, I had examples from my own work that I could cite as references.
I’m not suggesting that you blog about writing. But whatever you blog about, let it be something you have unadulterated passion for, because it’s that passion that’s going to make your posts interesting, lively, informative, and consistent
Oh yeah, smarty pants? Well what if I don’t want to blog?
Blogging was my choice, but it may not be yours. The key is not the word blog. It’s the word content. My content just so happens to be delivered through blog articles aimed at new or up-and-coming writers. I have a passion for mentoring in general, and not just in the area of writing. I also mentor junior software engineers (when given the chance). I’ve been a Tang Soo Do instructor since the late 80’s. I’ve taught Math and English at a private boarding school in Wisconsin. I’ve done countless ministries for my church. And I haven’t even started talking about my work with the Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts.
Blogging works for me because blogging is my way of mentoring writers, and I have a passion for mentoring. Notice I didn’t say I have a passion for blogging? Blogging is the vehicle. The medium. It’s not my content.
Discover your content, then choose a vehicle to deliver that content in a way that will keep you engaged with your audience and leave them coming back for more.
So now you’ve got Social Media, and you’ve discovered your Content and how to deliver it.
That’s not enough.

Email List

You may have some followers on social media, and you may have a decent number of visits to your blog, but how engaged is that following really? Let’s say you have 10000 followers on Twitter. How many of those 10000 followers are going to click the “Buy Now” button on Amazon when you publish your book? My educated guess tells me it’s somewhere around 150, and that’s the high end of lucky.
Sobering, isn’t it? I can’t offer you statistical evidence, but I can offer you anecdotal evidence based on my own sales. On the day I published Necromancer Awakening, I had 65000 Twitter followers. Approximately 1.5% of that number purchased books, and it took them a month to do so. The actual number is probably less than 1.5%, as I’ve undoubtedly sold some books to people who found me on Amazon through the various bestseller and popularity lists I’ve been on.
I had 200 subscribers to my email list. The overwhelming majority of them bought the book, and they did so in the first two weeks. I know this through personal messages from subscribers, as well as tracking click-through performance and conversion rates.
In other words, my relatively small email list accounted for approximately 25-30% of my total sales in the first month.
Why is this? Think about the concept of an email list for a moment. Someone came to you, handed you their email address on a platter, and said “Please send me information about you and what you’re working on!”
That’s engagement. These folks are your core audience. They’re tuned in. They want to know what you’re up to, and they don’t mind getting an email from you. This represents a lot of trust, and you need to respect it. My personal rule of thumb is one newsletter per month. It’s short and sweet, and usually includes a few links to articles I may have written since the last newsletter, any promotions I’m running at the time, and early information on works-in-progress, launch dates, tour dates, signings, etc. Whatever I do, my newsletter subscribers are the first to hear about it (you can see a sample of my newsletter here).
There are many different services you can use. The most popular are MailChimp, AWeber, and MadMimi (among others). I currently use MadMimi, but I’m thinking about switching to MailChimp because I like their templates a little more. Most of these services offer free options up to somewhere around 500 subscribers. After that, they scale up a bit. But don’t worry…if your current problem is that you have to start paying your mailing list provider, then you’re having rich people problems anyway.
So now you’ve conquered social media, you’re dialed in to your content and people are eating it up, and they like you enough to trust you with their email address.
But that’s still not enough.

Book Sales Page

The ultimate goal behind everything you’re doing is eventually to sell a book or two, right? 
There are 2 things you absolutely must do on your sales page. These 2 things are non-negotiable. Failure to comply will result in… You get the idea. 
1. Polish your book’s description until it squeaks.

You only get one shot at this. You’ve gone to all this trouble to get a potential reader one step away from a “buy” button. The last thing you want to do is present them with horrible copy that screams amateur. You’ll lose them. Maybe forever at that point.

2. Show them a professionally designed cover.

Check out this article I wrote on cover design. No. Seriously. Check it out. If you’re doing it yourself, you’re probably doing it wrong. Not definitely. But probably. Only you can be certain whether you’re definitely doing it wrong, or just probably doing it wrong. See what I’m getting at? 


Putting It All Together

Whether you’re selling through Amazon, Smashwords, other mainstream distributors, or off your own web site, the concept is the same:
  1. Use social media to drive traffic to your content.
  2. Use your content to engage an audience enough to subscribe to your newsletter.
  3. Use your newsletter (and content) to drive traffic to your book sales page.
  4. Use your book’s well-written description, and professionally designed cover to sell.
This, my friends, is your platform. Nurture it, and it will take care of you and provide a foundation for your writing career.
Can you sell books without a platform? You sure can. But if you’ve been struggling to sell books without one, you won’t be any worse off for trying.
Yes, there are naysayers. You’ll find articles out there that will tell you you’re wasting your time. And I’ll tell you right now, if platform-building is taking away from your writing, then they’re absolutely right! But if you’re already doing everything right, and you just can’t break through to the sales you know you can achieve, give it a try. You just might discover a new passion in the process.
For those of you who have yet to publish a book, now is the time to get started. You’re in the perfect position to build an audience that will be waiting for you when you release your book.
Think about your book as if it’s a Broadway show. Do you start the show, then open the doors to let people in, hoping they’ll hear you from the street and buy a ticket? Or do you open the doors first and start the show to a packed house?

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About Nat Russo

Nat Russo is the Amazon #1 Bestselling Fantasy author of Necromancer Awakening and Necromancer Falling. Nat was born in New York, raised in Arizona, and has lived just about everywhere in-between. He’s gone from pizza maker, to radio DJ, to Catholic seminarian (in a Benedictine monastery, of all places), to police officer, to software engineer. His career has taken him from central Texas to central Germany, where he worked as a defense contractor for Northrop Grumman. He's spent most of his adult life developing software, playing video games, running a Cub Scout den, gaining/losing weight, and listening to every kind of music under the sun. Along the way he managed to earn a degree in Philosophy and a black belt in Tang Soo Do. He currently makes his home in central Texas with his wife, teenager, mischievous beagle, and goofy boxador.

Comments 30

  1. I think you’re exactly right on this. Automation is great for the tedious things that need to be done, and it frees you up for the more important things, but it’s not going to be able to replace everything that you can do. At the very least, if you try to replace interactions with real people with an automated script, people will not take that well!

    I think the biggest hurdle for me, when it comes to building a platform, is the time investment. Creating a blog and all that has a bit of a high opportunity cost, and that gets kind of intimidating. I definitely need to sit down and actually do it, though.

    Also, would you suggest having a ‘backlog’ or ‘stockpile’ of content ready to go, before you start a blog/whatever? Or is it better to just hop in and see what happens? Curious as to more of your thoughts on this subject.

    1. I don’t have enough data, yet, to know if a backlog would have helped. I just jumped right in and started blogging. I didn’t have a schedule or anything, I just had a good idea of what I wanted to blog about.

      At the very least, I would say know who your audience is, and know what you want to blog about. With those two pieces of knowledge, you’ll probably do fine!

  2. Neatly summed up. These are the bases you need to cover, they do take time, and some parts of it automate better than others.

    Since you’re interested in automation, I suspect you haven’t discovered yet. (It can set up “If this, then that” links between half the social media out there, and if you’d seen it you’d never stop talking about it.) Also, I haven’t figured Hootsuite out yet, but I recently discovered, that can send posts to Buffer as fast as you can drag a text file to it. Handy.

    1. I’ve used IFTTT and at first, I loved it. But I found it did not give me enough freedom. The images never seem to come out right for my links, and I like to write different hooks for my blog posts. BUT! I do have it set up to automatically put a backup of my blog in DropBox (NAT! – More backup options!) and I use it for sending important emails to my phone as a text and that sort of thing. It definitely has it’s pluses, but I use HootSuite for automating tweets and facebook/g+ posts, and I don’t think IFTTT will ever replace that for me.

      If you like IFTTT, you’ll probably LOVE HootSuite!

    2. Yeah, combination tools can mistranslate images and links. Bulkbuffer can do the same thing, but it is super-easy to use.

      I’m looking into HootSuite tonight, hope it works well.

    3. I love IFTTT! I use it to track story ideas while I’m out on my walks (I get a lot of inspiration while walking). Using IFTTT, I can send an email to myself with a special “code” in the address. IFTTT picks this up and appends the message to a document I keep on Google Docs. This way I never lose an idea!

    4. Funny you should mention BulkBuffer. I just discovered it last week and really love it so far! My only criticism is that it doesn’t (yet) handle multi-line messages, which would be handy for Facebook/LinkedIn. But I spoke with the developer via email and he says he’s looking into it.

  3. Another amazing article! I recently discovered the Twitter threshold under 2000 thing 🙁

    I’m surprised at the huge difference between your sales from Twitter followers and your email list! Wow! You’ve got me rethinking how I do my email list.

    I can personally vouch that MailChimp is awesome 🙂 Easy to use, fun, and good customer service. Just try tweeting about them and see what happens!

    Loved your Broadway Show analogy!

    1. Thanks, Denise! And thanks for the MailChimp recommendation. I wasn’t entirely sure about it, but I think I’ll start migrating my list.

      I was hesitant at first because I use my private residence as my business address, and I didn’t want to give that out on my list. I may set up a PO box locally to satisfy MailChimp’s address requirement.

  4. Hello Nat!

    What a great article! You cover so many great points and highlight so many amazing tools!

    I especially would like to thank you for your great tips and kind words about Buffer! 🙂

    As a hobby novelist I can say that it’s wonderful to see your strong emphasis on marketing in order to truly get your book out there. 🙂

    Keep up the amazing work!

    Community Champion, Buffer

    1. Post

      Thanks, Nicole!

      Marketing is an absolute necessity, and it is perhaps the greatest challenge of most writers. Most just want to write their books, publish, and be done with it. The reality, however, is that regardless of whether you’re an independent author or are working with a major publishing house, you’re going to have to wrap your head around marketing, because most publishers won’t spend marketing dollars on unproven authors.

      Buffer is quickly becoming a “go to” app for me. I recently discovered “BulkBuffer” and use it to upload links to all of my blog content. That combined with the “shuffle” feature of Buffer makes it really easy for me to change things up a bit!

    2. Bulkbuffer’s great, but I think Hootsuite’s upload tool may be better, once you put tweets into Excel. Buffer and Bulkbuffer like to convert URLs to new codes (or unconvert bit.lys!), but with Hootsuite you can keep any customized URLs you’ve set up. Plus, Excel structures let you build and update your tweets en masse.

      Still, it’s all about writers choosing between ProMotion and AmateurStagnation. 🙂

    3. Post

      I’ve hit upon a decent rhythm that uses both. I’ve been using HootSuite’s bulk upload for all of my writing tips and miscellaneous links, and Buffer for my blog links. I guess I just have too many tweets to upload! 🙂

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  6. How do you advertise your email list and get people to join it once you have chosen an email list service? I guess I just don’t understand that media as I am not familiar with it.

    1. Post

      It took me a while to get the hang of it. I began by tweeting once per day with a link to the newsletter signup form. But what *really* made the list flourish was the addition of the slider window that appears at the bottom of my blog (I think you have to scroll about 50-75% of the way down the page to see it appear). When I added the slider, my daily new subscriber number increased from 2-5 per day to more than 15 per day.

      After that, you’ll find that subscribers share issues of the newsletter that they find particularly helpful. From there, their friends often subscribe, and it snowballs.

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  10. Hi Nat. Another great post. I agree 100% and think owning your own real estate (website/blog) combined with an email list is what will buffer writers from the inevitable shake ups in the publishing industry. I get concerned when writers rely too heavily on Amazon’s algorithms. Aside from the fact that most writers struggle to figure out how to get tied into Amazon’s algorithms to start with, those who do are often blindsided when Amazon makes a little tweak that sends their sales plummeting. I think staying connected to your readers via an email list is a smart, long-term strategy. It’s also something you can build off line, which is not something to be overlooked. (I blogged about this in my post, “How Offering My Book in Print Yielded 4 Surprising Results.)

    I also second Denise’s endorsement of MailChimp. I love them. I set up a P.O. Box to meet the ICAAN requirements.

    I would love to see a post from you that gives a nuts and bolts walk through of your SM automation. I’ve never quite found a system that works and do most of my tweeting by hand.

    Thanks again for your post!

    1. Post

      I’m considering a switch to Mailchimp in the near future, because I think I’m growing out of Mad Mimi. With the free account I can have 2500 addresses, which isn’t a problem. The problem is that I can only have 25 images uploaded at once, and I like to include an image or two in each mailing. The strange thing is that if I upgrade my account to a paid account ($10/month), I gain unlimited image storage, but they lower my maximum addresses to 500. Makes no sense to me.

      I’ll definitely be writing more about automation in the future. I’m considering polishing up the software I wrote and offering it as shareware or something like that. It’s reduced my #writetip tweeting time from a couple of hours down to around 5 minutes, which is wonderful! Then I interact as people have questions, etc.

      Glad you enjoyed the post!

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