Guy Kawasaki was one of the original Apple employees responsible for marketing of the Macintosh computer in 1984. Today he works as a Silicon Valley venture capitalist, listening to people’s upstart ideas and deciding who to help fund. In an interview, Kawasaki observed an important differentiator among business start-ups. From his vast experience, if a person raves about how his venture will make tons of money, he doubts it will succeed. But if someone describes in glowing terms how his venture will help lots of people, Kawasaki is all ears. Here’s one that’s likely to fly.
I think this applies to authors building platforms to publish and market their books. So let’s rephrase this chapter title. “Building a Platform” sounds like I’m doing everything I can to put myself on a pedestal. But I think the best way to build a platform is to find ways to serve. In a real sense, you don’t build a platform at all. Instead, you find ways to serve people and one day you’re rather surprised to find yourself standing on the platform that sprung up as a byproduct. So let's call this chapter, "Find Ways to Serve."
Are you familiar with the Maui Writer’s Conference? It's one of, if not the most respected writers conferences in existence. Go to Maui and you'll meet top editors, Hollywood script writers, etc.
Do you know its history? John Tullius had made it as a writer, pulling in a secure six-figure income from his articles and ten books. Then it came to a screeching halt. Mysteriously, for a three-year period, he couldn't sell anything. And he couldn't write. Maybe his muse had jilted him. Maybe he'd contracted acute writers' block. Whatever the case, the result was devastating. According to Tullius, "I lost everything - the car, the home, my self-respect."
But then a letter arrived from his uncle Frank, his successful writing mentor who'd turned Buddhist monk after a losing battle with alcohol. Frank invited him to come visit at his Thailand monastery. Enclosed was a round trip ticket. What did he have to lose? He went.
Upon arriving, Frank led him to a view of a couple of dozen children, playing in a courtyard. "They are my students," he explained. "I came to teach them."
Tullius was confused. "I thought you came here to be a monk."
Frank replied that after sitting around for about a month, they introduced him to his students. He'd discovered what everyone there discovers, that they're way to wrapped up on themselves and need to instead find ways to serve others.
Then he sent Tullius away. "You want me to leave?" he complained. I've only been here a few hours." But Frank had passed on his message, and Tullius took it to heart, starting with taking invitations to speak to writers groups about their writing. He saw writer's hunger to learn the trade and get into print. He knew the industry well and had found a way to serve.
With the help of some friends, he pulled together the first Maui Writers Conference, which eventually became the largest writers' conference in the world.
As an added bonus, his muse returned, restoring his love for writing and allowing him to write two best-selling novels. Each morning he wakes up dreaming about how to serve other writers. The more he serves, the more he receives. (Summarized from Chicken Soup for the Writer's Soul, pp. 152-158).
[Add later: Book on shameless self-promoting – used to be called “caring.” On using social media – go out to serve. Meet people’s needs.]
Benjamin Franklin ended up with one of the largest platforms ever. He was one of the most famous men of his time and will probably remain famous forever. I think one of the main keys to his success was that he woke up every morning asking, “What good shall I do today?" At the end of each day he asked himself, “What good did I do today.” No wonder he impacted the world as few before or since.
When he wanted to help the common people benefit from the wisdom he collected, he didn’t put it in a book form. He put it in a calendar called “Poor Richard’s Almanac.” It both met a need for wisdom among the common folk and contributed greatly to his ability to retire in his early 40’s to devote himself to his inventions, starting a pretty neat country, etc.
So how can you serve others with your expertise? Speak at a school? Write an article for a charity? Answer people's questions on forums? Respond to someone's blog entries?
The Traditional Speaking Platform
Today, there are many ways to build a platform. The traditional way is to brush up on your speaking skills and speak everywhere you can: classrooms, business meetings, seminars, radio, TV, business meetings, etc. Today you can start meeting people in your specialty area through www.meetup.com and branch out from there.
This is how Mark Twain publicized his books. He was an entertaining speaker and he hit the speaker’s circuit.
Most of us know something about this type of platform. But many can’t take advantage of it because either the thought of speaking to a group makes them nauseous or they’ve got responsibilities that keep them from getting out. The latter has been my case, as I care for my elderly father who has cancer, my grandmom who’s 102, and my own children. This has forced me to build a different kind of platform. I couldn’t have done it fifteen years ago. The technology wasn’t in place. But fortunately, we can all take advantage of it today.
The Web Platform
Benjamin Franklin never considered himself a great speaker. But he found other ways to get out his ideas. I think that today he would have included blogging and other Web tools in his arsenal.
Not all of us are speakers, but we are writers, which means we are the most strategically qualified people to take advantage of the tools available on the Web. “But I’m not a techie!” you may complain.
Listen, I’m not a techie. I’ve never taken a computer class. Not one. I don’t know any programing languages. Not one. But I’ve got several websites, two blogs, a forum and a couple of e-zines going out to about 8,000 people who’ve signed-up on my sites.
I know enough of Microsoft Frontpage to write my content and design a basic Web page. That’s about 1/1000 of what Frontpage can do, but it’s all I need. I know about 1/10,000 of what PhotoShop can do. But it’s all I need to edit pictures for my sites.
I’m the Webmaster, content editor and primary designer.
Most sites and blogs today can be designed with user-friendly tools that are getting more user-friendly all the time. When tasks are beyond my skills, such as adding a database or setting up e-commerce, I pay reasonably priced programmers one-time fees to set things up for me so that I can use them.
I set up a forum last month that cost me about $200 in programming. It’s a free, open-source program that he needed to customize a little. I built the pages for the character site, but paid a KSU programming student under $1000 to add e-commerce and all the back-end stuff I’d need to have a members section, automatically process credit cards, keep up with subscriptions, send out an automatic welcome e-mail, etc.
Listen, we hear about Bill Gates and the original Google programmers and their great success. But I’m convinced that it’s not the techies who have the most to gain from this revolution. It’s the writers. I’ll tell you why.
If you read any book on having a successful Web site, blog, etc., they’ll say something like this:
“The three most important words in real estate are ‘location, location, location.’ The three most important words in Web site success are ‘content, content, content.’ And who, may I ask, writes the content?
So let’s say some geek has put together a site that has all the latest gadgets, all the latest technology and is designed to perfection. If it doesn’t have any content that you’d want to come back for, will you ever revisit the site? No. When it comes to successful Web marketing, content reigns supreme. And we, the writers, are the content masters. Can we all stand, hold hands and break out into a rousing chorus of “We are the Champions!?!.”
Now seriously, let me ask you this. When you decided to go see Kite Runner at the Theater and you searched the Web to find where it was showing, did you see one movie site and go, “Wow! What ugly colors! And there’s not even a flash presentation or podcast. That’s so Web 1.0!”
No. You went to the site for the information – the content. If it gave you what you were looking for and made the content easy to access, you were happy and may have even bookmarked the site to visit before your next movie hunt. The Web is all about finding great content.
How does this work for building a platform for your book? Imagine you’re writing a novel set in the North Georgia Mountains in the early 1900’s. You’re doing tons of research about the location and period and decide to set up a Web site for people interested in that time and place. You’ve got much more cool content than you could ever use in your novel. Why not put it somewhere? So you put it in a well-organized way on a site and people begin to come.
How the Web Revolutionizes Marketing
Note how this revolutionizes marketing. We used to be stuck with “interruption marketing,” where advertisers interrupt your favorite TV show to try to sell you such essential items as mood rings and Ginsu knives. But with social networking, we allow people who are already looking for products to find us. People out there are already searching for help with their finances or a solution to their style of worship problem or a novel set in the North Georgia mountains or materials for character education. With a well-positioned blog or Web site, I simply allow those people who are already searching to find me.
How many of you already have an author site? Another site besides the author site? A blog? Okay, so let’s start from scratch for those who have nothing.
Baby Step 1: Start Interacting on Existing Blogs and Forums
The best first step is not to set up either a blog or a Web site. Rather, go exploring what other people are writing about North Georgia mountain life on blogs and Web sites and forums. Click the thingy at the bottom of someone’s blog entry and comment on their blog. Enter a discussion of North Georgia moon shining on somebody’s forum. Now congratulate yourself! You’ve just entered the new world of social networking on the Web!
I read this “how to get your feet wet” approach in my current read, The New Rules of Marketing and PR: How to Use Blogs, Podcasting, Viral Marketing & Online Media to Reach Buyers Directly, by David Meerman Scott. I had it confirmed at SoCon, the techie conference.
Two good places to search blogs are:
“You can make more friends in two months of becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.” (Carnegie, p. 54)
Forget “building your platform.” Remember “helping others.” Social networking on the Web is about entering into thoughtful discussions and helping people find what they’re looking for. Bring up your book or articles only when they flow naturally in the conversation and meet expressed interests and needs. Eventually, you establish yourself as a trusted expert and become the go-to person for those needing information on the topic. As a by-product, you look around and discover that, to your surprise, you’re standing on a platform.
Baby Step #2: Create a Blog
Why a blog? First, it’s super easy. I set up my first two blogs in about an hour. Second, it gives you an easy place to collect your writing and thoughts that might later become articles and books. I started late with blogging because I didn’t get it.
Note: Don't be afraid of new technology! Learn it the way my middle school twins do it: fooling around and asking friends. A friend (Trey) shows them his Myspace page. They're impressed and absolutely must have their own. "How did you do that?" they ask. "Just go here and punch this" he replies. They do it and, after a few missteps, have a Myspace page.
"Look David, Trey's got his favorite song and a Youtube video connected to his page. Let's see where you click to set that up!" After a few mis-clicks, they figure it out.
They didn't have to take a continuing education class or read a book. I call it "learning by fooling around and asking dumb questions."
We adults get overwhelmed with new technologies because we're afraid to fool around and embarrassed to ask dumb questions. It's like we fear that in setting up a personal blog, we'll click the wrong combination of buttons and bring the Web to a screeching halt. Tomorrows' Wall Street Journal will announce to the world, "Idiot blogger Steve Miller broke the internet yesterday, causing the Internet to crash, and subsequently the entire U.S. Economy."
Get over it. When you start setting up your blog and come to something that doesn't seem to work, blame the idiot programmers who were supposed to make it user friendly. Poke around. Look in the help files or the help forum. If you can't find the answer in under five minutes, ask your 12-year-old for help or call your friend who already has a blog. The entire Web is being built by people asking stupid questions and fooling around. So get your blog started now so that in a week or two your blogless friends will come to you, timidly asking how to set up a blog. Suddenly, you're the expert!
My blog's at www.blogspot.com. It's free. I set up two blogs in about two hours without reading a book on blogging or taking a class on it. In fact, I've never taken a computer class. I don't know any programming languages. Yet, I excel at asking dumb questions and fearlessly fooling around.
With so many useful technologies coming at us writers so quickly, we simply must keep learning. As Al Rogers of the Global Schoolhouse Network said, "In times of profound change, the learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists." (Al Rogers, Global Schoolhouse Network)
Baby Step #3: Get a Host and a Web Address (URL)
Pay $5.00 to $10.00 a month for a site that allows me to have more space than I'll ever need and runs every feature I'm likely to ever need. If you don’t have $5.00 per month to spend, start with a free Web space. Some Web hosts allow beginners to choose from thousands of templates and build your site without having to use additional software. Additionally, you’ll need to pay about $1 per month for a distinct URL, like northgeorgiamountainlife.com. You can probably get your url through your Web host, or buy it from places like www.000domains.com .
Side note: Don’t overpay for a site! We see people paying thousands for something their middle school son could have put up on a free server. Sites like www.cnet.com [click “reviews” , then “all categories”, then “web hosting”] review and compare hosts for price and quality. As I write (3/6/08), www.hostgator.com is very popular, starting at $4.95 per month for more space and bandwidth than you’ll probably ever need. Search cnet’s forum also for people’s experiences with various hosts. Check with other Georgia writers to see what hosts they use.
How do you choose a name for your blog or forum? Consider choosing, not just something memorable, but a word or phrase that people are already searching in search engines. But more on that later.
Baby Step #4: Create a Simple Site That’s Easy to Navigate
I’d start with an author site. First, look at a bunch of other author sites. Decide what features and organizational structure you like. Second, get it out there. Third, ask your children, husband and friends to try to find something on the site and see if it makes sense to them. Ask everybody to give their honest opinion and revise.
(Recommended reading: Don’t Make Me Think)
Baby Step #5: Make It Easy for People to Find You on Search Engines (Learn to Think Like a Search Engine)
Google spiders crawl the web to determine whether your site gets on page one or page 170 of a search. Now, try to think like a search engine. If you were Google, what characteristics of sites would you try to bring to the first page of a search? (This is a very important step, which may lead to innovations that you never see the experts recommend.)
The technical term for this area of study is “Search Engine Optimization,” or SEO. I was forced into studying it because I had more content than almost anyone at the time on youth ministry, but I couldn’t get my site positioned any closer than the fifth page of a google search (which might as well have been Outer Mongolia) for the all important term “youth ministry.”
Here are some of the basics of helping people find your site. This is the outline I use when I’ve been a guest lecturer on search engine optimization in a KSU New Media class.
1. Use a good host. (Assume free sites might not be as professional?)
2. Offer great content that people want to return for and link to.
3. Brainstorm all the words and phrases people might use to look for your material.
4. Discover which of these words and phrases are searched significantly. (http://www.webconfs.com/keyword-playground.php )
5. Determine which searches (words and phrases) you want to attract with each page. (Many don’t enter your site from the home page.) Some terms may be searched less, but are more targeted. (“Character Education Lessons” rather than “Character Education”)
6. Offer lots of free content out in the open (not in a database or locked away in a members’ section.) Use the word “free.”
7. Use your key words generously (but don’t get crazy: eight times in a content page might look good; fifty times may look like you’re trying to spam the system.
8. Use your key words in different ways and on different parts of the page (top and bottom, in naming links, names of images, as a “heading” [see font type in MS Word], in bold).
9. Use key words in meta tags (not visible to site visitors, but to spiders).
10. Put appropriate tags below your blog entries.
11. GET INBOUND LINKS (from other sites and blogs) and word them with the appropriate key words. This is key!
12. If you have problems attracting certain key terms, and if you legitimately consider yourself having top content, consider starting a separate portal site (Like: “Top Sites on North Georgia Mountains”) for your topic, recommending your site as one to go to.
13. Experiment with “pay per click” with Google Ad Words and Yahoo Marketing Solutions.
Warning! Don’t attempt unethical tricks like hiding key words in the same color as your background. There are many tricks out there, but search engines typically find them out and ban them. Also, don’t submit your site to places claiming, “We submit your site to 100 search engines.” Studies show it doesn’t work.
Note: When you begin to think like a search engine, you’ll have to deal with two sets of tensions:
- Writing for people versus writing for search engines. Your titles, links, etc., can no longer be just cutesy, creative phrases. You need to consider what searches you want to find you. Since your book will be searched by topic in Amazon, consider search engines when naming your books. Example: “The Contemporary Christian Music Debate” versus “The Redemption of Rock”
- Designing for people versus designing for search engines. (Content in an image or flash presentation may look great but won’t be seen at all by search engines.)
Baby step #6: Start Putting Up Regular, Excellent Content
A good place to start is to have a Home page, another section for Articles, another for Recommended Reading and another for Links. You’re researching anyway. If nothing else, it gives you a good place to keep up with your research. Don’t try to start something like a forum unless you’ve already got a good many people coming to your site.
An ambitious goal would be to become the portal for all things about your niche. You become sort of like the trade association, the place to find the best articles and enter the best discussions and the place to discover the best-recommended books in the field or the best set of links to the most helpful sites.
Now there’s no way I could do that for personal money management in general. I can’t compete with the excellent sites of the huge mutual fund companies or Money magazine or the Microsoft Network. But I can aspire to have the go-to site for those teaching personal money management in the schools or in service agencies or to your children. You could have the go-to site for….
How I Developed My Web-Based Platform
In about 1995 I decided to serve youth workers globally. (Actually, after my wife was diagnosed with cancer and we had to return to the States from Slovakia, this was the only way I could conceive of keeping my ministry alive and supplementing my income while caring for my wife and four boys. In the former Communist block, most of these guys wanted lesson plans that had been formerly been banned by the Communists. So I began writing lessons that were translated and distributed to youth workers via CD’s. I met a need.
When I discovered how to use the Web in the mid 1990’s, I began putting the lessons on a site to reach a more global audience. Today, I offer over 150 articles on how to do youth ministry, over 3500 speakers illustrations searchable by topic or as a database, over 1000 pages of lessons and articles on how to study and how to teach. So it’s no shock that, for a time, around 700 unique visitors were coming to the site per day. (Now I’ve had to start over after a friendly parting with the organization I was with, so that today we’re still in the rebuilding stage.)
On the Character site I’ve collected scores of articles on character education by educators, experts in developmental psychology, etc.
Where do I get these articles?
1) I ask permission for any great article I read. Most authors let me reprint them on my site, as long as I give proper credit and a link back to their site.
2) Out of print books that are still the best.
3) In print books that allow a chapter for use.
Why would they give them away free? Because they want exposure and to get links back to their sites. I’m doing them a favor!
“That’s overwhelming!” you object. “How could I ever develop such a vast resource?” Well, for me it’s the same way I’d eat an elephant - one little bite at a time. Start with reading other people’s blogs in your area of interest. Comment on them. Start your own blog. Ask your friends how they did this and that on their blog.
Ask your friends about their Web sites. Start yours. Get permission to put somebody’s article on it. Keep adding great content a little bit at a time and commit yourself to never stop learning. Ask at least one stupid question every day. That’s how you learn the Web.
Our character site, providing character education resources to public schools gets from 500 to 700 individual visitors per day. That’s about 1000 people per day coming to those two sites.
It all started and progressed with serving people and one day I looked around and, what do you know, I was standing on a platform.
A Note on Containing Costs
Sam Walton’s brother, Bud, says that they made money at Wal-Mart by saving money. Sam drove around his old truck. Their early offices were shabby. By containing our monthly costs, we can make it as writers!
Each of these sites costs me $5 per month to have the site hosted (cost for the servers that host it) and about $1 per month for each Web address (url). And as hard as I write and add new material, I’m still only using about 5% of the space I could use for that amount.
I work at home, so I don’t have to pay for an office or gas. I can’t emphasize enough – contain your costs. If your platform and publishing expenses get out of hand, you’ll never make any money selling your writing.
Sources of Revenue
My involvement with the Web has slowly morphed my thinking on books and magazines. While they’re still important, they’re certainly not the only way to disseminate ideas and support my family with my writing. In other words, these Web-based tools aren’t just a platform for my book-writing. They are worthy enterprises in themselves and in a real sense my books become platforms for my Web-writing. Here are some ways I can generate income from my sites:
1. Selling memberships to my members’ areas. On the character site I sell a membership to its members section (lesson plans, stories, activities, etc.) to individuals for $14.75 for a year or $24.75 for four years. An entire school can use it for $99.00 for one year or $199.00 for four years. Generally, this all happens automatically from my end. They find it on the Web, subscribe by credit card or request to pay by check. I check my e-mail and answer occasional questions. Otherwise, it flies on auto-pilot. I may be making sales as I speak to you today. Nobody has to wrap books and take them to the post office. It’s all online.
2. Selling advertising through Google Adsense and other services. If you start getting a lot of traffic, you can make money from ads, just like a magazine. (But please, no annoying pop-ups!) It’s easy to set up and experiment with. You can do it on your blogs as well as your sites.
3. Selling recommended books and getting a referral fee from Amazon.com. As I researched finances, I began to write book summaries as a free service to those who would like to know the gist of some great books on personal finance. This is different from Amazon book reviews. I just summarize the advice of each book. That helps me to retain more from my reading. But it helps people studying finance to compare, for example, what Suze Orman recommends for investing as opposed to Dave Ramsey. Once you set up an Associates Account with Amazon, you can copy and paste some code into your html (You don’t have to know html code. I don’t.) that links the book to Amazon. If someone buys the book, or simply goes to Amazon from my site and ends up buying any book, I get a cut. And it all happens silently in the background without me having to fill orders, flowing into my bank account each month.
4. Selling e-books. Although I have no present motivation to read books on hand-held devices (1. I mark up books for future research. 2. I’m not on the road a lot.) I know that they’re valuable to many others. Why not make it available when it’s free? I’m working on a Kindle book and may also sell one as a pdf.
All of these products produce multiple streams of income for an author. None of these avenues were available before the Web revolutionized everything.
The End Product
As you get your blog and site set up, you can spend your time writing. If you can’t sell your article to a magazine, you can put it on your blog and your collection of articles. (In fact, I never write an article that they won’t allow to be put on my site after their publication.) If I can continue to increase the revenue from my writing, I can work from anywhere in the world that I can access the internet.
The result? I’m offering people something of value, something they’ll come back for. In my books, I’ll refer readers to my sites. On my sites, I’ll refer readers to my books. If you love to write, it’s a really fulfilling way to live!
By the way, we can all help each other out as Georgia Writers by linking to one another’s sites and blogs. It’s in all of our interest to increase our traffic by getting better positioned with search engines. Search engines strongly favor sites with many incoming links. If the thirty people here linked to your site, don’t you think that would help? So everyone get on Crowdvine, type in your author site, then ask the other authors if they’d set up a section on their site for “Author Links.” This is a no-brainer. Let’s do it.
Other ideas on utilizing the Web or on other types of platforms that work? Respond below!