If you’ve recently started up a new friendship with a writer and you’d like to see it go South in like 1 minute, lean over your cup of coffee the next time the two of you get together and say, “Tell me about your platform!”
The word platform is to writers what sunlight is to vampires. It’s scary. No matter how fast you’re Twittering, it’s never enough. The first time I heard the P-word, I turned to a nearby writer with my signature slack-jawed “Quoi?” expression, and she said glibly, “You know, like do you have a TV show, a column in a national newspaper, stuff like that.” Oh right, my TV show, I forgot. I bumbled through the next few years with a hazy but daunting definition of platform and did not find relief until I came across this definition in Christina Katz‘s truly sensible book Get Known Before the Book Deal: “A platform is what you currently do, besides writing, to connect with your readership.”
Jen Singer, creator of the super popular MommaSaid.net site (and much more–see bio below), is here today to talk about platform building, giving us a sneak peek of the keynote speech she’ll be giving at the ASJA conference in NYC later this month. (I’ll be there for the first time, so if you see me wandering around with a dazed expression, please say Hi.)
Theo: Tell us a bit about how you’ve built your platform? I read somewhere that you had a bad case of “platform envy” and then consciously set out to build one.
Jen Singer: Back in the day, before anybody had put together the words “mom” and “blogger,” back when a new author could still get some marketing support from their publishers, I read the “About the Author” blurbs on book covers religiously. I knew that I needed what those authors had – credits from major magazines – to get my first book published.
But every time I reached another goal, such as a clip from The New York Times or Newsweek or Parenting, it seemed the bar would be raised a little higher. Soon, a would-be author needed more than just clips. They needed a following. But that’s a little chicken-and-egg – how do you get a following without a book?
I relieved my platform envy by using new media, including blogs and later, social media, to build and maintain that following from my first book through my fifth. And now, I’m doing the very same thing for a cancer memoir I’m working on, “If Cancer is a Gift, Where Can I Return it?” I am building the following for that future book with a new site called, ParentingWithCancer.com.
But really, I’ve been building it ever since I was diagnosed (and now three-and-half years in remission) by blogging about parenting with cancer in real time for GoodHousekeeping.com and MommaSaid.net, writing about it in magazines (see above: Newsweek) and building a network of fellow survivors who I hope will help me bring the new site and the memoir to life.
Theo: Was there a specific event that made you realize you’d arrived, your platform was built?
Jen Singer: Ah, that’s the rub: Your platform is never finished. But that’s also the fun of it. Contrary to popular belief, appearing on the Today Show doesn’t necessarily signal the top of your platform, any more than it guarantees you a pool in the backyard shaped like an open book. (Mine would have pages for steps…someday.)
While Today and all of my TV appearances, my clips, my blogs, my speeches, my corporate spokespersonships, my awards and of course, my books, do make for an impressive show of “overnight success” that took a decade or so, they’re not the end. They’re simply another fabulous layer in my platform, which never gets finished.
Theo: What sort of platform attracts media and corporate sponsors?
Jen Singer: Your platform can open doors you might not have otherwise opened. Both the media and corporate sponsors want to know that you have a dedicated following of a decent size and credits or endorsements from other media and corporations.
If, say, they see that you’ve appeared on the CBS Evening News, published books with the folks that put out the “Chicken Soup for the Soul” series, served as a spokesperson for Pull-Ups, Hershey’s, Coinstar, Microsoft, SC Johnson, etc., then they’re more likely to take a chance on you. Add in great video clips and an award or two, and your platform will take you farther than if you just had a handful of clips from regional magazines and one local TV appearance which you shared with the Chamber of Commerce and a dog that catches Frisbees in its mouth.
Theo: What advice would you give to writers starting out? If you have no platform, where do you start?
That’s the beauty of social media – it’s the great equalizer. When I launched MommaSaid in 2003, Facebook was for college kids and Twitter was something birds did in trees. I had to build a following with mainstream media by crafting press releases and answering PR leads. Newbies should still do that, but they should also craft fabulous blog posts that make people want to come back for more and cultivate followings on Twitter and Facebook. How? Watch people with bigger platforms and emulate them. A little platform envy does us all some good.
Jen Singer is the author of five books, including the “Stop Second-Guessing Yourself” Guides to parenting (HCI and “You’re a Good Mom (and Your Kids Aren’t So Bad Either)” (Sourcebooks). She is the editor-in-chief of MommaSaid.net and ParentingWithCancer.com. She has served as a spokesperson for major brands including, Pull-Ups, Microsoft, Purina, SC Johnson, Hershey’s and Coinstar. She has written for or appeared in numerous media outlets, including the Today Show, CBS The Early Show, CNN International, Radio Disney, Newsweek, Parents, American Baby, GoodHousekeeping.com and many more. She will serve as the keynote speaker for the 40th anniversary ASJA conference. She lives in New Jersey with her family and a soccer ball that rolls around her mini-van’s floor whenever she hits the brakes. For more information, visit Jen-Singer.com.
“Back when a new author could still get some marketing support from their publishers…” What was that like, Jen? Did you experience it? I’m trying to picture it, but it’s just too dim and far away a notion. 🙂
Thanks for the great interview. I don’t know if you’re still hanging around but one thing I was wondering is how bloggers prove they have a following. Does anyone ask for your numbers when you are shopping a deal, and if so, how do you prove their real? Because if no one vets them, I might just make some up. 🙂
I know. What must it have been like to publish in the glory days of, say, 2003?
I’ve also wondered about how proof of the traffic numbers is acquired by publishers.
I meant “they’re.” Was just testing y’all. 😉
Platform is fungible. You need followers/an audience/credibility — and, yes, it needs to be national and substantial if you want to publish commercially. But we all have our our audiences and they do not need to be as Big and Fancy as some people would like you to believe.
A smart publisher is also aware of the potential readership for your book(s) and their subjects…My new memoir is about working retail which has 15 m people working in it in America. My “platform” was merely working at a store as an associate, but the book is already finding all sorts of new fans among high-level retail folks, which is creating a larger platform I hadn’t necessarily anticipated.
There are all sorts of metrics for publishers to measure. They can check your Alexa ranking or your Compete.com rankings, but I find those to be misleading unless you go through the trouble of massaging them. (For example, Alexa measures how many people who have downloaded the Alexa toolbar who came to your site.)
Instead, I take a screen shot of my server company’s stats and send them over, along with my Klout score, which measures your social media influence on Twitter and Facebook (but you need to set it up: Klout.com). Also, they can see my Twitter and Facebook (MommaSaid and personal) page followings.
I agree with the commenter above: numbers matter but not as much as influence and community.
Thanks for this great information — I just started blogging a couple months ago and this is the first I’ve heard about a “platform”! I better get crackin’!
Yes, publishers do vet traffic information, as well as Twitter followers and Facebook fans. I supplied a screenshot of my web stats to my publisher, because my server company has the most accurate numbers compared to an Alexa or Compete, for instance.
Klout is another good measurement of social meda influence, because it goes beyond the numbers and into how much influence you have. If, for instance, you have 70,000 followers online but little engagement, how can you be sure you’re influential enough to sell them books compared to someone with 8,000 followers and a high influence score.
I just got back from Mom 2.0, where the new thinking is that influence is more important than metrics. Whether publishing will catch up to that idea any time soon is another issue.
Thanks, Theo, for a great interview.