The Art and Business of Reader Engagement and Author Platform

author platform, reader engagement
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In the nonprofit world, you’ll frequently hear about “audience development,” which concerns itself with outreach to people interested in what you do, and customizing that outreach based on a person’s level of interest.

Audience development is difficult to strictly define because it involves not just pure marketing, but one-on-one relationships. It’s not about selling (although the result is often sales); it’s about creating an experience or community that engages with you over the long term. And that requires that you communicate with your readers meaningfully and consistently.

One of the best summaries of audience development I’ve read is from Shoshana Fanizza, who has spent more than a decade in arts development:

Audience Development, in a nutshell, is all about relationship building to achieve the “power of people” to support your art form. Consider it as building positive energy, people energy, to attract more support for you. Audience development does take time to see results. It is a building process.  …  You want to get to know your audience and connect with them. If they feel connected and cared for, they will want to become more involved. It will take effort and persistence, but you will see the relationships you build start to form a positive community around your art. This community is the key to succeeding!

So, audience development is a fancy business word for directly communicating with your readership, and engaging with them in a way that’s mutually beneficial and respectful. What follows is a starting framework and strategy for doing just that, and much of it overlaps with developing your platform. (If you don’t know what platform is, read my definition here.)

Why is this important?

You should take full ownership of reader engagement because it represents an investment in your lifelong career as an author. Don’t rely on a publisher, agent, or consultant to find and “keep” your audience for you. If you find and nurture it on platforms and channels that you own, that’s like putting money in the bank.

Part One: The Art and the Authenticity

When new authors ask me if they can just hire someone to engage with readers (e.g., on social media or elsewhere), they’re often missing the point and the benefit of communicating with readers. Learning about readers directly and strengthening the connection leads to better marketing and promotion in the long term. When done well, it requires that you be present and be authentic. It’s tough to do that if someone else is pretending to be you—and it can also prevent you from gaining insights into how to improve your future work. For example, many of the blog posts I write here, or fully reported pieces I produce, are a direct result of questions and conversations I have with writers on social media or writers I meet at conferences.

However you decide to directly communicate with readers, it’s important that:

  • You enjoy the tools or platforms—so you stick with them for the long haul (plus readers can tell if you’re not enjoying yourself).
  • You’re consistent with your voice and style, and that you don’t adopt a “marketing voice” that might be a turn off to readers.
  • You focus on what’s satisfying and engaging for both you and readers.

People often respond well to playfulness, or when you’re not taking yourself too seriously. This isn’t to say you can’t or shouldn’t discuss serious issues. Rather, it means you’re not afraid to experiment, have fun, and be human. Not to get too psychological, but knowing yourself and feeling secure about who you are (and what you are not) goes a long way toward successful communication with your audience. (This is true for any business or organization as well.)

Part Two: The Business

First things first: However and whenever you engage with readers, it should be on a permission basis. That means the reader has already indicated they want to hear from you—by liking you, following you, signing up for e-mails from you, etc. Based on the level of interest expressed, behave accordingly. For instance, how you behave and communicate with Twitter followers should be different than how you communicate with long-time subscribers of your e-mail newsletter.

Your communications will usually have 1 of 2 objectives:

  1. Sales-focused, e.g., book-launch announcements
  2. Relationship-focused (platform and audience development)

Sales-focused communications are typically tied to specific marketing campaigns, book launches, or other strategic initiatives when you’re measuring their effectiveness and impact. (If they’re not, consider why you’re sending out sales messages without a strategy in place.)

For the purposes of this article, I’m focused on relationship-focused communication (which often impacts the success of your sales communication). A few of the most critical tools include the following.

1. Your own website + Google Analytics. Your website is one of the best tools you have when making first contact with existing readers. You can use it to capture and communicate with your audience on a career-long basis through a blog or an e-mail newsletter, and you can analyze how people find you, what affects people’s interest in you (and how/when they spread the word about your work), and what content is most popular with readers.

How do you find all this out? Both Google Analytics and e-mail newsletter analytics (more on e-newsletters next) will tell you a very pointed story about what your readers are looking for and what keeps their interest. You can uncover whether or not your social media accounts are having any impact on spreading the word (building buzz), and you’ll learn what keywords people search for that land them on your content. This kind of data is invaluable when making hard choices about where to spend your time communicating with readers (especially when you need to focus on writing), what readers value in the relationship, and what they want to see more of.

Look at your website today, and ensure you’re giving visitors an action step. What is it you want them to do when they arrive? Should they sign up for your e-newsletter? Should they get a free download? Should they follow you on Facebook or Twitter? If you’re not prompting visitors to act, they probably won’t.

2. E-mail newsletter. E-mail is not dead. It is still one of the most effective marketing techniques available anywhere, to anyone. And for authors, it allows you to communicate reliably and directly with your audience from one book to the next. You own the e-mail list, and you want the power of direct engagement with your readers without the danger of websites folding, platforms changing, or publishers merging.

Therefore, on your website (and anywhere else where it makes sense: Facebook fan page, writing conference engagements, etc): Ask people to sign-up for your e-mail newsletter. MailChimp is an excellent e-mail newsletter provider to use, free up to 2,000 names.

There are different types of content strategies for the e-mail newsletter; some authors only e-mail their readers one or two times a year, with a brief news summary or updates about new releases. Others e-mail more frequently and take time to send out useful content. For example, author C.J. Lyons interviews an author and includes the Q&A in the newsletters she sends.

I prefer the useful content strategy, but whatever strategy you choose, don’t let your list languish without making contact at least one or two times per year. Otherwise, people will forget they signed up, mark you as spam, and your efforts will have been in vain.

3. Social media sites or online communities that your readers frequent. Hopefully there is a sweet spot between:

  • What social media or online communities you enjoy
  • Where your readers reliably gather and communicate
  • What mediums naturally complement your work

I advise experimentation until you figure out which sites or communities carry the most meaning and impact for reader communication (using analytics to help you determine the best choices). Once you identify which channel is effective for you, the big question becomes: What do you do there? Well, it’s not about blasting buy-this information. To be an interesting person, you have to be interested in the world, and in other people. You have to be curious. So find ways to post and share about things that fascinate you or puzzle you. Post questions for other people to answer. Ask people to share something. You may not get it right at first, but remember: playfulness helps.

4. Customized communication and experiences. The people you reach (online or off) will all be at different stages of commitment to you and your work. Your communication must respect this and be segmented by audience as much as possible. There are two particular types of reader that deserve special attention and communication.

The new reader. To introduce new people to your work, I recommend the cheese-cube lure. Offer something for free (a free chapter, a blog with cool content, a special digital download, etc). Cast a wide net with something broadly appealing. Then gradually move people into more serious commitments (by earning their trust), such as signing up for your e-newsletter or buying your book.

The true fan. For the readers who would buy anything you ever published, consider special communication and experiences only available to them. You know how your city symphony will have a VIP room with cookies and chocolate during intermission, for certain season subscribers? Think about what your VIP experience looks like, too. For some authors, that means earliest access and cheapest prices for their most loyal fans.

Final note

Strong reader relationships build unbelievable opportunities. Marketing and promotion ideas usually start by considering what reader relationships you have in place—or can build on. It’s easier to start with reader relationships you have, rather than cold calling strangers when you need help spreading word of mouth. When you have a book coming out, share calls to action with your first circle of most devoted fans or supporters, and customize each communication to be appropriate to the level of commitment demonstrated by the reader. Never blast the same message to everyone; treat your long-time, loyal readers differently than someone new or casual.

If you’re looking for a few models to follow, study the online presence of these authors:

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