How and Why to Build a Twitter Following While Unpublished

Image: illustration of birds following the leader

Today’s guest post is by author Emma Lombard (@LombardEmma).

As a new author, there is so much conflicting information about whether you should or shouldn’t have an author platform before you’re published. I decided to err on the side of caution, and forge ahead with building one, starting with resurrecting my dormant Twitter account. I pretty much started from scratch with only 36 followers and very little knowledge about how Twitter worked.

Through a crazy baptism of fire, I soon learned the ins and outs of Twitter. I jotted down my discoveries in a blog series called Twitter Tips for Newbies, which, to my utter surprise, has proven popular in Twitter’s #WritingCommunity.

So far, I’ve amassed 20,000 followers on Twitter in my first year. Before I dig into how that happened, a couple quick ground rules if you’re new to the Twitter community:

  • Don’t follow without screening who you are following first—or you’ll end up with some eye-popping content on your feed).
  • Keep your follower-following numbers even while you’re below the 5,000 mark. Don’t race ahead and follow a bazillion accounts. Essentially, this is what bots do and Twitter will put you in Twitter jail and prevent you from following accounts.

Here are my top three call-to-action strategies that work.

1. Retweeting = Exposure

Once a week, I post a tweet offering to retweet my follower’s pinned posts. When you offer this first, it makes it easier to then ask them to retweet yours too (as opposed to just yelling out into the Twitter void that you want your pinned post retweeted). But I always go one step further and ask them to also support and retweet 5 other pinned posts from folks on that thread.

The upside to this:

  • Folks online love this rallying of the troops. Yes, it may mean I end up retweeting hundreds of pinned tweets over a few days, but the payoff is having hundreds of folks retweet my pinned post. It’s a win-win for everyone.
  • Twitter’s algorithms perk up and pay attention to a post that is getting a lot of activity and will push your pinned post out for more people to see—so make sure your pinned post is worthy of sharing far and wide.

The downside to this:

  • I’ve read so many people (including those who comment on my retweet feeds) that they won’t even retweet all 5 pinned posts in one day because they don’t want to fill their Twitter feed with retweets and scare off their followers. But Twitter’s algorithms do not push every single retweet onto people’s feeds, so you won’t be flooding their feeds with dozens of retweets (plus, Twitter has an option to turn off follower’s retweets if you find them annoying).
  • If you don’t support your followers, later on, no one is going to step up and help you. You’ll be surprised who remembers.

My biggest wins using this strategy:

  • This is how my Twitter Tips for Newbies blog series exploded onto the #WritingCommunity scene.
  • It’s also how, in less than two months, I gathered over 100 subscribers to my brand-new newsletter, By the Book.

2. Promote Newbies

I regularly post a tweet dedicated to writers and readers with fewer than 1,000 followers. I give newbies a larger platform on which to meet other newbies. Some folks are terribly intimidated by large accounts, but they quite happily engage with smaller accounts. This is why I rally my other followers with more than 1,000 followers to retweet the post.

The upside to this:

  • Until newbies have at least 1,000 followers, they aren’t even a blip on Twitter’s algorithm radar. Even if they have a couple hundred followers, the algorithms don’t push them onto their followers’ feed. So, helping newbies get over this 1,000-follower mark is doing them a great service.
  • When you’ve helped someone in their often terrifying first few days or weeks on Twitter, they don’t forget you! It’s one sure-fire way to build up champions in your corner.

The downside to this:

  • Sometimes you might follow a new account that doesn’t have any history, so you don’t know if they’re a good fit for you. If you take a punt on a newbie and suddenly discover a few days later that they are pushing out content that makes you uncomfortable, it’s okay to unfollow them (though don’t just unfollow for the sake of building up your numbers—many folks have a nose for this and will call you out on it).

My biggest wins using this strategy:

  • I fell in love with literary agent Janet Reid’s Query Shark blog, where she critiques query letters online. So, imagine how hard I fan-girled the day Janet followed me on Twitter and then sent me a message thanking me for helping one of her authors build their Twitter platform! I nearly fell off my chair. It just goes to show, you never know who’s watching.
  • While I was still numb with shock, I made one of the most audacious moves of my career at that stage and I emailed Janet asking her if she’d grant me an interview with her. She said YES because by that stage I’d helped another two of her authors with their Twitter platforms. I was oblivious to these connections. This time, the chair could not hold me and I happy danced around my kitchen much to the disdain of my two cats.
  • This then opened the door for me to use Janet’s query letter critique service for my own query letter, which has so far helped me hook two agents into reading my manuscript.

3. Engage, Engage, Engage

Lift other writers up and celebrate their achievements—they aren’t your competition, they are your peers and team mates. Share what you’ve discovered on your authoring journey, including your blunders (readers love seeing your vulnerabilities; it helps build real connections with people).

More ideas for engagement: Welcome newbies. If someone’s having a bad day, send them a gif hug. Enter competitions and giveaways. Respond to the comments on your tweets. Post and comment on interesting articles.

And have fun.

The upside to this:

  • You never know who just might pop out of the woodwork and end up following you.
  • Even if folks in the publishing industry are not following you, you can be sure that they’ll be noticing your online behavior and activity. If you’re playing the long game of becoming a professional writer, this kind of attention is invaluable.

The downside to this:

  • If you choose to be more liberal with your voice online, this may be a deterrent to some followers.
  • On the other hand, it may also attract you to others who are more your tribe, though this may shrink your networking opportunities.

My biggest wins using this strategy:

  • By using the #HistoricalFiction hashtag, I was followed by historical fiction specialist editor, Andrew Noakes from The History Quill at the exact moment in my career when I needed an editor! Not only have Andrew and his team proven to be consummate professionals in helping me edit my manuscript, but I was also drawn into his writing workshop and critique group. I now have several published historical fiction authors as critique partners, who provide exceptional feedback on my latest work.
  • Twitter is where I found my amazingly talented illustrator, Tara Phillips. And where I won a competition to have one of my characters illustrated by author and illustrator Eleonora Mignoli.
  • I’m now invited to write guest blogs on other websites, and I have successfully secured interviews with other publishing industry professionals and writers. (Don’t be shy to ask—you’ll be surprised how many people are amenable to doing an interview or being a guest blogger. The worst that can happen is they say no.)
  • I’ve been invited to write for and compile two separate anthologies (that I’ve unfortunately had to turn down due to not wanting to overburden myself).

Still Not Published

All this has happened in a year and I still don’t have my novel published—it’s currently in the querying trenches.

I don’t want this to sound like a brag fest—I want to show other new writers out there that there is great value in using Twitter as part of your author platform. Overall, the key to a successful Twitter account is engagement. Engage with and lift up other writers and readers so that when your day comes to share news about your book launch, you will have champions in your corner.

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