What I Learned About Author Platform By Spring-Cleaning My Blog

I’ve spent a significant part of the last twenty-four hours doing a spring-clean of petermball.com, going through a bunch of old posts and cleaning up broken links, adding tags that didn’t previously exist, and generally cleaning up some of the clutter in the category section to make it easier to find old content.

This proved to be a considerably weird task. I set out with no real plan when I launched the site in 2008, basing my approach to blogging on my experiences with livejournal and mimicking the style of blog posts used by authors whose platforms I particularly enjoyed. And this worked, for a time, but as with most long-term projects that writers start, it grew more complex and thought-out as I went along.

It’s also proved valuable to look at my old blogging habits with the benefit of hindsight, especially since I kicked things off with a very different mindset than I bring to the blog today. Since talking about author platform is one of our things at work (and I’m teaching Year of the Author Platform for QWC this year), I found myself taking notes as I went along.

IT ALL STARTED WITH CONNECTION

I found myself wincing an awful lot when I went through the first few years of posts. After going through the first six months, I felt the need to track down everyone who followed my blog in those days and apologise profusely for wasting their time.

While a lot of those early posts felt banal – and hell, lets be honest, they were banal in a lot of ways – they’re also an artifact of a different era in terms of the internet.

In 2008 Facebook was only just hitting maturity as a platform, three years into its rapid rise. Twitter was two years old at that point, but on the tail end of it’s first real growth spurt that plunged it into the public consciousness. Livejournal still seemed like a vibrant community hub, although the downward trend had started, and we still talked about MySpace as thought it had the potential to rise from the dead.

While there were undoubtedly writers out there who were ahead of the curve in terms of providing content, writers and readers alike were still in the tail end of the era where connection still seemed like an exciting thing.

AS PLATFORM TOOLS MATURE, YOUR APPROACH NEEDS TO EVOLVE

In 2008 were hundreds of authors – established and aspiring – who worked off the theory that building a platform meant showing up and letting people get a glimpse of your life: the day-to-day routine, the writing process, the successes and failures.

Move forward five or six years and the initial thrill of connection has largely played itself out. We’re no longer interested in seeing blog posts about the minutia of one-another’s lives – twitter and facebook handle that so much better – and the folks who have survived and thrived were the people providing quality content that engaged their readers.

Short version: we don’t really care what you did with your weekend anymore, unless you’re a writer we’ve already heavily invested in for other reasons.

KEEP YOUR CATEGORIES LEAN AND MEAN

My categories grew pretty organically when I started blogging, which would have been fine if I’d kept an eye on things and used the same ones over-and-over. Unfortunately, that isn’t the way things happened, and by the time I started the spring-clean there 3 categories packed with posts and over twenty categories on my blog that had 4 or fewer posts. Some of them existed as an in-joke, rather than a means of sorting and finding content on the blog.

Given how useful they are as a tool – and how important they are to a whole bunch of plug-ins – I really should have spent a little more time thinking these through when I started.

Now I’ve cut things back to eleven categories that serve as a better break-down of the kinds of things I’ve blogged about in the past, or plan to blog about in the future. The final wording for each category still needs to be fine-tuned, but they’re doing the job they’re meant to be doing.

“NOTHING” IS BETTER THAN “CLUTTER”

If you’re not inclined to keep your categories focused, I’d argue you’re better off not using them and focusing on tags instead. I can tell you from working my way through the nightmare that was this site, nothing is better than clutter.

Or, if you are going to create things on the fly, have a running list of what you’ve already created and using. It’ll keep you from having a list that includes, say, punk, punk music, punk rock, and punk videos, all doing the same thing.

STOP LIVING WITH WHAT USED TO WORK AND LEARN TO USE YOUR TOOLS

One of the reasons I didn’t put much thought into choosing WordPress as a CMS when I debuted. I picked it because it promised the possibility of cross-posting to livejournal, which seemed significantly more important in 2008.

Like many authors, I still had a fairly engaged community built up on LJ, and despite the logic behind starting a self-hosted site to “look more professional,” my focus (and comment threads) remained over there. I didn’t really embrace the strengths of WordPress and focused on making it act like Livejournal for a good year or two before I finally acknowledged that me and livejournal were done.

I could have saved myself an awful lot of time while spring-cleaning my content if I’d just learned how to use WordPress and its various features from the outset. If you’re going to use a new blogging system or social media tool, commit to it. Learn it’s strengths and figure out how to use its important features.

LATER COMES MUCH LATER THAN YOU THINK

I set out to do this update about two years back, when it first occurred to me that I should have a little more focus on the blog. “I’ll get to it sooner or later.”

So much of your platform is a day-to-day thing, focusing on the next post, the next tweet, the next instagram photo. You have to make time to actually plan things, otherwise it keeps getting pushed further and further into the background.

OLD CONTENT NEVER REALLY DIES

A lot of the day-to-day posts aren’t really interesting, but even going back to the early days of the site there were a handful of posts that were still relevant and useful. Pro-Bloggers and non-fiction writers have always known the value of having evergreen content that never goes out of date, but it never really seems to be on the radar of most fiction writers.

It’s worth paying attention to your archives, even if you’ve been a fairly day-by-day blogger. I’ve got a whole file full of stuff that I’d be happy to call attention to again, plus some posts where I did such a half-arsed job of explaining something that there’s probably some mileage to be had out of revisiting the topic.

GIVE CONTEXT TO OUTGOING LINKS

In the early days of this blog, I spent a little over a year posting youtube clips of my favourite songs every Friday. While I occasionally posted a lot of commentary with those links, there were just as many posts where I simply threw up the video and said enjoy, see you all Monday, peeps before disappearing.

There’s a time and a place for the occasional quick link or youtube clip, but it’s worth noting that internet isn’t the most permanent of places.  Youtube account get cancelled. Blogs get shut down. Someone re-organises their site and a whole bunch of incoming links end up broken.

These days I tend to do a lot more of my link-sharing over on twitter, where the fast pace means the lack of permanence isn’t as big an issue, but when you’re posting links from a blog, make sure you give the reader (and yourself) some context about what they’re going to find on the far side. This will allow them to figure out if trying to find the link is worthwhile, and also gives them some insight into what should be typed into Google in order to find the information you’re looking for.

THE SPOOKY THING ABOUT A BLOG

It occurred to me, very recently, that a writer’s blog is probably the most sustained, long-term engagement they’ll ever have with their audience. Fans will read a story in an hour or so, a novel in a couple of days, but fans of a blog can potentially stick around for years if the content and the narrative they’re being offered is to their liking.

This, if nothing else, is one of those things that drives me to blog better than I am.

PLACE THE MOST TRUST IN THE TOOLS YOU OWN

For all the mistakes I made kicking off this site, it still remains the smartest thing I’ve done in terms of developing an author platform. It provides a central hub from which everything else happens, a stable core to my online activities that can adept with the changing internet.

The best metaphor I’ve seen in this regard comes from Michael Hyatt’s book, Platform, where he points out that we’re essentially renting our space on services like twitter, facebook, and, yes, livejournal. We’re at the mercy of the people who run those services, and when they cease to be profitable, those services can go away.

Using a website you pay for as the core of your online presence makes sense, because it means that you’re the one who decides how long it stays online and what happens to the content you put there.

If you’re going to invest in learning to use any part of your platform well, start with your site and work out from there. Everything else you’re renting, but your site is the one thing you own.

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