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November 21, 2016
By Alex Daniel
As social media platforms get more crowded, indie authors are recalibrating their marketing efforts.

As social media platforms evolve, adding new tools, mobile offerings, and enhanced personalization, indie authors are evolving with them. Facebook, Twitter, and the other major platforms are more crowded than ever, requiring authors to find more creative ways to be heard above the noise. Compounding this challenge is that these platforms have been adjusting their algorithms to filter posts for perceived relevance. (For example, this summer Instagram introduced a new way of ordering posts “so you’ll see the moments you care about first,” as the company described it in a statement.) This results in promotional messages being pushed lower on users’ feeds or filtered out altogether, putting added pressure on authors who are seeking ways to attract followers and gain attention.

One way around this is for authors to put greater effort into tailoring their social media messaging. “It’s important for authors to interact in an organic way—don’t set up your Facebook page and just say, ‘buy my book,’ ” says Carol Palomba, social media manager for the author submission service Writer’s Relief and its Self-Publishing Relief and Web Design Relief divisions. She has taken to advising the indie authors she consults with to avoid promotional language in their posts and, instead, to “talk about yourself, where you’re getting inspiration from, and share what would be of interest to readers and followers.”

Another way to stand out in a crowded social media landscape is to pay for ads outright. That has been the experience of Mark Dawson, an author of 25 self-published novels who has found significant success promoting his books through paid Facebook ads. He currently spends almost a quarter of a million dollars a year on Facebook ads alone, and has expanded from using them to sell his own books to teaching other self-published authors how to do it for themselves through his Self Publishing Formula service.

Since 2013, Dawson has experimented with a variety of online and social media platforms. He has found that Twitter offers “cheap, targeted clicks” that work well when he is going after a preexisting audience. For example, his spy/action novels share elements with the books of James Patterson, so he has created ads that explicitly say: “Do you like this book? Then you’ll like my book.”

“By looking at the whole thing holistically, you can put together an ad that is compelling,” Dawson says. “Then users click over to the store or sign on to my mailing list.”

Dawson has set up Lead Generation Cards on his Twitter account so that people who follow him receive a mention tweet back (not seen by others) that encourages them to sign up for his mailing list in order to receive a pair of free books. He emphasizes that building a mailing list is one of the most important ways to use social media, calling it “one of the most valuable assets authors can have these days. I can launch a new book into the top 100 on Amazon with the right email campaign.” And, thanks to the evolution of ad technology, it is getting easier for authors to use their promotions to directly sell books. The expanding availability and use of buy buttons on Facebook, Twitter, and elsewhere allows for direct calls to action to be embedded into ads or profiles, decreasing the number of steps a potential customer must go through from seeing a promotion to making a purchase.

Dawson says that, though Google Ads have worked for him, their high cost makes them less appealing. He has been doing some experimenting on Pinterest and LinkedIn as well. But it’s Facebook that has proved by far the most valuable for Dawson.

That’s not to say that it’s simple to succeed on Facebook, especially as its popularity has grown. When Dawson began using Facebook ads two years ago, “there was no one doing it,” and he was getting a substantial return on investment for his advertising dollars. This has tapered off as more authors and other marketers have embraced the service, and clicks have gotten more expensive and the audience less receptive.

But the number of potential readers on Facebook and the service’s tools to target them appeal to Dawson. “I can say, ‘Find more people like the people on my mailing list,’ and if you have enough points of accurate comparison, you can get a lookalike audience to send your ads to,” he says. While his mailing list is approaching 70,000 addresses, by delivering ads to a lookalike audience, the potential audience rises to millions, rather than tens of thousands.

Value in Video

An increasingly popular social media tool is livestreaming, which allows authors to directly interact with viewers, fans, and prospective customers, whether answering questions during a q&a or tracking their live reactions during a cover reveal. The recently launched Facebook Live has seen steady growth in number of livestreaming accounts and views. For authors struggling to stand out in a crowded newsfeed, the platform is ideal, as Facebook has been working to promote the service and those who stream on it. At least at the moment, if an author goes live, his or her friends receive a notification.

"The key is to really understand where your potential readers are gathered and use that platform to reach them."
“You will get attention from folks who haven’t been watching what you’re doing,” says Julie Broad, speaker, indie author, and founder of Rev N You Training Inc., which specializes in tips for investing in real estate. Broad has used video to promote her books and events for years, but she believes that now is a particularly good time to get into livestreaming. “Next time you’re in a cool spot that will make for a great background or you have something really exciting to share around your book, go live,” she says.

YouTube Live is also a tool that she has found useful. Using that, Broad livestreamed a fund-raising event she held to promote her 2016 personal-improvement book The New Brand You. She did three burpees (a full-body strength-training exercise) for every person who bought three books at the event, called Burpees for Books. Proceeds from the sales went to the Canadian Red Cross and Believe in Youth.

In addition to offering real estate tips, Broad advises people on how to build their personal brands. She has found some of her greatest success with YouTube videos, which allow for longer messages and tips, and which she has used since releasing her first book, in 2013. While she continues to use YouTube, she has updated her approach to the service in intervening years. “YouTube now favors videos with higher quality when they show recommended videos—for example, HD- and 4K-shot videos are more likely to show above lesser-quality videos with similar content,” Broad says. She adds that she also has found that “good content is not enough to get attention.” As with so much in indie publishing, even if it’s self-produced, it doesn’t have to look it: good lighting, professional editing, and sleek use of sound effects and titles are all important.

Beyond the Big Guys

While Facebook and Twitter are the biggest platforms for authors seeking to interact with their readers, more-niche services appeal to authors who are especially looking to stand out. “There are more platforms than ever before, so that means there is more opportunity than ever before to connect with readers through social media,” says Keith Ogorek, senior v-p of marketing at Author Solutions. “The key is to really understand where your potential readers are gathered and use that platform to reach them.”

Ogorek says authors have found success with BookGrabbr. The service allows authors to share extended previews of their books with readers who post about the books on social media sites, with BookGrabbr then tracking analytics and impacts on sales. Though it’s a paid service, Ogorek has found that “it can really help a book get discovered and shared through your social network.”

The key, Ogorek says, is to focus on the particular platforms or services where readers are most likely to be. Romance authors will find a ready audience with highly visual posts on Instagram and Tumblr. Offering quick tips in Facebook Live or YouTube videos works well for self-help. Authors will find success by zeroing in on certain platforms, and on specific services within those platforms, and learning the nuances of what works and what doesn’t.

To help make sense of all of this, analytics have gotten better for authors. Rather than just looking at how many followers they have, authors can assess how engaged they are, how influential they may be, or how to reach others who are similar.

Ogorek urges indie authors to use these questions to guide their investments in social media and go beyond simply working to increase their numbers of friends or followers. “You are better off having 100 people follow you who have 1,000 followers who they can reach than having 1,000 who have 10 followers,” he says.

It is also key for authors to commit to platforms for long enough to see results. Those expecting instant success will likely be disappointed. But authors who embrace the process, gathering data from the analytics and using that to shape their decisions, are far more likely to learn from each step of their social media marketing efforts.

“There’s time involved,” stresses Palomba, of Writer’s Relief. “I’ve had people who run a Facebook ad and feel disappointed because it didn’t result in a lot of sales.”

Self Publishing Formula’s Dawson expresses a similar sentiment. “I’ve heard people say, ‘I spent $50 on Facebook ads and they aren’t working,’ but this takes time,” he emphasizes. “Some hit on the right combination early; others have to test a bit to get there. You need the data, need to test it and continually figure it out before you start to see a return.”

Alex Daniel is a writer living in New York City.

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