What's The Buzz?

Some quick thoughts on taking your personal brand to infinity and beyond.

Given how late I wrote it on a Sunday night, my newsletter entry about pricing your work as an entrepreneur has generated a surprising amount of interest and feedback.

I have always been weirdly successful as an indie creator on the internet. I don't mean that my level of success is unprecedented. I mean that I am successful in weird and hard to define ways. I guess I shouldn't be too surprised that there's interest in what I have to say about this.

I've really been trying to figure out how to codify what works about my approach and why, both because I'm curious and because I'm trying to make my financial situation more secure over time.

I always do my best thing out loud and in front of an audience, so let's make some more posts about doing business when you're not a business.

The subject that's on my mind right now is promotion. 

Building buzz, building an audience, building excitement...

Building a subscriber list. (Hello, and thank you!)

Once upon a time, on a forum associated with (an unlicensed English translation of a ROM hack of) the game making program RPG Maker, I witnessed someone -- probably an actual child -- trying to build excitement for his game project using a technique he had witnessed on The Simpsons. 

On the show, an upstart competitor for Krusty the Klown had advertised using a baffling campaign that just said "Gabbo Is Coming" without explaining who or what Gabbo was. The result was that everybody in Springfield was glued to their TV sets for Gabbo's premiere.

The young man on the RPG forum had tried to adapt this by making a series of posts in character as the main character from his nascent game project, announcing in each one "I'm coming!"

This does not produce the effect he was going for, for a variety of reasons.

If I asked, "Can anyone tell me what he did wrong?", I'm sure a lot of you would be able to name at least one thing. But the most obvious misstep here is not actually his biggest mistake.

His biggest mistake was trying to build an audience for his game project in a forum for people who were all making their own games, many of whom had similar dreams of audience embiggenment. No one was there to find out what the hot new game was. No one was there mostly as a prospective player.

This is a mistake I've seen made in creative community after creative community: in writing forums, crafting sites, etc. 

It's not that everybody in a creative community is just out for themselves and will refuse to consume or support anybody else's work. In fact, it's very much the opposite, in my experience. People who hang out on RPG Maker forums like RPG Maker games and like to see what other people can manage to do with them. People who hang out on writing sites love to read.

But if you want to find an audience for your game, you need to find a different, bigger, and more diverse pool of people to advertise it to. Simple economics -- not even of money but of attention -- tells you that in a community where roughly everyone in it is involved in making one or more games, there's not enough people for every game to find an audience.

So the first thing you want to do when you're trying to create buzz for something is to figure out how to reach (and who to reach) outside the community where the work is being done. There's a limit to how much business you can generate being really active on Etsy forums vs. finding other audiences to reach.

The second thing to think about is repetition and saturation. Advertisers don't timidly put out an ad once, conclude "Well, I did what I could." and hope for the best. They try to get their message out there repeatedly, ideally in multiple different places and ways. It's not just about making it hard to ignore them, but about making it possible for us to notice them.

In order to build my following for this here newsletter, I try to tweet or retweet something about it on Twitter five or six times a day. I have a couple of stock tweets I can pull up and retweet, and then I mix in a few varied pitches. Links to specific issues also help.

That's a single channel, but it's multiple times and multiple approaches.

If you try doing something like this, you might worry that you're being annoying. And I won't lie: it's within the realm of possibility somebody will snap at you over it. But then, people can snap at you over anything. It's not necessarily a reflection on you.

Now, I have almost 40,000 people following me on Twitter, and a total reach that is orders of magnitude higher than that, which means that even if 1% of the people following me would be interested in paying for the newsletter if they knew it existed, I can continue to get new sales by RTing myself for a long time before all the easy leads are exhausted. This particular technique depends a lot on your audience size. But even if Twitter is not fertile ground for you... wherever you wind up promoting yourself, you can still apply the same basic techniques: put your message out there multiple times, vary the presentation and content so it never fades into the background, and never assume that it's enough to just sort of put the information out there and then draw conclusions about interest based on the fact that no one is noticing.

I mentioned timidity up above. The third thing I'd like to mention in building buzz is that people are social animals and so we look for cues. We're prepared to trust each other, even total strangers, when it comes to a lot of things.

If you're apologetic about what you put out into the world... if you act like what you're promoting is just taking up people's time and space and you're sorry, so sorry, for calling attention to it... anyone who has no prior knowledge of you has no reason to conclude you're mistaken or lying. Your message informs how they will approach (or, more likely, not) your work.

You don't have to hype yourself up to the highest of heavens. Just as strangers have no reason to be skeptical of negative self-talk, they have no reason to take your word that your work is the best thing ever.

Just skip the value judgment entirely and be frank about what you're offering. If that seems boring, tell people what's interesting about it. Hand-made from driftwood you collected yourself? See, that's not "sorry this sucks" and it's not "bow down before me, mortals!", it's a point of interest.

Writer Twitter is getting really good at this kind of thing, and honestly, I think it has to do with the fact that writers as a group have spent a lot of time learning how to polish a pitch and we're now applying that to reaching audiences, not just agents and editors. I think it also has a lot to do with the way fanfic gets promoted. We're recognizing that things like "this story is good" or "this story is bad" don't tell us as much about whether or not the story is for us as "this story has only one bed" or "in this story, girls hold hands".

Because here's the ultimate point about buzz. It's not just about getting noticed, it's about getting noticed by people who are in your potential audience, getting noticed by people who will enjoy what you're doing and talk about it.

The real world weakness of a "Gabbo Is Coming!" type approach is that if you attract near-universal attention without equally broad appeal, you're going to have a lot of disappointed and dispirited people grumbling about you. 

See: movie musicals whose advertising campaigns obscured the fact that it was a musical in an attempt to woo mass audiences. I don't think that ever ends well, vs. advertising a musical as a musical.

So to sum up, my thoughts on building buzz for your work are:

1. You have to reach outside the community where your work is done.

2. You have to  make sure your approach is both repeated and varied.

3. Be matter of fact... not apologetic, not boastful... about what you're doing, and highlight what makes what you're doing interesting instead of focusing on quality.


4. Not everybody's going to be your audience, and that's fine. It's enough if they're not your problem, either.

None of these are hard and fast rules (because mostly the Sith deal predominantly but not exclusively in absolutes), but they all reflect my genuine, sincere thoughts about how buzz works and are all things I have been practicing in one form or another for years. 

Which isn't to say that I won't continue to refine them. If these dispatches continue to attract attention and interest, I may do deeper dives on some of the points above, with more examples and things you can try.

Thank you for reading, and do continue letting me know what you find interesting in my writing. I'm never going to be the kind of person who censors herself or chases after trends because they're trending, but if -- as is often the case -- I find myself with way more things I want to say than time to say them in, it does help me narrow down some priorities.

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