Monday, February 24, 2014

Getting the Word Out: The Taylor Swift Equation

A couple months ago, James Franco wrote a fantastic piece for The New York Times on selfies, those self-generated glam shots you can post of, yes, yourself doing whatever and in which you think someone might be interested.  It's only a dyslexic step away from Twitter, come to think of it, only completely visual.  Read Franco's article all the way through; this is one smart guy.  Above all, he's an entertainer and understands the draw of--and our fascination with--celebrity.  If you remember nothing else of what he says (and granted, we're talking about a celebrity who understands image and how to generate the illusion of intimacy), this is your take-home: 

"In this age of too much information at a click of a button, the power to attract viewers amid the sea of things to read and watch is power indeed. It’s what the movie studios want for their products, it’s what professional writers want for their work, it’s what newspapers want — hell, it’s what everyone wants: attention. Attention is power. And if you are someone people are interested in, then the selfie provides something very powerful, from the most privileged perspective possible."  (emphasis mine)

Successful entertainers understand the value of attention and how to grab it.  You want an example of someone who's a master?  Taylor Swift.  I kid you not.  Maybe four months before Franco's piece came out--or it might have been longer--I recall listening to an NPR piece on social media and Twitter, and the reporter singled out Swift as someone who really understood how to use social media effectively.  She specifically mentioned that Swift was excellent at mixing in the private moment to further a public agenda.  The example she gave was Swift tweeting something like, oh, making sugar cookies because I'm so happy my latest single was just released.  (I'm paraphrasing here.)  And Swift is very good at this; take a look at this photo montage of her and Kelly Osborne making chocolate peppermint cookies.  

Now the reporter suggested that Swift is comfortable with this because she grew up with it.  Maybe . . . but in this publicity arms race--and it is an arms race; all of us are constantly upgrading and scrambling after the next best thing, which writers have doing since Dickens single-handedly started the celebrity-author tour and authors before him gave lectures to drum up publicity for their other works--I'd suggest that Swift, like Madonna and other consummate entertainers, understand the value of the attention-grab.  Do these people blog?  Not only your life.  Swift tweets; she knows the people she wants to reach only want/need that much.  What she and other entertainers like her do is trade on image, understanding that their image is what fans want because it furthers the sense of pseudo-intimacy: a carefully scripted, ostensibly "private" moment.

For a while now, I've been talking about marketing, the value of certain venues, etc.  Boil it down to its essentials, and what I've been talking about is grabbing attention for you and your work.  (An important distinction: grabbing attention for you is not necessarily the same as snatching this for your work just as different platforms draw the attention of different audiences.)

In her business blog this past Thursday, Kris Rusch talks about the usefulness of social media; as always, she's spot on.  Although I'd suggest that everything on the Internet is potentially a social media site, and that includes your blog.  The folks who might stroll by are not necessarily the same people who will admire a Sunday cake or pictures of your cats.  So, again, we're talking developing your idea of a target audience and which venue best gets whatever you want your message to be across.  (I also disagree, just a tad, with Rusch's points about teens and Facebook.  Yes, it's true that the majority of American teens don't find you on Facebook, and there's some data to suggest that teens are ditching Facebook for other social media sites, specifically Instagram, Snapchat, and--in my experience--Tumblr.  But that doesn't apply to all teens.  Specifically, all those kids I met overseas a couple years back found and have stuck with me through Facebook, on which we routinely interact.)    

Yet what Rusch describes in terms of publisher expectations has been my experience, too.  Now, neither publisher has ever told me how many times I must blog or tweet or Facebook or whatever, but I was told I had to mount a website, get on Twitter and Facebook, and "join the conversation."  For the longest time, I had zero idea of what that meant.  I thought it meant figuring out key websites--you know, the ones that might have bearing on what I was doing--and then jumping in with comments.  (Remember I mentioned in an earlier post how bloggers look at blogrolls to see who you're following, and (for some of them) if you're following the right people?  So that's what I was doing: trying to follow the "right" people the same way a new kid tries to figure out who's with the popular crowd.  It's actually all rather sophomoric.  Anyway, I did that for a while, but I couldn't see the utility, plus it took a lot of time and, frankly, a ton of those sites catered to books in the wrong age and demographic.  I certainly didn't see that I was adding anything to the conversation, and we all remember high school, right?  The more you wanted to hang with the popular girls, the harder they made it for you.  

Then I wised up and realized: the idea was that should be the one getting the conversation going, not some random voice chiming in about whom no one else gave a damn.  (People may still not give a damn, but I can live with that.)  I would have to become an entertainer of sorts, someone who could walk into a crowded room, get the ball rolling, and start to turn eyes my way.

Oh . . . is that all?

Look, not everyone can do this.  Most of us don't have the gazillion assistants standing by to take that perfect Taylor Swift glam shot (or Franco's compositional sense).  Some of us are shy.  I, for one, have zero ability to vamp for the camera.

So what this means is that, regardless of which media you choose, you have to understand what's required to get the most out of it.  If you want to do selfies, then you might follow Franco's lead, carefully titrating the personal and non-personal, for example.  (It also helps if you don't hate the way you take pictures; I have a supremely goofy smile.)  In other words, you have to give some serious thought about how to make the media work for you instead of you struggling to figure out what the media's for--or worse, working against it.

Take Twitter.  I forget who said that it's a place where writers can connect with other writers . . . and I've certainly never thought of it that way for myself, but I have noticed that the most popular folks do what Rusch also points out: the best tweets are funny.  Author Maureen Johnson knows how to do this; she also does things I wouldn't dream of because they're just not in my nature.  For example, I remember a tweet a couple years back of her newly painted toenails.  Me, I have ugly feet.  (Frankly, I think that anyone who looks at her own feet and doesn't laugh . . .  I'd never dream of posting a picture of my toenails.  Opossums, sure.  Cats and cakes and orchids?  No sweat.  But my toes?)  It works for Johnson, though, because she knows how to work it--and she's having fun.  Or she's appearing to, which is all that matters.  Appearances are all that matter when it comes to the truly ephemeral nature of most social media.  

Rusch makes this point, too; if you're going to do social media, for God's sake, have some fun while you're at it.  Yes, yes, it's marketing; it's work . . . but it is also your chance to let your hair down a little.  My co-blogger Jordan Dane tweets bon mots as she watches Sleepy Hollow.  Me, I'd miss half the show while trying to keep my tweets pithy and sweet--although, lately, I'm not above getting all snarkazoid about House of Games.  Of course, that show is something I can watch when I've got time, so I don't have to multi-task.   I have a publisher-friend who gathers up all her Facebook buddies to watch American Idol together.  I once had the experience of FBing during a Packer playoff game; it was totally random and thoroughly fun.

Random is the key there, too.  Think about this: a post to Snapchat disappears within ten seconds--and teens love this site.  So you're talking about grabbing teens with the attention span of gnats.  Which means humor works.  The outrageous works, and the shocking.  It also means that snagging anyone's attention is thoroughly random . . . at least in that venue and maybe in them all.

Paying attention to audience is also important.  The teens who adore Snapchat--and given my experience of them, I'd say that would be most--are not going to come to your blog to read what you have to say.  They're just not; they don't care.  For them, your blog/website is the gateway; they will come to find you so they can get a conversation they care about started.

Read that again: teens and most fans will come to your blog in order to talk to you about what they care about.  They are not coming to your blog to talk about what you care about--at least, not initially.  (That can happen.  It certainly has for me.  I've had some wonderful interactions with kids over environmental issues, for example, and after posts on Facebook, I would add.)  But I know these same kids are not spending the time to really read anything I say (especially when they ask questions that I've written whole long blogs about) . . . but that's okay.  I've come to accept that, for teens and most young adult fans, my website is a place for them to find out how to talk to me.  

And that's just fine.  I can live with that.  What I have to decide is something we all must: how many platforms; what content for which; and how much time we really want to give this.  Marketing/grabbing attention/vying for power is time-consuming.  You can trick yourself into thinking that it is work, and as valuable as, say, a finished short story or novel.

But blogging is not work.  Flitting around various social media platforms is not work.  Writing is work.  Producing that book is your work.  Without your books, you're just another person who's always wanted to be a writer.  You could be anybody and everyone.  You have to make people care about your books, and in order for that to happen, you have to write them.  Call it the Taylor Swift equation, if you want, but bear in mind that the only reason a gazillion eyes care about Taylor Swift's cookies is because she's Taylor Swift.  Without her songs, Taylor Swift is nobody but another lady in an apron.


Jordan Dane said...

I like this. Bottom line the focus has to be on the writing. During this last year I've shifted to social media where I have the most fun. I have basic platforms & do RSS blog feeds to make facebook, goodreads, & other sites appear active, but I have more fun on Twitter & pinterest because I post my humor & things that interest me.

I have writers follow me because I promo author craft posts for ADR3 & The Kill Zone. But I also have an eclectic combo of peeps who HLN court trial coverage, sleepy hollow, ripper street, justified, & hannibal, some of my fav TV shows. I live tweet during these shows & get huge ongoing interactions with fans, show creators, show writers, and even some stars. I'm having a blast & it doesn't feel like work. People are following me on twitter & pinterest & RT more. I have regular followers who make it more fun, from all the diff fandoms & venues.

Right now it's working for me & its fun. Nice post.

Ilsa said...

Yup. I think having fun is key here. As I said, I can't live tweet during shows because I'd miss half the bloody show (and I rarely watch anything in real time now). Whatever works for you. I think what would be interesting, though, is to see if any of that translates into sales of your work. What you're doing is similar--sort of--to Truman Capote dropping in on a cocktail party. The thing is, the conversation coalesced around him because he was Truman Capote (and also entertaining). But it was very clear that he was using these are venues to remind people he was a writer.

Here, what you're doing is like going to Trek convention and you and all the other fans are watching Kirk or whatever and talking about it, being fans . . . so, of course, it doesn't feel like work because it's not. You like something; you're sharing the love. I bake cakes and pies, and share the love, and it's not work either.

So, all that's fine--but does any of it translate into people becoming curious about us and our work? Or is our work beside the point?

There's no way of knowing, and certainly I'm not suggesting you should stop, especially if you're having a good time. But it's like anything else: good time or not, all things in moderation because every moment we spend on any social media platform is a moment we're not producing a book.

Again, it comes down to whether or not, eventually, any of this online self-promotion translates into a boost in sales. Ultimately, that's unknowable, because one's not directly tied to the other (as, say, a giveaway might be).

So, unlike Truman Capote, you just gotta know when you've had enough to drink ;-)

Ilsa said...

And this is why I'm more active on Facebook than Twitter because I like the medium better. Having said that, since I like snapping shots of the cats and such, I've just started on Instagram, and so cross-post to FB and Twitter from that.

I had someone once tell me to vary my posts between the various platforms. That's bullshit, frankly; the same people who are on one aren't necessarily on the other. And--to be honest--then you're making it all into work again. Hell with that.

Jordan Dane said...

I tweet fun one liners to hone my humor & Brit speak in character of Icabod Crane to have fun with voice. I also critique show eps from a writer's point of view. Some people now follow every tweet & ask my opinion in private DMs. They RT my author tweets too. So if you don't push, people can be quite generous--and it's fun

Jordan Dane said...

Yeah right. Various platforms.

Ilsa said...


Sechin Tower said...

Another extremely thought-provoking post! Thank you, Ilsa.

I'm hesitant to do selfies because a) they seem so narcisitic, b) I worry about security if I'm posting about how much fun I'm having away from my empty house at this minute, and c) my internal life is AMAZING but my external life is pretty routine (Look, here's me at the same keyboard I was at yesterday!)

Still, one can do the Swift Equation even without crossing the line by the "I'm doing X because of my project Y." I think that's an important key. WHen I first went onto twitter I posted things like "check out my book!" but those are aweful. (I wish someone would tell all the other people on twitter how awful they are). Now I look at it as a chance to geek out with new people who share the same interests. I don't live tweet shows because I almost never get to see shows when they air, but I do things like it and it's much more fun AND effective.

My biggest trouble, I suppose, is the lack of time. I don't do nearly as much social media as I'd like, but this writing gig is my second job so I have to pick carefully how I spend my minutes, and, as you point out, the writing must get the priority.

Sechin Tower said...

And you look great in that selfie! Taylor Swift would never dare to pose with a killer rabbit.

Ilsa said...

Heh. Thanks, Sechin.

On a more serious note... I really think you should take a look at Franco's post. He addresses the narcissism issue. In his mind, that's not selfies are for him. OTOH, this is a guy who makes his living getting us to look his way--*really* look so we recognize *him*.

I'm with you: not into narcissism, and selfies are, for me, just that. Sharing what I *care* about feels different. Of course, you could make the argument that Franco is, too...except what he cares about is himself. Again for him--and Swift, too--the selfie is just another actor's/entertainer's venue for people who spend their lives encouraging that direct gaze.

By contrast, you and Jordan have chosen media that highlight waht writers do best: calling attention to themselves with their words.