How to behave online and build your brand (yuck!)

There’s a lot of pressure on writers these days. Not only do we have to come up with great stories, perfect prose and wonderfully constructed sentences, we also need to think about our brand.
Yuck! That’s what you’re thinking, isn’t it? The personal brand. What a load of old nonsense. Or more precisely, what a load of new nonsense. That’s not for me. Not a chance.

But it’s not a new concept at all. Having a personal brand effectively translates to behaving consistently and in a way that reflects who you are and what you do.

Here comes the fear

The reason all this has become more important is because writers are now expected to help market their work. And it so happens that the place to do this is through the internet and very much in public. Naturally.

Selling yourself as a writer can be quite daunting, but it isn’t complicated. Getting it right is almost entirely down to how you behave. You can post as many links on Twitter as you like, but if you don’t behave properly, no one is going to give a jot about you or or your writing.

Building a brand is important and nowhere near as unpleasant as it sounds. It’s a case of common sense. Here are my three simple suggestions.

Tell the truth

This is pretty straightforward, but incredibly important. Don’t say that you are something if you are not. And don’t say that you have achieved something that you have not.

Don’t put yourself in a situation where, at some point down the line, you have to sheepishly come clean and look like a complete and utter twit.

Of course, it’s only natural that you should want to try and stand out from the crowd and sell yourself as much as possible. That’s fine. But you have to be straight with people.

Wild exaggeration might get you so far. But integrity and honesty will have a lasting effect on people. Plus you’ll feel much better about yourself if you don’t have to keep up some facade.

If you’re not a best selling author, don’t claim that you are. However, if you’re a working writer with knowledge and experience, share your thoughts and tell us what you know. We’re all ears. We trust you.

Don’t complain

This can be difficult. We writers can often feel like the world’s against us. If we’re not battling writer’s block we’re having to deal with the injustice of all those ghostwritten, bestselling celebrity memoirs.

Gosh, we have it tough.

Whatever you do, don’t repeatedly vent your spleen in public. If you have something to criticise, feel free to be critical, but make sure that what you write is criticism. Don’t fall back on whinging.

I say that for two reasons. First, speaking personally (and I think for most others in the online writing community), I don’t read articles by other writers to hear them moan. I want to be informed and made to think. Like I say, insightful criticism fine. Whinging bad.

Ultimately, this goes back to the idea of building your brand. You don’t want to be labelled a whinger. You don’t want it to be part of how other people see you or what they remember you by.

Instead, be considered. Be thoughtful. Be positive.

Be yourself

Just before Christmas I was talking to my agent about Twitter and Write for Your Life. We were talking about building a platform and, well, the things I’m talking about in this post.

We came to the conclusion that a good aim is to try and behave online in a way that, should you then meet a cyberpal in real life, they get pretty much the same person.

I think that’s a good rule of thumb. You never know where your online relationships will lead, so don’t worry about having to live up to some persona or perceived ideal. Just be nice, be polite and be yourself.

Worrying about how you think you should behave will only stifle you and give people the wrong impression. In my experience, the internet doesn’t bite. The writing community is a friendly, supportive place to be.

It’s okay to say hello. It’s okay to ask for help. It’s okay to share your ideas.

Is that it?

You know what, I think it pretty much is. There are thousands of articles that will try and tell you how to build your personal identity or sell your whatever. It’s really not that difficult.

Integrity is the key. Don’t tell fibs, be constructive and don’t be anyone else but yourself. Have conversations. Share your work. Enjoy the work of others. Get stuck in. Don’t look back.

  1. Very sensible advice. You might add that people tempted to exaggerate the truth should first google James Frey.
    The fact is that cyberspace and real space *do* overlap considerably. Especially for a writer – when you have a book out, presumably you’ll do readings and signings, and use the platform you’ve built to encourage people to come. It would be advisable that when you do so, you really hope they come to say hello (and buy the book) rather than hoping desperately they don’t turn up so they don’t find you out in your porkies. I’ve met well over a hundred ove rmy twitterbuddies now, arranged no end of readings and gigs with people I’ve never met in real life before – and they’ve all turned out to be exactly as they portrayed themselves – it not only makes things easier but opens up more opportunities – the moment you misrepresent yourself you have to avoid real life contact – which is the opposite of good marketing.

    Twitter netiquette can be a bit of a minefield. In particular one thing to bear in mind is one’s “following back” policy. I can understand that someone like Neil Gaiman with a million and a half followers and counting (1,517,827 when I just looked) doesn’t have the time to follow them all back, let alone answer his @replies, but when you’re new to it all, and when you need readers more than they need you (OK, this is a *whole* other debate – a writer should always need their readers more than their readers need them, I know), it’s really not good manners to act as though your so famous you don’t need to follow people back – and it’s a really good idea to make sure you answer all your @replies – first of all, it’s plain good manners, but second, the realy great thing about the web from a reader’s point of view is interaction – so as a writer don’t waste the chance!

    1. Hi Dan
      I’m completely with you on paragraph one but not entirely on paragraph two. I found Twitter practically unusable when I was following more than 2000 people and so decided to try and make it more managable. Of course, I now use Twitter lists too, which help hugely. Anyway, while it’s definitely a good idea to reply to all your @replies, I don’t think it’s necessarily bad form to not instantly follow someone back if they follow you.

      Might be wrong though. Be interested to see what others think!

  2. Some good points, we only have to look back at 2010 and see how many well known people have made some really bad comments on twitter which has landed them in spot of bother. For some reason people don’t seem to think about what they’re saying/typing whilst on social networking sites, such as Twitter and Facebook. Where in a real life situation most people generally stop and think before making a comment, whereas it seems that on Twitter especially, that isn’t the case, and before you know it, something you posted off hand on a site like twitter is hitting the newspaper, regardless of weather of you’re famous or not, and landing you in a whole heap of trouble.

    1. Yep – you definitely have to watch your Ps and Qs, but then you do in real life anyway, so why it should be any different online, I don’t know. People just forget, I guess. They don’t stop to think about all the actual people behind the avatars.

  3. Great points about etiquette. But building a personal brand isn’t a recent invention with the advent of blogs and social networking. The old way of doing it was interviews, print articles, tours and reviews. That avenue still exists, of course, and access to it is granted only to a few – mostly from publishers’ publicity departments. Authors have always had to do a lot of work to promote themselves as someone the public would like to read – and if you were lower down the pecking order, you mostly had to do it all yourself.
    The difference is that we are all able to build a wider base now. We don’t need to wait for a publisher to open doors, or even have a book ready for sale. This means our ‘brand’ can be built more naturally and doesn’t have to be cynical or a soul-selling Faustian deal as it may have seemed in the past. We can take time to find the people we genuinely click with and build meaningful relationships that go way beyond the purpose of selling a few copies.

    But as you so rightly point out, this can only be done if we are genuine. Building a brand on the internet does not provide masks to hide behind. Quite the reverse.

  4. Branding: the further dehumanization of…humans? I despise the term. I understand the need for advertisement and public relations, but branding? As a steer is branded when a design is burned into his flesh? Branded, as subliminal messages are sent at a specific tone, for a specific length of time as specific colors are flashed in front of you so you will buy Coke, Pepsi or a Big Mac? Branded, as Edward Bernays created the phrase, “Public Relations,” after the Nazi’s began using the term “propaganda?” Branded, as this quote reflects,”We must shift America from a needs to a desires culture. People must be trained to desire, to want new things, even before the old have been entirely consumed. Manโ€™s desires must overshadow his needs.โ€ Paul Mazer, a Wall Street banker 1933
    I need a nap.

    1. Ha! See, I thought I’d get more responses like yours Mark for using the term ‘brand’. It’s a bit of a dirty word, but the general principle is perfectly fine – and it’s got nothing to do with selling and sales. Branding is about consistency. The Nike swish, for example, is an integral part of the company’s brand. It wouldn’t work if one day it was thicker, the next it was upside down and the followuing day it wasn’t used at all.
      And that applies to writers to. For all the reasons I talk about in this article, we need to be consistent and be aware that how we behave will affect how others see us. We don’t have to call it branding, but that’s effectively what it is.

  5. Pretending to be someone you’re not is too much hard work. What’s the point? You’ll no doubt slip up and make yourself look silly at some point. At least if you’re being yourself and make yourself look silly, chances are people will be more forgiving. I know I have a tendency to be a bit grumpy about things but I’m like that in real life – no use putting on a sunny and cheerful outlook if I’m not like that. That said, I try to word grumpy tweets so they’ll make people laugh. Provoking an emotional response is a good way to build a rapport with someone, and there’s no finer emotional response than making them laugh! So I don’t even see it as an online identity, I see if as simply being myself. We’re always told to sell what’s unique about us, and why not choose your fundamental self?

    1. Absolutely, I see no harm in having a quick moan if your train is late or something like that. But if you start complaining about, say, agents not getting back to you or how self-publishing is a load of old stinko, then those complaints become part of how people perceive you. You’re the person who complains about stuff.
      I guess the ultimate message here is that what you say matters. Think before you press send or publish.

  6. I agree with everything you say here. Whenever I consider the word branding, I wrinkle my nose but I think that’s because it brings to mind a table filled with hungry corporates, brainstorming words they want to be associated with in order to squeeze more money out of people. It’s synonymous with falsehood as a result. But that doesn’t mean it can represent something genuine too.
    I agree with Icy too – far too hard to pretend to be someone else. Whenever I do anything online – be it send a tweet or put up a post, if there is a moment of doubt, I ask myself if I would say it in a pub. If the answer is no, then I delete it. That means that sometimes I post things that are intimate, that I would only share with friends, but that’s okay.

  7. I’ve read all too many “tips for social media success,” but these simple ones may be some of the best I’ve seen. My theory is that most successful celebrities (writers or otherwise) discovered that the public happened to like who they really are. I could be wrong: was Mark Twain (a tremendously popular lecturer) simply Samuel Clemens under a pen name, or Clemens’ greatest fictional creation? Personally, those who fake it by cannily imitating the successful ones don’t have the same appeal.

    1. I think people like to know that authors – and anyone they meet online really – have a personality – that there’s a person behind the avatar. That’s why it’s a good idea to have a descriptive about page, that type of thing. If I find a piece of interesting writing on the net, the first thing I do is go to find out who it was by.
      And thanks for the kind words!

  8. I tend to lurk, Ian.
    So here goes: Author branding tends to fall into three separate parts to help you connect to a) the industry, b) your readers, and c) a shoutline that is ‘your own’. This is something to be concerned about when you’re published (although every writer needs to have a working knowledge) – be careful not to become stuck or categorised in a way that might make it difficult for [you] the author to expand into another field as you develop your career.

    You cannot be anything other than your authentic self. The quality of the writing must come first. From that platform you begin to work on the a,b,c points made above. How many times have you read a blurb, read the book and thought – it’s nothing like it says on the cover? When a reader trusts you, it is important to retain that trust and expectation as well as expanding the reading experience for the reader – does that make sense?

    The questions being asked of all authors by publishing houses now (especially epublishing) is: What makes your book special? How do you plan to market your books? How do you plan to connect with your readers? What’s your shout line? As authors we need to be able to answer those questions when we’re pitching or developing an outline or proposal.

    Authors, especially unpublished authors, need to be careful about moaning and whingeing in their blog for example. That’s a key point – be professional in cyberspace at all times. Unless its a part of your writing; sarcasm, irony and innuendo do not translate well online and be careful with personal details, unless they figure in your writing.

    And last but not least, don’t spend hours online. Your writing comes first.

    Great blog, Iain, btw.

  9. Came for “All the Small Things” then stayed for this, too. Thanks from this newbie for the great blog (again) and advice! As your subtitle says, this is “a really good site about writing.” With integrity. Great advice. But “odd porky?” wha??

  10. […] this month I wrote an article about how to behave online if you’re a writer, in which I came up with three principles to follow. In this podcast, me and Manuela Boyle look at […]

  11. Great post Ian and great comments everyone else. It’s interesting because I recently read this blog post – http://literaticat.blogspot.com/2011/01/when-to-keep-your-trap-shut-almost.html – that basically says ‘don’t say anything’. It gets confusing about what you can and can’t say as an unpublished author trying to help your own chances by having a blog.
    Agree with all your points and follow them anyway, as it seems to be the common sense, common decency sort of thing to do. Part of building an interesting blog is to be interesting and I don’t think you can do that by censoring yourself on all aspects of your own writing when you’re a writer. Seems to be just as counter-productive as complaining about things.

    1. Hi Ben – you’re right, I think it’s about balance really. You need to think about more or less everything that you say, but at the same time, don’t feel constrained by the medium (whatever that may be). Check out the latest podcast – Manuela has some interesting things to say about the topic. Really got me thinking.

  12. […] all fine. I’ve got no bones with any writer doing either of those things. In fact, I pretty much encourage it. But if that’s all you’re blogging for – to sell your wares – I think […]

  13. Great post! I think you’re soooo right in saying be yourself! And also, be helpful. I’m a big believer in treating others how I’d like to be treated. offering your help to others costs nothing and goes a long way to people seeing you in a positive light.ย 
    Happy writing! ๐Ÿ™‚

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