How I Helped Create a Successful Online Summit for 600 Writers

A lot of writers I speak to want to engage an audience online. Today I want to share a case study of the exact way that I helped one of my clients do this. Her goals were similar what many writers want when developing their author platform and growing their audience:

  • To truly help her audience tell their own stories.
  • To find a way to grow her audience (without spammy tactics.)
  • To develop a meaningful connection to colleagues (eg: readers, writers, agents, and editors.)
  • To learn how to leverage online media to do this, something which may have been unfamiliar.
  • To potentially earn revenue in the process.

What I share here is the work I did with author Alison Taylor-Brown.

While she is primarily a historical fiction writer, she also runs the Village Writing School, and is even considering writing a memoir of her own. You may remember her story from my post last year titled, “Choosing the Writer’s Life.”

This Summit was a way for her grow her audience as a writer, support the Village Writing School, and establish some wonderful connections with writers, agents, and editors.

Will you ever run a Summit yourself? Probably not. So I framed everything below in a manner that could help you consider how to engage your audience, even if you never run an event like this.

Okay, let’s dig in…

What We Did

Let’s start with the results of what we did. We created an event called the “Memoir Success Online Summit” that was an online event where writers were given access to:

  • 7 expert interviews, all focused on various aspects of what it means to write, edit, publish, and promote a memoir.
  • There was a special limited-time offer from one of the agents who would read the query letters from any of the attendees.
  • Registrants were given access to a private Facebook Group where they could meet other memoir writers, and ask questions of Alison and some of the other speakers.

More than 600 people signed up, which was much higher than our expectations.

Earlier in the year, we had created another summit, the Historical Fiction Online Summit. We took what we learned from that and then evolved it. That is perhaps the first big lesson here: if you only do something once to grow your author platform, then you don’t have the chance to refine it. The Memoir Summit allowed us to try new things, we saw significant growth in terms of results.

One of the things we changed was the price. The first summit had a registration fee to access it. For the Memoir Summit, we made it a free event. You could register for free and access everything. After a week or so, we shut it down, and if you wanted lifetime access, you could purchase that for $45.

That was a scary decision because it meant there would be no certainty of a return on investment. I think that is second big lesson to take away from this: take a chance by doing what feels right, even if you don’t have any certainty that it will work. That is the only way to learn, by taking that risk.

How We Did It

These were the steps we took to create the event:

  1. We brainstormed ideas for the theme of the event. Having already done one summit on Alison’s core focus, historical fiction, we used this as an opportunity to dig into memoir, because she has been considering that so much for herself. She had also noticed that a lot of other writers she spoke to were interested in memoir. We created a long list of ideas, and just went with our gut on this. Could we have driven ourselves nuts by trying to get data to prove to us which theme would have the widest possible audience. Sure. But this just felt right. Alison chose a topic that she was curious about, and wanted to invest her time and energy in.
  2. We identified the structure and picked a date. This is where our earlier experiment with the historical fiction summit gave us something to work from. Also, I have run quite a few other summits in the past, using various formats. In the end, we tried to pick something that was ludicrously simple. Keep it simple for us, simple for the speakers, and simple for those who registered. The system we used to run the event? Password protected blog pages. This is technology that is 15 years old, and really easy to setup. That removed about 100 potential technological barriers.
  3. We brainstormed ideas for speakers. At first, we considered the types of speakers we hoped to get: authors, agents, and editors. Then we figured I could run a session too, so that would cover the topic of marketing a memoir. Then, we started to brainstorm ideas of potential speakers that we knew of, and did research for others. A lot of time was spent on Google and Amazon, on blogs and podcasts, on social media, just trying to identity potential speakers and seeing if they would be a good fit. In the end, the decision was hers if she felt that someone should be a speaker. I can say we were soooooo happy with the roster that Alison ended up with in the end!
  4. Alison invited the speakers. Without question, this was Alison’s event, and she is the face of it. It was important that she do all of the outreach to potential speakers. She sent short email invites, explaining what the summit was, what the commitment would be, and why she felt they would be a perfect fit.
  5. Alison recorded the speakers sessions. The format for the sessions is that Alison would research each speaker, and then interview them on video for 45 minutes. I was 100% certain that Alison would be amazing at this. But this is how she put it: “You dragged me into interviewing when I really didn’t want to.” See what a perfect team we make?! In truth, Alison did have to get comfortable with a lot in this process. She (of course) did an amazing job, but for me it was just so cool to see her get more and more comfortable with the process. I think that is another big lesson here: if you want to get comfortable with learning a new skill, you have to be willing to be uncomfortable first.
  6. We planned for promotion and launch. Honestly, we kept it simple here as well. We crafted a simple email and some resources for the speakers if they wanted to share with their audience. Alison shared it generously on her own email list and social media, and that of the Village Writing School. I think the fact that it was a free event, very focused on a specific topic, and filled with incredibly accomplished speakers made it easy to market.
  7. We ran the event! Once again, you will notice the theme of simplicity. Since all of the sessions were pre-recorded it meant that we had reduced the risk of any technical issues on the day of the event. We had prepared all of the sessions ahead of time, and on the morning of the event, we simply sent an email to invite the registrants to access it, we kept an eye on email for any technical issues, and we encouraged conversation in the private Facebook Group that accompanied the event.
  8. We turned the event into an evergreen product for the Village Writing School. After a week or so, we closed down free access to the sessions, and shared that people can get lifetime access if they purchased it. We didn’t make a huge deal about the offer, instead looking at this as an evergreen product that Village Writing School can offer. Here too, we kept it simple. We used a company called e-junkie as the shopping cart to make it easy for someone to purchase and access the summit via the Village Writing School website.

Alison sent out a survey afterwards to help her understand how we can improve on things for 2019. Right now we are quietly sketching out a series of new Summits and workshops.

Why We Did It

By now you are likely thing, “Um Dan, if Alison is primarily an author, why is she doing all of this? How does it help her?” The fact of the matter is, Alison is still months (or potentially years) away from the release of her books. But this is what she has gained in the process of running these events:

  • She helped people learn how to share their own stories. Alison had a deep desire to help others tell their own stories, and the summit was a new way for her to do that. That is why she founded the Village Writing School, and it is a driving force behind much of what she does. The Summit was a new way to realize that vision.
  • She greatly expanded her audience and established her author platform. This is easily measured by newsletter subscribers and social media followers. But there are qualitative measures here too: she has had soooooo many conversations this year with readers, writers, agents, editors, all about books, writing, and what it takes to succeed as an author.
  • She has established meaningful connections to colleagues: bestselling authors, agents and editors. She isn’t just sitting in the back of the room of 300 people at a writing conference — she is having long 1-on-1 conversations with these people, learning from them, and actually establishing professional relationships with them. I’ve said this many times before, but if you don’t have colleagues, you aren’t a professional. Here she is stepping outside her comfort zone to create human connections with those who know publishing and books inside and out.
  • She is mastering skills like interviewing that will come in handy throughout her career as an author. Imagine that 18 months from now, she publishes a historical fiction book and is being interviewed on podcasts. Instead of being nervous about how to do that, she will have had dozens of experiences of knowing how to talk about books in an engaging manner, how to pace the interview, and she will have zero fear of the technology. Oh wait, that should be it’s own bullet point…
  • She will have zero fear of technology. Long before her books are published, Alison has been getting comfortable with social media, blogging, newsletters, video, events and so much else. What that means is that she no longer looks at these as “scary marketing things,” but rather tools and resources that are a natural part of what it means to connect with readers.

But perhaps the biggest thing she has gained is that she has learned how to share her passion for writing and books with the world, and engage in meaningful — human-centered — conversations around them.

What You Can Learn From It

This is the work I do with writers day in and day out. No, 99% of them never do a summit. Instead, we identify a custom plan for them to grow their author platform, and reach their ideal readers.

What will work for you? That will be personalized to who you are, and how you want to manage your career as a writer. The case study above is just one way it can happen.

I think the key is to not just sit back passively and hope it unfolds for you. Take the wheel. Put your foot on the gas pedal. And go in the direction that celebrates the words that you write, and connects them to readers in the most meaningful way.


P.S.: If you think I can help you do that, you can read about how we can work together here.