The (Bizarre) State of Social Media for Writers

There is little about the state of social media at the moment that feels stable or evergreen for writers. It is all in flux, which is why I thought it might be a good time to talk about my advice for writers trying to navigate social media right now.

If you feel like everything is weird right now, you are not alone.

But I still believe social media is a powerful way for you to share your writing, connect with readers, and have it lead to a sense of opportunity and fulfillment. I will cover this topic today in three ways:

  • How social media is changing, and why I think that is an opportunity for you.
  • Specific things I think you should focus on that will truly matter for sharing your writing.
  • Encouragement to invest in your craft, in one-to-one connections, and community.

Let’s dig in…

Sharing is Changing

Too often, people talk about social media success in terms of how many followers you have. But I often see people on social media who have big follower numbers, but almost zero engagement. Without engagement, what is the purpose of having followers? I mean, why pay for a billboard advertising your book on a road that is completely closed down? Not only is it ineffective strategically, but it just doesn’t feel good.

The point of social media is not advertising, but rather, engaging. To be present in sharing your work in a manner that feels authentic, that creates conversation around writing, and that truly reaches those who appreciate the themes you write about.

Recently, many established expectations around social media have gone off the rails. A lot of people aren’t sure which network feels right anymore. New networks are popping up all the time. Previously stable and consistent social networks are changing in big ways.

I think this is an opportunity for you in these ways:

  • You can proactively reset how you think about sharing and connecting. Instead of feeling tossed around by the whims of any of these big social networks, you can instead reconsider why you share, how you share, and how you connect with others. (Two easy places to begin are to define your values, and get clarity on your priorities.)
  • Everyone is uncertain about the future of social media at the moment. That is a wonderful reason to connect with others and bring people together. I was thinking of this akin to the first week of college or camp, when everyone feels a bit uncertain of the social structure, so they are all open to new ways of coming together and forming friendships. In uncertainty is possibility.
  • Focus on engagement — the depth of connection — rather than the breadth of connection. For example, there is one social network that I joined in 2008 and have since amassed 10,000 followers on. Today, many people I know are leaving or have left that social network. Elsewhere I may have far fewer followers, but I’m getting far more engagement. The result? I feel connected to people and fulfilled in sharing my work, even if the follower count is low. Don’t just focus on how many followers you have, focus on the depth of connection.

What Works in Social Media Right Now

I’ll start by encouraging you to be open-minded because everyone else is trying to figure it out too. Some things to consider:

  • Be there for others. If you join a new social network, show up for others. Comment on what they share, mention them or tag them, recommend that others follow them. They will recognize you and appreciate you for it. Be generous.
  • Collaborations. Consider if there are meaningful ways to collaborate with others, where you create something together.
  • Short vertical videos are a primary way to have new people find you on many social networks. I wrote a whole post on why vertical video matters right now. I know, I know, many writers don’t like the idea of video. But I think it resonates because it focuses so much on how people develop trust: through the eyes, faces, voices, mannerisms, and nonverbal cues that are a part of how people feel seen and forge connections.
  • Develop your email newsletter. Yes, I think that Substack is doing something very special for writers with their newsletter and social media tools. I wrote about that here and here.
  • Getting paid for your writing is now a much more accessible option online. Consider if you want to explore this through Substack, Patreon, or other membership-oriented programs on other social networks.
  • Consider where you want to lead people. If your goal is to sell more books, or to engage more people in a conversation on a specific topic, or bring people to your workshop, or grow awareness of your newsletter, then consider the specific ways that you will lead people to these things. Can social media just be a fun crowd gathered around the water cooler? Sure. Can it also be a powerful way to create an amazing experience around what you write and why? Yep. There are so many ways to bring people together, to host conversations — focus on the community aspect.

I would encourage you to become a student of the process. This is what I do every day. I work with writers, I study what writers do, I experiment. If you are unsure of what to do, then do a short experiment. Say “I will reach out to 5 people a day on ____ network.” Or “I will post a video every other day for 10 days.” Or “I will send out 4 newsletters next month.” Don’t immediately measure specific return on investment; instead, do it for the knowledge and experience you gain in the process.

For example, I’ve been doing a deep dive with learning more about creating and sharing short form videos. First I did 115 daily videos in a row. Now I’m enhancing my video editing skills by learning Adobe Premiere Pro, and listening to hours of interviews with the video editors of successful creators. What’s most fascinating to me about the process is this: what these editors/creators talk about is not really around the technical aspects of creating videos. In the end, the tools are the same for everyone and they are rather basic.

What they spend most of their time talking about instead is storytelling, character development, and narrative arcs. They focus intensely only how to hook a viewer in the first 5 seconds, just as writers talk about the importance of that first page, or first chapter. They talk about how they way they edit a video can change how the viewer relates to and feels connected with the person on screen. They review the nuances of creating a narrative arc as an essential ingredient for what makes a viral video vs one that flops.

If you are unsure what to do with social media at the moment, I would encourage you to focus on the details of how you share and how you connect with others.

Invest in One-to-One Connections and Community

When I look around at writers’ confusion with social media today, what I see is this: people are desperate for connection. They want to feel a sense of community. This goes beyond the channels themselves, and is why I so believe in the concept of Human-Centered Marketing. What lasts is that person-to-person connection.

Not only do I think all of this feels good, but I think this leads to effectively reaching your goals. Things like:

  • Building awareness of your writing
  • Getting pre-orders for your books
  • Developing a support system with other writers and readers
  • Getting book sales
  • Encouraging word-of-mouth marketing
  • Getting book reviews
  • Getting people to show up for your events or workshops
  • Creating collaborations
  • Ideating and developing marketing campaigns
  • Expanding your professional network

I remember what it was like to be a part of literary communities back in the 1990s — what brought people together around books and writing before the internet truly took over. At the center of it all are the same things that bring people together today. If you are overwhelmed by the technology of social media, I would encourage you to instead focus on the people and communities that can be found through it.

Double Down on Your Craft

Amidst uncertainty is often a lot of opportunity. This is a time I would recommend that you double down on your craft, your writing, how you communicate that to others, and how you can best connect with people around the themes you write about.

Instead of focusing on new tools, focus on the basics of craft and connection. For example, in my research around online video, I have been doing a deep dive into the processes of the world’s most successful video creator, Jimmy Donaldson, who goes by the name MrBeast online. He has 165 million subscribers to his main YouTube channel, with 28 billion views there. He has also raised tens of millions of dollars for charity.

In a recent 2-hour interview with him, he talked about how much he focuses intensely on his craft. He spends 5 hours a day learning how to make better and better videos. How does he do it? He focuses on gaining knowledge, running experiments, and hiring the best team.

Why do I mention Jimmy? Because we consume so much on social media. What if you flipped this idea. What if you focused on creating and forging connections instead?

I want to end with a personal story…

Recently my family and I visited the Norman Rockwell museum. We got to see 100+ paintings of his, as well as his studio.

At the end of our tour, we went to the gift shop, filled with trinkets, art, and toys. Now, I grew up as an artist, my wife is an amazing artist, and my 12 year old has always been creative. But for our 6 year old, crafts and art are his primary obsession.

Because of him, our living room is a constant mess. Not with toys, but with the raw materials of creating. Every night we clean up the scraps left over from his art projects for the day. It looks like an art store exploded by the end of each day. Then we clean it up again.

So as I browsed the Norman Rockwell gift shop with my 6yo, he was mildly interested in a few things. But he lit up when he saw a set of markers. He asked, “CAN I GET THIS!?!” My response: “Of course you can.” Those markers defined his time for the rest of the trip.

It’s easy to walk through that gift shop and buy a print, or a mug, or socks with Rockell’s art on it. And that is fine! But I loved my son’s reminder that we get to create ourselves. That your craft is always waiting for you.

The next day, I took my kids to the local ‘general store’ to pick out a toy or souvenir. Again, my 6 year old browsed the store, mildly interested in a few things, until he saw… tissue paper. I’m telling you, I have never seen another human being as happy as he was picking out tissue paper that he would later use in his crafts:

As you navigate how you will be public online and how you will use social media, I want to encourage you to choose to create. To choose to forge connections with those who love creative work like yours.

Just as my son walked into these stores, faced with hundreds of options, and had clarity on the experiences he wanted to create for himself, have clarity in how you craft experiences for others on social media.