• tarahthornburg

Engage Your Fans — Yes, You Have Fans!

This post originally aired as an episode of my podcast, The Fearless Creative.

Make sure you subscribe to get your weekly dose of inspiration, motivation, and my very best tips for succeeding as a creative entrepreneur! If you’d rather read instead of listen, I’ve included the abridged transcript below.

Welcome, welcome, welcome to the show everybody. 

I’m so happy to be with you in your ears today…It was not easy, let me tell you. Today is Monday as I record this (late). Today and this past weekend I had what I can only describe as a technology apocalypse. But despite the fallout of the OS Catalina update and my mic crapping out, I managed to get an episode recorded.

Last week was a pretty big week for me, business-wise. I finally completed and launched my new course, which I will talk about in a moment. I revamped my Write With Tarah website to make it more polished, more professional, and better-suited to featuring new offerings like the course and the nonfiction book — all the great things I’ve been developing this year.

I'm in the process of revamping my fiction website as well, and updating my websites to be more conducive to the content I want to share fits nicely into today’s topic, which is to engage your fans. This topic is born out of an a-ha moment that I’ve had this month that I want to share with you. It’s something I’m working on in my business, and today I’m going to talk a little bit about the different things I'm going to be focusing on in the last quarter of 2019.

But first, it’s time for this week’s Discovery Segment. This is the part of the show where I share something useful or interesting that I discovered this week. And today I want to feature a book that fits in perfectly with what we’re talking about today. This is a book that’s geared toward authors specifically, but I think the concepts in the book would be useful to you if you run any kind of online business.

The book is called Newsletter Ninja: How to Become an Author Mailing List Expert by Tammi Labreque. And while it’s very specifically tailored to authors, I think that anyone with an email mailing list will find it incredibly useful. And, by the way, if you sell things online and you don’t have an email mailing list, you need this book because every creative entrepreneur whose business hinges on the Internet should have an email list.

You may think you're covered if you engage your fans or followers via social media, but you don't own platforms like Facebook or Instagram, and those companies can change their rules at any time. Past updates have lowered visibility overall for Facebook Business Pages, and if you rely on these platforms to reach your followers, you are engaging in digital sharecropping.

Tammi lays out this argument much more thoroughly than I do, but believe me when I say: You need an email list!

I picked this book up a while ago, and — I’ll be honest — I definitely put off reading it. It sat on the floor of my office for several months...But I wish it hadn’t because it is loaded with helpful information, and Tammi Labreque is so entertaining and approachable in her style of writing.

This podcast is brought to you by my new online course for authors. It’s called Author Business Bootcamp, and it is finally here! If you are a regular listener of the show, you know I’ve been banging on about finishing this course, and I am delighted to say I finally have.

If you’re an aspiring author looking to publish your very first book or if you have one or more published books and you want to turn those books into a thriving author business, this course is for you.

I’ve written and published 18 books, and I designed Author Business Bootcamp to be a complete publishing roadmap broken up into 10 lessons and more than 30 totally digestible video modules. The lessons come with worksheets and reference guides to help get you where you need to go. It’s completely self-guided so you can go at your own pace.

The course will answers questions like:

  • How do I find a good editor?

  • Where do I get a book cover?

  • Should I publish exclusively with Amazon or go wide with the other retailers?

  • How to I get my book into paperback?

  • How to I start an author website and an email mailing list?

  • And what social media channels are worth my time?

The intro video and syllabus are available on my website here. You can take a look and enroll today.

Right. Let’s dive into today’s show topic, which is “Engage Your Fans — Yes, You Have Fans!”

This topic will apply to you whether you are a writer or an artist or anyone who runs a creative business. In most cases, I'm going to be talking about digital tactics, but if you run a brick-and-mortar creative business, this will apply to you on more of a macro level.

And if you're thinking that you don't have any fans or followers, it could mean that you don't have any yet or it could mean that you just don't quite understand how other people perceive you and your business.  

So let's address the first objection: You say, I haven't even started to build my business. I don't have any fans yet. I haven’t published my book, or I haven’t shown my art to anyone else.

If this is you, you can still use this as a learning opportunity. Before I even published my first book, I was listening to podcasts like this one and building my knowledge base. That information wasn’t immediately useful to me at the time, but it was giving me this wonderful education that was there to help me when I was ready.

But I’m aware that there are some of you who may be listening who do have fans of your work, but you don’t yet recognize them as such.

Maybe you’re running your business out of your home as a side hustle. Maybe right now you’re only creating things for friends and family, but these people still count as fans. And in fact, now is the perfect time to think about building an infrastructure to engage future customers and trying out some of these tactics while your following is still really tight-knit and intimate. 

That doesn’t mean you need to run out and create an email mailing list if the only person to wear your handmade jewelry is your mom. But if you’ve started branching out to your personal network, you are at the point where you can start employing some of these tactics. 

If you’ve gone public with a website or a blog — even if you don’t have any real customers yet — now is most certainly the time to start thinking about fan engagement or customer engagement.

For the purposes of this discussion, I'm going to be speaking in the context of someone who has a small- to medium-sized following. I personally don't have a huge mailing list or a huge fan base, but for my fiction, I do have several thousand people who want to hear about what I create and want to hear about it when I have something new. I would say I have a small but loyal following.

This year,  I have to say I have not been very good at engaging by fiction audience. I've been very focused on growing the Write With Tarah community: starting this podcast, writing a nonfiction book, and building the course. I have definitely neglected my fiction people.  

I haven't been posting on social media.

I haven't been sending out email newsletters.

And I haven't been writing fiction since May. 

It's kind of a vicious cycle because if I haven't written a new book for them, I feel like I have nothing to say. So my engagement suffers, and it's a lot harder to get motivated to write the next book in my current series.

But a few weeks ago, I realized it had gotten to the point where my readers were probably expecting another book. I was really worried because I hadn't even started the next book, and I felt like I needed to come clean to them about why I didn't have another release. I didn't want them to think I had just dropped off the face of the Earth, and so I decided to send an email.

The initial tone of this email was probably more apologetic than it needed to be. I started off telling them what I had going on in my personal life with building our house in the mountains. I knew my dystopian readers would really appreciate this because our house is going to be completely off the grid and, as I said in the email, “apocalypse-ready.”  They really loved that.

Then I told them about the other things I have been working on.  I told them about my new blog, I told them about the podcast, and I told them that I had written a nonfiction book. I didn't put the title of the book in the email or a link to it, because I didn't want just a bunch of looky-loos going to Amazon and bouncing off that page. I did tell them that if they were a writer or a creative type that they could contact me and I would send them a review copy.

I did have several people reach out and ask me for a copy of the non-fiction book. That was really wonderful...All those emails were super sweet. 

Then I did something that wasn't intentional but was actually really smart. I feel okay patting myself on the back for this because I didn't realize the impact it would have at the time, but it really solidified for me one of the secrets of engagement, which is to ask your fans questions.

And this is something I don't do very often because I am very protective of my creative process, and I do not write by committee. I know a lot of authors have an enormous beta team. I do not. I send each of my manuscripts to a small exclusive team of beta readers before books go to my editor, but I don't get feedback from that many people because the creative process is mine and mine alone.

But I had to admit that I was stuck on book five. I had been trying to plot it for a week or so, and I kept getting stuck on the relationship in the book. There’s a low-key love triangle amidst all of the action. It’s not a huge part of the plot, but I know it’s important to my readers.

In that email, I told the readers why I was struggling and I asked a really simple question: Are you Team Jonah or Team Tripp? In other words, which guy do you want the protagonist to end up with?

And let me just say...I received more responses to that email than any other email I have ever sent. I may have received more responses to that email than all the emails I have sent combined. 

So many readers wrote in to tell me who they wanted Maggie to end up with. A shocking number of them just wanted to comment on some of the personal things that I had shared and show their support!

I was honestly overwhelmed by how engaged and empathetic and invested they were — not just in the story — but in me as a person.

Some of the responses to my question were downright hilarious, and I knew I had to share some of them with my readers as a whole. So I did another smart thing, which I don't mind patting myself on the back for either because I so seldom do these sorts of things right.

I doubled down on that engagement. 

I went on Facebook, and I announce the people that I had solicited feedback from the email list. This kind of triggered some FOMA — some “fear of missing out” — in a lot of people I think because they realized that they were the second to hear about something because they weren't subscribed to my list.

My email list is always the first to know about things. They are the VIPs, and I treat them as such.

I summarized what my struggles have been with the plot and the question that I asked my mailing list. I also shared some of the funniest answers that question.

One person said that Tripp needed to focus on his career and live a simpler life without so many robots. One person suggested a threesome. One person had an autocorrect mishap that changed Tripp to Trump. I had a lot of fun with it. And I asked that question to my Facebook followers. Again, I got a lot of responses.

All the feedback I got was pretty remarkable considering I hadn’t engaged this audience in such a long time. In Internet marketing terms, I had almost let that email list go cold.

So I made a new commitment to walk the walk on this. I committed to doing what I tell the students in my course that they have to do, which is to engage that email audience at least monthly. I've committed to sending out an email update once a month. All of those are going to somehow tie into my books and the upcoming release, but I'm also going to get a little bit more personal in those and give my readers more of a behind-the-scenes look.

Another soft commitment that I'm making is to try to post on my Facebook page once a week. That really isn’t a lot, but if you listen to my episode, “Can You Run a Creative Business Without Paid Ads?” you know that I’m just not a big fan of social media in general. 

But recently I realized that I need platforms like Facebook for my business because that’s still where a lot of my readers hang out. 

Depending on your creative business, there are lots of different ways that you can use Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, or YouTube to tell people about what you're working on and bring them into your fold.

The goal of social media should be twofold:

  • You're trying to get people to know, like, and trust you.

  • You're trying to make a connection.

Because when we’re on the Internet, a lot of times it feels impersonal. It feels like it's just a bunch of avatars and usernames shouting at each other — particularly as we’re coming into another election cycle here in the US. 

But if you can get your fans, your readers, or your customers to see you as a human being, they are much more likely to be repeat customers. They're much more likely to recommend you to their friends. And when you can get them involved in what you do, your victory feels like a victory for them because they discovered you when you were just starting out. They feel like they are part of the process, and they want to see you do well. 

And let's be honest: We need our fans. We need our customers, because otherwise, we wouldn't have a business. 

But as a writer, I need my fans as cheerleaders. If they are excited about an upcoming book, I feel more excited to write it. And I feel a greater responsibility to make it the best it can possibly be because I know someone is waiting for it and loves the characters as much as I do. I have to do the series justice.

I haven't been the best at engaging my readers this year, but I want to get better. And a key point of inspiration for me around this has been a fellow author.

As I've spoken about in the past, I am part of a mastermind group with some fellow dystopian authors. We've been meeting for a really long time, and I get ideas from each of them when we meet. But the last few months, I’ve been mulling over some of the things that one of these authors has been doing.

Lindsay is her name, and a couple of months ago she said something that I’m totally going to misquote, but I’ll try anyway.

She said something to the effect of, “I've been thinking about ways to make it less about being a retailer that sells books on the Internet and making it more of an experience for the reader.”

And I thought this was very wise because as authors we get very in the weeds with paid ads and book sales and read-through rates. We spend a lot of time and energy creating the very best book that we can, but we seldom stop to think about how we can make a wonderful experience for the reader that goes beyond the book.

She is doing something that I think is very unique among indie authors. Most of us just do not have the fanbase or even the working capital to pull off something like this, but she’s trying it and I think it’s really cool.

She has designed these goodie boxes for her readers that are themed around her upcoming release. There’s a limited number of these that she’s selling from her website. She's including a custom tote bag, a beautiful carved wooden bookmark, this wonderful box that she ordered off of Etsy, and a signed paperback copy of a book that isn’t even for sale on Amazon.

All of it comes in this fabulous branded shipping box that has the title of her book and her name on it. It's just so professional and over-the-top awesome that's I was blown away and impressed. And, of course, her readers are loving it.

Now, I'm not sharing this to imply that we should all make these over-the-top awesome goodie boxes for our fans. I'm sharing this because there's an element to this that's really made an impression on me: When Lindsey first told me what she was doing with the goodie boxes, her whole face lit up. She is always so excited to talk about what she's doing for her readers. She gets totally into it. She just loves giving to her fans.  

And I think this is the secret ingredient to fan engagement. I think this is what separates the somewhat successful from the very successful no matter what creative field you’re in: It has to be fun for you.

If you're like me and you don't really like social media that much, you have to find something else that’s going to be really enjoyable...Something that doesn’t feel like a chore.  

For my business, I think that's going to be my email list. I think there are things I can do with that list that will give me some leeway to be really creative, have some fun, and also delight the hell out of my readers. I want to create some exclusive content for that list next year. I’m still thinking through my long-term plan, but I think for the first half of 2020, I need to be laser-focused on my fiction. I will still be doing this podcast and probably creating some other things for the Tarah Thornburg brand, but I think I will be trying to avoid getting sucked into any huge projects that are going to take me away from my novel-writing for the first two quarters of the year.

If you're listening to this and you're thinking, “Well that's great, but that doesn't really apply to me and my creative business,” I want to give you at least one actionable thing you can do this week. If you do nothing else, I would suggest creating a basic website through Wordpress or Wix and a way that you can collect email sign-ups. 

Even if your customer base or your following is still very small, I don't think it's ever too early to begin collecting email addresses so that you have a way to reach your audience when you have something new to share. (I think I had exactly eight people on my fiction email list for several months back in 2013.)

I have moved away from using MailChimp for my email marketing service provider, but if you have a super small following it might not be a bad place to start because you can have up to 2,000 people on your list for free, I believe. I personally use ConvertKit, but I also know people who use MailerLite and are very happy with it. There are many wonderful providers to choose from these days, and it's really simple to get started.

If you have a brick-and-mortar business, collecting your customers' email addresses is still a really good idea. You can offer an incentive to sign up such as a discount on a purchase or a rewards program. For my author business, I offer what Tammi Labreque calls a “cookie” or a “bribe” to readers to join my list — either a free book or access to a super-fan portal for the series.

If you already have an email newsletter, I would highly encourage you to create an email content plan. I go over this in detail in my course for authors, but basically it's a 12-month plan where you write down what you plan to send your subscribers each month. 

If you're ever stuck on creating bonus content or material that you can send your fans, trying to think of your contribution as a Venn diagram. On one half the Venn diagram, you have things that are fun for you...things that feel like play. On the other half, you have the things that your fans would most enjoy. Where those two circles intersect is where you should start when creating things to send your fans and followers.

That's all I have for you this week. As always, if you enjoyed this episode or any other episode of the podcast, please go leave a rating and a review on Apple podcasts. Reviews are the lifeblood of any podcast, and it takes two seconds.

If you have any questions or comments or ideas for future show topics, you can always get in touch with me. I’m on Instagram and Twitter @writewithtarah. You can also shoot me an email via the contact form here.

I’ll see you next time, and happy creating!

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