Finding an audience is essential for every writer. Karen Lock Kolp shares her favorite ways to connect with followers who are perfectly suited to your books.
As a writer with three nonfiction books published and more on the way, I often get asked, “How do you find ideas for what to write about?”
Now, I say, “I ask my community.”
Book ideas – and manuscripts – begin when people engage with me after listening to my podcast, corresponding via email or in social media, or becoming a private client.
But it was not always so. Once, I had a vague idea that I wanted to write, and a hope that I could produce something someone would find useful. But I didn’t know how to start, or how to connect the dots to write one book, never mind multiple.
Is that where you are right now? Or perhaps you are a little further along the timeline, with a great book idea, or even a draft – but you’re not sure who might read it?
Whether you’re just beginning, or further along and stuck, here are 5 ways for you to move forward!
1. Develop an avatar – and then listen to that person
Meet Beth. She has a baby girl who is just about to turn one, and a five-year-old son who’s just entered kindergarten.
Beth is a stay-at-home mom, with an overbearing mother-in-law, worries about her son’s behavior – and why it’s gotten so bad since school started – and insecurity about coping with the demands of raising children. Beth loves her kids, and feels thrilled to be married to her soulmate and true partner. She just needs some extra support getting through the long days, and getting some perspective on the short years, while her kiddos are young.
And here’s the thing: Beth isn’t a real person. She’s completely made up, a product of my imagination.
While fictional, Beth is a fully fleshed out human being who shares her hopes, dreams, and fears with me. Beth helps me understand what a parent like her needs and what help I, as a child development expert, can best offer her.
How did creating this imaginary friend, and her family and her challenges, help me? Through simple conversation which (in my case) happens via metaphorical cups of tea on my actual back porch.
I invite Beth over for tea, and ask her questions. Then, I work hard to really listen to her answers.
Often people begin not with an avatar, but with a “demographic.”
So when I ask about their avatar, someone might say “oh, my avatar is ‘women between 27 and 34 years old.'” Not just one Beth, but millions of anonymous people whose only common points of interest are their age and gender.
Imagine getting all those people onto your back porch, never mind asking them questions.
Or hearing just one voice in that unimaginably vast group, as they try to answer you.
It’s difficult to understand the motivations of such a large gathering.
Maybe that’s why, often, would-be writers don’t get any further than deciding on a demographic. If only they would keep going, developing an avatar that they can ask questions of.
Maybe you would rather meet your avatar at your local, for a beer. Maybe you’d rather play tennis, or go for a drive.
Whatever you decide, this is the key first step to creating a community.
Building community begins with just one person.
Envision this person. Imagine what their life is like and what they struggle with. Ask questions about what challenges they face in their lives.
Listen carefully and they’ll tell you. And then you are on your way.
2. Create a content platform for your avatar
“An audience isn’t a target that you happen to bump into; instead… It must be chosen.” – Ryan Holiday, Perennial Seller: The Art of Making and Marketing Work That Lasts
[Note from Joanna: You can listen to an interview with Ryan Holiday on Perennial Seller here.]
Many successful online folks talk about the need for a podcast, or a blog, or some other steady way of releasing free content relevant to your chosen audience.
It’s where people find you and decide if they like what you have to say. It’s where the beginnings of community happen.
One day, just a few months into podcasting, I got a letter from Melissa, a real woman who embodies my avatar in just about everything except name and number of children (the fictional Beth has two; Melissa has three).
Reading that letter felt so good! Melissa validated that I was on the right track. Her words also provided a salve for when I felt loneliest and most insecure.
Whatever you create, make it for just one person. Make it for your Beth.
Imagine you are talking with her, on your back porch. What questions does she have for you, what are the things that you can help her with?
Make each one the subject of a separate podcast episode or blog post. And celebrate when the real-life version of your avatar communicates with you.
3. Engage with your avatar… Where they already hang out
This is some of the best advice I ever got: Find where your avatar hangs out online, go there, and be relentlessly helpful.
Beth hangs out online in Facebook. So I joined a few Facebook groups, and spend time in them helping others – NOT selling, or even saying anything about myself.
For example, I belong to a 20,000 person Facebook group for moms raising young children. When a group member asks a question or posts about something frustrating in her life, I draw on my experience both as a mom, and as a child development expert, sharing support and advice (and often hugs).
I treat each person as a respected friend without sharing anything about my show, my books, or my business. I completely avoid anything salesey.
Here’s what I have found:
- Many people follow my link back to my private Facebook page – and from there find my podcast and the other work that I do online. In this way, I build a following, one person at a time, just by being helpful.
- These moms’ posts help me understand what someone in their position needs in their life, right now.
- Most important, they are getting help and support, immediately, where they already are online.
One of my primary goals in life is to “change the world with kindness, teamwork, and trust.”
Listening to people – helping and supporting while expecting nothing in return – satisfies this life goal. It also helps build community.
This is where you can communicate with your Beth. You can bring her and others like her into your world, helping and supporting them in the ways that matter most to them.
4. Offer a free gateway into your world
“A human’s greatest psychological need is to belong, and yet there is a belonging gap in the world – people are lonelier than ever.” – Mark W. Schaefer, Marketing Rebellion
For community to happen, there must be conversation. There must be back-and-forth, not just a comment creator speaking from on high.
Luckily, conversing with people, when done in a way that feels right for us, is part of human nature!
I talk with my avatar in two ways:
1. Inviting parents to sign up for a free, weekly newsletter.
A chatty, newsy letter landing in your inbox has such a friendly feel! So much so, that people write back. Just as if you were a friend of theirs, from their own life.
I always feel so honored when someone on my list writes back. Talking with parents genuinely is one of my favorite things in the whole world. Opening this gateway means inviting conversation.
2. Hosting a closed Facebook group.
It doesn’t have to be a huge time or energy suck. I spend only 15-30 minutes each week in this Facebook group. But that few minutes is precious to me, a chance to engage with listeners, answer questions, and offer help.
Communicating with your avatar via email, or in a Facebook group, helps listeners come to know, like, and trust you. In turn you support them, and get a better understanding of the help they need.
For some, this might be a blog or podcast show notes with an open comments section. For others it’s a social media platform, meet-ups in person, or a newsletter; it may even be a combination of more than one option.
No matter what avenue you choose, find a way to bring in engagement – real conversation – between you and your avatar.
5. Take on clients and help them solve their biggest challenges
For me, this has become the ultimate “community.” Working closely with people, in our own little home-on-the-web, it feels like family.
This private community is also where the deepest, meatiest, and toughest challenges get addressed. There is a high level of trust in the community. Members feel safe there, even sharing about their biggest and most frightening challenges.
Bringing people into a paid membership community is a great way to connect with others and find out how you can best help them.
It’s a great way to find out what books your clients need from you.
It’s creatively rewarding, it’s helping others, and you get financial support from those who will benefit from your writing.
Community-building starts with just one person.
Conceiving of and getting to know an avatar, creating content and engaging with them, accomplishes several great goals:
- You contribute something special and positive. Something no one but you can contribute.
- You truly help people.
- You create a world in which there is kindness, teamwork, and trust.
- You develop a better understanding for whom you write.
Building this kind of community takes work, yes. But it’s SO worth it.
It all starts with one person.
Who are you writing for? Build a community and find out.
How do you engage with your community of readers? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.
Karen Lock Kolp, M.Ed. is a child-development expert and parent coach. She creates resources that help parents of young children accomplish 3 miracles: to change a child’s behavior from bad to good, to feel happy inside, and to truly enjoy family time.
Karen’s parenting books, long-running podcast, and private coaching community can all be found at weturnedoutokay.com.