Oh boy, there it is: that word. That wordy word that smells...wordy. And which, to many writers coming onto the field (not in a pickup-lines-aimed-at-the-ground-way), doesn't mean anything specific or useful. Branding.
Is there any term more jargon-y and less defined? Well, don't ask me - I work in PR. Yes, it's true, this now-familiar and endearingly off-kilter voice you've become so fond of is a content marketing expert.
Before you vomit into the nearest wastebasket at the corporate sellout image that comes to mind via this revelation, let me tell you why this is great news. It's great news because, wait for it, I also happen to be a writer! And what happens when you mix marketing and writing together?
Well, okay, you get a lot of subversive and creepily effective 'advertorials,' but you also get a writer who can not only define 'branding' for you, but who can also help you use this ominous term to your great advantage as someone who not only loves their art, but also kind of wants people to see it sometimes. Imagine that.
So, let's start with the basics.
What In Millennial Hell is 'Branding?'
Before you think cattle and abusive farming practices, let me set one thing straight. Branding isn't, well, one thing. Kind of like a story isn't just the main character, and a painting isn't one color scheme.
Branding refers to the way the elements of your writing - such as personal values, style, public persona, and social capital - come together to form a complete image of you as a writer. Sure, this can happen naturally, or even, dare I say, organically...but most of the authors and artists you've actually HEARD OF had to work at it.
First of all, branding is what gets you seen (or read, in our case). You, as a writer, produce pieces. These pieces, be they books or essays or edgy manifestos, are almost always meant to be read by other people. If not, you're weird and I respect you, but go away. This post isn't for you.
Anyway, to get your pieces in front of the aforementioned other people, they need to see your name or the name of the work or a link to your site that gives them a snapshot of who and what you are. A feeling, one might say, for the identity you hold as a writer. A vibe. An aura.
This auric vibe-dentity is your brand! Your brand is the answer to all of the questions your desired audience is asking, like "who the hell is this?" and "what the f*** are they going on about?" Yes, your brand is even the very thing that gets people to the point of asking these questions. You can't ask a question about someone or something you've never heard of, after all.
Or can you? Let's not get too meta over here.
Okay, Please Say Something Useful About Branding, Now.
First off, don't tell me what to do unless I ask you to (possibly while wearing a french maid costume?).
Just kidding. I don't own a french maid costume. But I do own several social media accounts, and I'm in charge of a lot of others. I even get paid for it, which is kind of the Zillennial dream. And social media, as it happens, is the perfect place to begin understanding branding.
Did you notice that rhyme? It was totally accidental. Amazing.
Brands don't pop out of the ground like your GMO-free, non-steroidal, free-range tomatoes. No, my friend, brands are built. And these days, they're built largely online. As one of my favorite marketing woo-woo blogs points out, "Your brand’s strategy is its story." Now isn't that convenient?
We writers happen to know a thing or two about stories, buddy. And I can confidently say that most of the time, they're made out of words. Not just one word, either. Not even two, or three! They're made of lots of words. I'll invoice you for this expertise later.
Think of it this way: just as you build a story word by word and chapter by chapter, you build a brand piece by piece and post by post. Each time you share something you've written (or even just a link to where people can buy it), comment on another writer's post or content, or join in an online conversation about a topic related to your work, you're building your brand.
As that guy from the Broadway musical sensation Hamilton once asked, who tells your stooooory? Surprise, it's you. You tell your story. So step one of branding is to decide where you're going to tell it - starting with social media platforms and spanning all sorts of other options, like blogs (chuckles ruefully) or online workshops.
Consistency, Consistency, Consistency. I'll Say It Again - CONSISTENCY.
Yeah, no way around this one. Just as you can't effectively write a novel by typing one word every month or so (though at times this sounds about right for my motivation level), you can't really build a brand by occasionally doing one or two things on a non-linear basis.
Basically, you're going to need to play the long game. For most brands - that is, companies selling products or services - the optimal level of posting for an effective branding strategy is in the range of once per day. Even the level of posting I'm often requested to do, three times a week or so, can be effective. Even a few times a month has been useful for one of my clients.
It's more of an art than an exact science. The main success factor is that I post on-brand, relevant content consistently. You can always reasonably expect to find recent, topic-related content on their pages and accounts. Outside of that, I consistently engage with other accounts within the networks my clients inhabit. I share their posts and tag them, I comment on their content and ask them questions, and I use hashtags to make sure my content is seen by the people who might be looking for it.
Now, I know what you'll want to say. "But I'm not some *eaugh* *barfing noises* marketing person! I am a writer, an artiste, a visionar-" I'm going to stop you right there, pal.
What do writers do? They write. And what happens when you write? You create...something. And that something happens to be - whether you want to admit it or not - a marketable asset. The same principles that encourage big corporations to pay people hundreds of millions of dollars to market their brand apply to you - but you may only need a couple of hours a week and a working keyboard to achieve great results.
You're going to need to be persistently active on any relevant social networks. I'm talking tweeting, linking-in, facebooking, maybe even bookstagramming. The more platforms you can stay consistently active on, the better the chance that your brand will "stick" with potential readers (read: consumers) of your work.
"Oink oink, you capitalist pig," you might say, and that's all well and good - but when you're burning your books for fuel because somebody didn't build an audience to fuel their lifestyle, don't come crying to me! Alright, maybe that's a bit dramatic, but as vague and advertisey as branding sounds, it is important.
At the end of the day, don't think of it as "selling" or "marketing" yourself. As artists, it's a lot deeper than that (and no, I'm not just saying that to make you feel better). Think of it more as sharing a voice: your voice. Your voice as a writer. Maybe it's pretty different from your day-to-day voice, but it's still yours, and it's still genuine.
The fact that you want that voice to be heard - or even the fact that maybe you would like to make some money from it - doesn't lessen your integrity as an artist. Do you know how much money the Vatican paid Michelangelo to paint a bunch of manly looking naked people on their ceilings? It was a lot, dude. And no one criticizes him for taking that dough.
Yeah, maybe you're just painting a bunch of dicks in a church, but it's still art. It's still inherently valuable! And what's the point of painting all those pitifully-endowed, flying naked guys if no one is going to see them? You've got to spread the word! Let the faithful flock so they can gaze up in wonder at your work! (And possibly hire you to make more things, maybe even paintings you actually want to create).
Basically, accept that you're going to have to cultivate a presence and a brand to succeed as an artist who actually, you know, gets people to see what they've made. Even you, Mr. Holier-than-thou Byronic wannabe.
We Built This City - Not On Rock n' Roll, Though. We Built It On, Like, Words.
Ah yes, they say Rome wasn't built in a day, and neither was the internet. A lot of things went into its creation, and a whole hell of a lot goes into its maintenance. But look around - what is the dominant form of media you see online? Go on, take a guess.
Yep, it's words. And we're writers! As our holy lady of punky 2000s pop music, Avril Lavigne, said: "Can I make it any more obvious?" We own this sh*t.
The currency of branding is content, and writers are content machines. Although I haven't been able to find any data on how much overall content online is made of the written word, I'd venture to guess that writing holds a significant majority over visual and audio content.
Moreover, the algorithms that decide the who, what, and where of content's final destination on your screen rely on words - and only words - to consume and rank that content. They even 'read' images via the names given to the files. And one study pointed out that a majority percentage of the experts in the content marketing field name written content as the most important type overall.
All of this is to say that if you're a writer who wants their work to go further than the file folders on their desktop, you're going to need to build and maintain a brand. So, HA! Who's the corporate sellout now, a**holes? Really, though, get tweeting, or whatever it is the kids do these days.
I'll post more about the art of branding later, but please let me know your thoughts, questions, and snide remarks in the comments section! Adios, brandigos.