Building a presence for your business on social media can feel pretty overwhelming. There’s all the different platforms (Linkedin, Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Instagram, Pinterest, your blog, your podcast, etc). And even more daunting: it can feel like the rules on social media are completely different than anything we’ve ever encountered before. There are seemingly endless articles about how to use (and “optimize”, and “hack”, and “leverage”) social media: how often to post, the perfect time of day to post, how to get search engine attention, how write catchy headlines, etc. etc. etc.

There are certainly aspects of social media that make it new and different from other traditional forms of communication. But in general, the rules are pretty much the same.

  • Know and respect your audience.
  • Communicate to your audience where they are.
  • Solve a problem for your audience.
  • Communicate in clear, simple language and in your own voice.

In fact, when I see people doing a poor job on social media it’s usually not because they haven’t learned enough of the new rules, it’s usually because they’ve forgotten the simple, time-tested rules of traditional communication. Here are a few themes to keep in mind.

Who is my audience?

CNN has ruined social media for most of us. It seems like every time I turn on CNN there is some story about a cat video on Youtube that has 80 billion views. Or some celebrity that did something online and everyone on earth seems to know about it. Those kind of stories suggest that we should be going for *everyone*, for the big numbers. But that is absolutely, 100% the wrong strategy.

Social media, like every other kind of communication, is about knowing your audience. And if you’re an independent consultant, your audience is specific and small, by design. That allows you to talk to them in great detail about the ideas, challenges, themes, inside jokes, and minor annoyances that they care about. As an independent business owner that’s one of your biggest advantages. Don’t throw it away trying to reach everyone.

Where can I reach them?

Recently I’ve spoken with a number of small business owners who are making a push to be on all the major social media platforms: Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, Instagram, etc. And almost as soon as they tell me their plans, they talk about how overwhelming it is to try to be everywhere. I don’t blame them. Trying to be everywhere is overwhelming.

Here’s the good news: you don’t need to be everywhere, you just need to be where your audience is.

A few thoughts:

  • A great way to start thinking about where to invest your social media resources is to think about where your audience already hangs out. Is there an active group on Linkedin or Facebook where your audience spends their time? Does your audience read blogs or do they trust more traditional media outlets? Once you know where they currently spend their time, you can begin to craft a focused, manageable strategy.
  • An example: if you have an active group on Facebook, maybe you don’t need to expand to any other social media platforms. Maybe the best strategy for now is to continue to grow an engaged, energized group on Facebook. It takes effort and active participation to keep an online group going (and growing)…doing it in one place is difficult, trying to do it in two places can feel almost impossible.
  • Seth Godin is one of the most popular bloggers on earth. And he has famously made a strategic decision NOT to be on Facebook or Twitter or any other social media platform. He just does his blog. Period. He’s argued that if he got onto a second platform, he wouldn’t be able to do his blog as effectively as he’d like. If that rule works for Seth, it might work for us, too.
  • On a recent episode of the Duct Tape Marketing podcast, John Jantsch and his guest Bill Caskey outlined a “social media” strategy that requires no social media at all. They argued that today’s salesperson should think about a few of the questions that she is asked most often by her customers. She should pick one of the questions and write a short response to it. Then she should email it to her contacts who would find the answer valuable. Pretty simple.

What am I trying to communicate to them?

When you know your audience, figuring out what problems they’re trying to solve becomes much much easier (the flip-side: trying to solve problems for an audience you don’t understand is almost impossible). Taking a lesson from the Duct Tape Marketing podcast I mentioned above, figuring out what to write about can be as easy as writing down the questions that your clients are already asking you. After Andrew Warner started his popular interview show Mixergy, he was surprised at the question his listeners asked him the most: “What microphone do you use for your show?” So he created a popular post that described the equipment he used for his show. Sometimes it’s that easy.

How can I communicate it to them clearly and simply?

There are lots of great resources out there for how to communicate more clearly. Here’s one of my favorites.

For what it’s worth, the two tips that I’d give to anyone writing content online:

  • Attentions spans are shorter than we think: Keep your writing (or your video, or your podcast) as short as possible. I’ve never heard anyone say: “that post was just too short.” I always hear people say stuff is too long. (as an aside, this post is too long).
  • Writing is harder than we think: Practice, practice, practice.

Think of your social media content the same way you think of a classroom presentation

Most of us are familiar with preparing and giving presentations. And while it can be nerve racking to stand in front of a room full of people and deliver a presentation, preparing the content for a presentation is something that most of us are quite comfortable with. Most good presentations start with the few simple considerations I listed above.

There’s something about giving a presentation that focuses the mind. Standing up in front of a room full of people can be scary. And that gives us real motivation to think about our audience and what we’re trying to deliver to them. While social media doesn’t have the same in-person feedback that a live presentation does, the same basic rules apply. If you focus on keeping your core audience happy, good things happen.

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A number of people have joined the mailing list recently as a result of Which Half Would You Want?, my whitepaper about great workplaces. Before I start this post, I just want to say *Welcome* to the new readers. I’m glad you’re here! Now on to the post…

When I talk with independent consultants and freelancers, everyone’s looking for the same thing:

  • Less Selling, More Sales: job offers come to you, rather than having to convince people to hire you.
  • Better Clients: you work on your ideal jobs with your ideal clients, rather than taking jobs “just to pay the bills.”
  • Higher Rates: you can raise your rates.
  • More Stability: your income is more stable and predictable.

As an aside: all of the items above apply to employees too. Just replace the word “Client” with “Boss”, and the word “Rate” with “Salary”.

A few years back Kevin Kelly (founder of Wired Magazine) came up with the theory of 1000 True Fans. I believe the 1000 True Fans approach is the best (fastest, most direct and most realistic) strategy for achieving the benefits above. Here’s what the 1000 True Fans theory is all about.

1000 True Fans

Kevin Kelly created the 1000 True Fans idea with fine artists and musicians in mind. The theory is based on a few ideas:

  • if you’re a musician and you have 1000 people that will pay you $100/year for your music you will make $100,000/year.
  • If you’re a musician who is making $100,000 you are happy. You get to earn a good living doing what you love. You’re doing better financially than 99.9% of the musicians out there.
  • With hard work and long term commitment to their community, musicians have a realistic possibility of earning 1000 true fans. The 1000 True Fans is significantly more realistic than other models of success in the music industry: getting a big record deal from Columbia records, being chosen to play on Saturday Night Live or winning American Idol.

For independent consultants and freelancers the math is slightly different but it still works.

  • Let’s say you’re a freelance graphic designer who makes a living on small design project. Billing between $1000-$10,000 per project.
  • Your target market is creative directors at agencies and companies.
  • If you’re able to get 1000 creative directors and fellow graphic designers that are true fans the jobs will come to you. You will be the graphic designer that people think of when a job comes up. People will want to work with you, rather than you having to convince people all the time.
  • You are happy because you can be pickier with your clients (taking only the good ones). You can charge more. You’ll have more stability.

What are True Fans?

What are True Fans? A true fan is someone who:

  • knows your work and thinks it’s awesome.
  • could tell your story with reasonable accuracy and enthusiasm to someone in your target market who’s never heard of you.
  • would be thrilled to work together.

If you’re a freelancer or an independent consultant, you can probably think of former clients that are true fans of yours. Former clients are probably the best source of true fans. After all, they know your work better than anyone. But there’s a problem with former clients being your only source of true fans. For most freelancer and consultants, they’ve got a relatively small number of former clients, maybe a few dozen people. Oftentimes, that’s not enough to get the positive benefits that I described above (better clients, higher rates, more stability).

One way (though certainly not the only way) to develop more true fans is to share your expertise through a blog, podcast or social media. These tools give freelancers and consultants an opportunity to gain respect with a larger number of people than you could achieve from former clients, referrals and networking alone.

Measuring True Fans

This whole “1000 True Fans” thing sounds pretty straightforward. And yet, few people measure true fans (while lots of people measure easy-to-count-but-far-less-meaningful social stats). Here’s some example of social metrics that are easy to count but don’t necessarily mean a whole lot:

  • Email subscribers
  • Twitter followers
  • Facebook friends/followers

The problem with these metrics is that they’re an unreliable indicator of the outcomes you’re looking for. If you have 1000 Twitter followers how many of them actually know and trust you? How many of them would reach out to you for advice? How many would email you to discuss a project?

What makes a true fan? Someone who is engaged. In other words, someone who:

  • looks forward to reading your blog or listening to your podcast.
  • adds to the conversation by commenting and replying in a meaningful, constructive way.
  • trusts you and values your skills.
  • would reach out to you for advice or think of you when an interesting problem comes up.

So what are some metrics to measure True Fans? Here are a few:

  • Number of readers on your email list who have posted a meaningful comment or sent you an email.
  • Number of Twitter followers who have retweeted your stuff or (better yet) replied to you with a meaningful comment.
  • Number of Facebook followers who have posted a comment.
  • Number of people who showed up to your meet up more than once.

The metrics above are not perfect, but they’re an indicator that people are engaged and you’re going in the right direction. Just because someone replies to your blog doesn’t mean that they will hire you for a freelance gig. But once someone has posted a few meaningful comments you know that person is engaged. And once a person is engaged it becomes much easier to figure out more about them (who they are, what their problems are and whether they’d hire you to solve them.)

Forget about Likes and Followers, focus on True Fans

The media likes to focus on the mega viral online stats (Celebrity So and So tweeted out to her 2 million Twitter followers! This new cat video received 4 million views!). Next to those numbers, 1000 true fans sounds tiny and even easy. But anyone who has a blog knows that getting 1000 subscribers (let alone 1000 true fans) is tough.

But it’s tough and achievable (as opposed to tough and nearly impossible). If you know your community and you’re committed to providing for them, earning 1000 true fans is possible over the long term. And once you have your 1000 true fans, business becomes a lot more fun.

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