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The Internet gives you the power to publish content globally and instantaneously for free. There are no gatekeepers, no distributors, and no editors. If you are a journalist at the beginning of your career, it’s an extraordinary opportunity. You don’t need a publisher; you can publish and promote yourself.
With free and low-cost online tools, you can create a digital portfolio, distribute your writing to interested people, and build your own audience. In the modern media, ad revenue is increasingly generated per (web) pageview—not per print issue. That means that the more people who follow your work online, the more attractive you become to potential employers.
A good online presence should establish three things: your “brand,” your expertise, and your connections.
Your brand is how you want others to perceive you. Think of your brand as the short description people should associate with you, like “a hard-hitting investigative reporter” or “an insightful domestic-policy commentator.”
Your expertise is what you know, of course. More importantly, it’s the reason people pay attention to you. There’s no shortage of online content—particularly content about politics. Therefore, people must believe your work is especially well-informed and/or well-communicated before they will become consistent followers of it and you.
Your connections are the people to whom you distribute content online. They are blog readers, Twitter followers, and Facebook fans. They are people interested in your work because they like your brand and respect your expertise. Your connections also can be your marketing team as they recommend your work to their social networks by email, a Facebook “like,” or a link on Twitter.
An online presence encompasses the broad array of available web platforms: websites, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites. With these tools, you—and your writing—can be in multiple places at once. Online, publishing opportunities are almost limitless, which is why at times, you might also find them overwhelming.
But there’s a simple way for you to think about how to present a cohesive online presence. Divide your online presence into a home base (a website) and outposts (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, and other places you choose to promote your writing). Your home base contains all the important information about you: writing you self-published online, writing featured in print or web publications, and your background. Your outposts are where you promote your work and build connections with interested people to convert them into readers. Your outposts constantly direct people back to your home base.
Your website should tell a visitor everything you wish him or her to know about you: who you are, what you write about, and why he or she should pay attention to you. Your website should then offer a supportive visitor a way to keep in touch with you, whether with a contact form, an option to receive email updates from you, and/or links to your online outposts.
At minimum, your website should include:
Keeping site content fresh will be important to your success. Visitors will quickly leave an outdated site, and they are highly unlikely to return. Update your site regularly—at the barest minimum, once every two week—with links to your latest writing or updates on your career. You can also use simple web plug-ins to display your latest Twitter updates, which will make your site seem fresh and therefore of interest to a visitor.
Blogging platforms like WordPress (wordpress.com) or Blogger (blogger.com) offer simple, effective, and free websites even if you don’t plan to have a blog. There’s no cost or technical knowledge required; you simply create an account, manage your site, and add content using your web browser.
The drawbacks of this method are that you will have limited customization options and that the site will have a lengthy URL (e.g., yourname.wordpress.com), which makes it tedious for readers to find you online. However, for less than $20 per year, you can buy a custom domain (e.g., yourname.com) that will forward users seamlessly to your free site.
For less than $100 per year, you can buy a custom domain name and web hosting for your own website. Hosting your own site gives you more flexibility, customization, and control. You don’t need technical knowledge to do this either. If your web expertise is limited, upload and install WordPress (wordpress.org), which you can do with a single click with many major web hosting companies.
You can use site analytics tools to learn how people are interacting with that content and, hence, with you. Site analytic information is free marketing research, so review it regularly.
Site analytic tools will tell you how many people visit your site, what they read on your site, and how they found your site—from other website links or from search engine results. Depending on how you build your website, you can access simple analytics in a user dashboard (as with WordPress.com accounts). You can also use Google Analytics (google.com/analytics) for a more comprehensive, in-depth report.
Once you build your home base, you can start using the outposts. Let’s start with Facebook. Because Facebook encourages people to self-identify as devoted fans of brands, groups, and ideas, it’s an easy place for you to begin sharing your writing with people likely to be interested in it.
You can promote your writing to your network on Facebook through your personal profile. It’s easy to begin: you’re promoting your work to friends and family, so you’re likely to find supportive responses. However, your personal network may not be the intended audience for your piece, and perhaps more importantly, you may not want to mix your personal and professional lives in this way.
You may then choose to start a Facebook fan page devoted to your writing career. At first, it will be difficult to build an audience. Be sure to add a “like box,” a simple Facebook plug-in, to your home base to allow visitors to “like” your page with a single click. You may also invite select Facebook friends to become a fan of your page. Choose Facebook friends who will be interested in your writing—not just friends who are interested in supporting you as their friend or family member.
On a Facebook fan page, just as on your home base, providing new content on a regular basis is essential for your success. Post updates to your fan page at least once per week or your Facebook community will grow stagnant. It will give a poor impression to those who would like to become fans of your career in the future.
How do you get your content out to different audiences on Facebook? It’s quite simple. Say you’ve written a piece about a university and you want to distribute it to an interested audience. First, like the university’s Facebook page, then type @University Name in your wall post that links to your story. Facebook will then link your post automatically to the fan page of the university. Some fan pages display wall posts like yours on their fan page wall for everyone to see; others will relegate those posts to a special tab labeled “Most Recent,” But regardless of the end destination, you will still have distributed your article to a wider, but targeted audience.
When you share links to your writing on Facebook, be sure to use all customization options. With just a click, you can change the headline, the preview text, and the image that displays with the link to your content. That means you can fashion your link to have a short, interesting headline, interesting “teaser” preview text, and an eye-catching photograph.
You can also give users the option to share your Facebook content. If you have some technical knowledge, embed a Facebook “like” button in your web content by copying and pasting code from Facebook (see http://developer.facebook.com). If not, you can find free plug-ins for popular blogging platforms that will add the button to your site for you automatically.
Facebook allows you to distribute your work in a targeted fashion; Twitter allows you to build relationships with like-minded individuals. It provides direct access to people you might otherwise not meet for a variety of factors, like geography or disparity in industry experience.
Think of Twitter as an endless cocktail party with an extraordinary guest list. When you first walk into the room, you don’t have anyone to talk with yet. But as you are pulled into one conversation and then another, you build relationships with the people around you and are introduced naturally to other people outside your original circle. So it happens on Twitter.
Twitter conversation takes place in tweets, 140-character messages posted in a long online stream. Twitter users include each other in conversation with Twitter usernames (e.g., @yourname), and group conversation around topics or events with hashtags. Hashtags are composed of a hash mark (#) followed by an agreed upon short code (e.g., #CPAC11 for the Conservative Political Action Committee’s 2011 conference).
Sign up for a free account on Twitter.com. As your goal is professional networking, use your real name or a close variant of it, like your first initial with your last name. You then can manage your Twitter account on Twitter.com, or you can download free desktop applications like TweetDeck (tweetdeck.com) or smartphone applications like EchoFon for iPhone.
To get started on Twitter, search for and follow the accounts of people and institutions you know. (Becoming a follower subscribes you to a user’s Twitter updates.) Be strategic: find the Twitter accounts for editors and reporters for whom you’d like to work, sources you’d like to build a relationship with, and the thought leaders of your interest area. A simple Google search—e.g., “Jane Doe twitter” or “Leadership Institute twitter”—is often the easiest way to find these accounts.
Respond to peoples’ tweets and share information in your own as you would in a normal conversation. Remember that Twitter is very much a two-way medium. If you only post links to your writing or only tweet your own thoughts, you’re practicing the online equivalent of standing in a room and talking to yourself.
This guide is just the start of using new media to jumpstart your writing career. Blogs and other online sources provide near-endless further reading on the elements presented here and will be valuable resources for you as technology and best practices continue to evolve. You may especially benefit from Mashable.com (social media news), ProBlogger.net (blogging and blogging tools), EPolitics.com (useful lessons from political campaigns), and training from the Leadership Institute (LeadershipInstitute.org).
Further research will supplement the foundation outlined in this guide, but you can’t make serious progress before your foundation is in place. So get started. Build your home base, share your ideas on outposts, and begin to develop a readership for your work online.
Sure, it’s just a start, but it can be a great jumpstart for your career.
Abigail Alger is director of digital communications at the Leadership Institute.
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