How To Stand Out Online
There’s plenty of advice out there about how to attract an audience online. A lot of it is really bad. Here’s a couple of things that do work (and a few that probably won’t).
It’s hard to find and grow an audience online. From time to time, I hear some crazy oversimplifications—just start a YouTube channel and you could have millions of followers in no time; just “engage” more, and your Twitter account will explode.
Standing Out Online Is Hard
We all get stars in our eyes at times, and I don’t want to call anyone out for being wildly optimistic. But it takes real effort to identify an audience for your work and then to deepen your relationship with that audience and help it grow.
Just with the sheer volume of stuff posted every day, together with all the noise, standing out online is hard. The tactics are constantly evolving, as platforms and algorithms change. What worked a few years ago, in blogging, or social media, probably doesn’t work today.
Three Strategies That (Probably) Won’t Work
At least two strategies do work. Before we look at those, I want to briefly touch on three approaches that probably won’t.
Strip-mining Your Life: Perhaps most associated with daily vloggers, this approach involves trawling through every aspect of your life to find a vast, constantly updated source of “content.” If you’re a charismatic, good-looking, high-energy person willing to make large slices (or all) of your life public, this can work. For most people, it doesn’t. If you get millions of followers, everyone will want you in their selfies; if not, everyone will run away when they see you.
Sharecropping Your Craft: Be everywhere, because everywhere needs to see your work, for free. This is the tragic intersection of the information-wants-to-be-free mindset and the because-it-exists-we-should-use-it way of thinking. Eventually, you fragment. When your photos, or your words, or other craft is on every platform, it never feels special. Everyone will see your work and, when they do, it will never feel special.
Becoming a Cult Leader: Ever see someone suddenly start peppering their social media with hashtags and alarmingly buzzword-filled language? They are taking a leaf or two out of the cult leader’s handbook, embracing an air of charismatic mystery and consistent, almost hypnotic messaging. You might think you’re touching people’s souls, but there’s a good chance what you feel is the cold embrace of online bots.
These three approaches work for some people. For most of us, they won’t. More importantly, they will become an all-consuming distraction from our craft, from the thing we actually want to draw attention to.
Consider Where Your Advice Is Coming From
This is the big test for any piece of advice: Does it involve creating a lot of stuff and putting in a lot of effort that is not related to your craft? For example, if you’re an artist, it’s important that at some point you create a bio, but it’s not something you should invest hours in every week.
If your strategy for standing out online involves investing hours every week to create stuff that isn’t related to your craft, then you have to ask some serious questions about the advice you’re following and who it came from.
A lot of advice about how to stand out online comes from people who spend all day online trying to get attention. Never forget that.
Having said all this, here are two strategies that do work.
Be A Crash Test Dummy: Try things, experiment, then document those experiences. Create reviews or tutorials or anything that shows your trial-and-error process. We are all curious to know about things that we haven’t had the opportunity to try ourselves.
This doesn’t mean you have to become a totally comprehensive reviewer. I don’t do a lot of camera or lens reviews, but experiments like my attempts at infra-red photography always got attention. I don’t strip-mine my life but diving into themes like This Week I Quit or Simple touched a nerve with readers. When I worked on the Society For Film project, there were occasional spikes in traffic from reviews of blockbusters, but the best-performing reviews were consistently for smaller arthouse, Asian, and non-English-language films.
The key to doing this well is often in the playfulness and the willingness to show your mistakes or at least reveal that sometimes things didn’t work out as expected. Be out there, on the edge, taking the risks and testing the ice.
Be A Crash-Proof Artisan: So Good They Can’t Ignore You is the title of Cal Newport’s excellent book and it sums up this approach. Basically, you should always focus on improving your skills. The quality of your work—the craft, the originality, the consistently high standard over a long period of time—is the best way to stand out.
Of course, this is the slow way, the unfashionable way, perhaps the riskiest-looking way. You’ll have to hold the course while people suddenly flash up and get attention before fading away.
This is something I will explore more in future posts, but we need to combine our artisan spirit with artistic intelligence, cultivating the mindset that makes mastery of a craft possible. And this requires a ruthless commitment to focusing on what you make and a willingness to pay a social penalty (limiting your social life) to do so.
This approach will put you in the most conflict with our social media culture, and you will need to be prepared for some cognitive dissonance. You’ll have to ignore a lot of noise and be prepared to feel like you’re being ignored. This is short-term pain for long-term gain.
Of course, there’s probably more that do work, and I’ve probably been too harsh on the approaches I criticised. My hope, though, is you’ll consider how the approach you pursue to try to stand out and get attention relates to the overall effort you put into your craft.
Let me leave you with a final thought experiment. Imagine if the Internet suddenly crashed catastrophically. Everything on your social media, all the connections there, with followers and so on, are lost. All you have left is what you have made yourself, whatever is saved or backed up on your computer and, of course, everything in your offline world. What would you do?
My hope is that, as unsettling as that experience would be, you could then just settle down, get back to work, and focus on your creative craft.