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How to Make Social Media Worth Your Time: When Is Enough Enough?

Flickr / Thomas Hawk [1]
via Flickr / by Thomas Hawk

A writer recently asked me to comment on whether there is anything to be gained from being active on more than two or three social media accounts. How extensive should you really get—and is it possible that “less is more”?

I interpret this question to mean: When is enough enough? And how do I make any effort worth my time?

Answering this question requires stepping back—waaaay back—and looking at how and why authors use social media in the first place. I’m going to focus on the three most common stages.

  1. Growing relationships in the community.
  2. Actively marketing a book (or product/service).
  3. Nurturing reader relationships.

Stage 1: Growing relationships

This kind of activity is largely unquantifiable, but it’s also where nearly every single person starts (at least if you’re not a celebrity).

As you learn to use any social media tool, there’s a “warming up” period as you understand the community, its language, and its etiquette. Most people begin by reaching out to the in-real-life people they already know on the network, then branch out and connect with people they haven’t met in person before.

What’s the purpose of this activity?

Well, why do any of us attend social functions? To have a good time, to learn and be informed, and to seek encouragement and support.

When does it reach its limits of utility? That’s kind of like asking how many relationships, or how many friends, is too many. If it’s starting to drag on your resources and time to do other things more important to you (such a writing), then it’s time to re-assess.

While I don’t recommend analyzing your social media use (from a numbers perspective) when you’re focused on it being, well, social, it’s helpful to check in with yourself on how the activity is making you feel. Energetic or drained? Positive or anxious? Empowered or jealous?

If you’re experiencing more negative emotions than positive, it may be time to step back from the specific networks causing these emotions, or stepping back entirely until you identify what’s creating bad mojo.

Stage 2: Actively marketing a book

You’ll only be successful at marketing on social media if you’ve already been through stage one. No one likes a stranger barging into the room and hawking his wares. It’s considered rude and the stranger is ostracized quickly.

But let’s be honest: many people have been told to get on social media in preparation for a book launch, and have no interest in using it beyond the marketing and promotion utility. That people feel this obligation or burden is one of the greatest failures of publishing community, but I’m going to set that aside (for this post), and instead speak to how to manage this stage authentically without rubbing everyone the wrong way.

Social media is excellent at building awareness and comprehension in the community of who you are and what you stand for. Over time, you become more visible and identifiable, because you show up consistently and have focused messages (let’s hope). It’s usually only after this recognition and trust develops that you can run a successful campaign that focuses on the sale—getting the community to buy.

[pullquote]Measure traffic to your website from social media. Does it make up a high or meaningful percentage of visits? If you don’t know, this is a significant gap in your knowledge that is preventing you from really answering the question: How do I make it worth my time?[/pullquote]

For those who don’t have these relationships or trust in place, here’s a work around: Get your friends and influencers who already have relationships and trust in place to help spread the word for you.

If you do have a solid foundation, then create a focused and strategic campaign, with specific start and end dates, for each social media network. Build in ways to measure if it’s working or not. For example, it’s easy to track how many people click on your links in Twitter, or retweet or favorite you. Facebook shows you the number of likes and shares. Over time, these simple metrics can tell you a lot about what people respond to, so that you can adjust and improve your updates. (At its heart, social media has a lot in common with strong copywriting. For lessons in copywriting, see Copyblogger [2].)

Regardless of your stage of activity—but especially during marketing campaigns—you should measure traffic to your website from social media. Does it make up a high or meaningful percentage of visits? If you don’t know, this is a significant gap in your knowledge that is preventing you from really answering the question: How do I make it worth my time?

Here, my assumption is that the author website is the most important online presence of all, where the most valuable or interested readers end up. If you’re seeing a lot of readers reach your site through a particular social media outlet—and those referral numbers are increasing month-on-month or year-on-year—it is indeed worth your time. The graph below shows an example from Google Analytics.

Social media referrals

This would indicate that, if this author’s social media activity were consistent during both periods, the effectiveness of the activity is declining on Twitter and Facebook. What should be done? If overall site traffic is growing, maybe nothing. If overall site traffic is declining, the author could change up posting frequency or type of posts (e.g., focus on more visual types of posts), focus on different social media networks, or develop a fresh content strategy campaign. Much depends on why you think the effectiveness is declining. And sometimes declines are out of your control—like when Facebook changes its feed algorithms—which means it may be time to focus your energy elsewhere.

Stage 3: Nurturing reader relationships

For published writers (regardless of how you publish), social media becomes a key way to stage engaged with your audience, and nurture it for the long haul of your career.

Some people advise writers get on social media before publication in order to grow their audience, and this can make sense for nonfiction authors who need to build visibility and authority in their field. For fiction authors, it can make little sense. How can you build readership around work that hasn’t yet been made public? You can build relationships, and be part of a community, but you’re not necessarily cultivating a readership. A potential readership, maybe. But there’s a big difference here that’s not frequently enough acknowledged, and also leads to a lot of frustration and claims that social media doesn’t work.

But let’s focus back on the primary challenge of stage three: this is when the real pinch comes into play, where authors have to balance time writing with time interacting with their audience. There’s a lot of value to be gained from nurturing that connection, and it can even inform what you write next. Yet every author has to form a strategy that they are personally comfortable with and can sustain with reasonable comfort (with additional stress budgeted in for the marketing and promotion campaigns of stage two).

It’s hard to prescribe a formula because (in my estimation) this comes down to your personality, your type of work, and where you’re at in your career. Your priorities will change, and your social media use will fluctuate. That’s natural and expected.

Getting Down to Brass Tacks: When Is Enough Enough?

If you want an answer that is truly quantifiable, then I would say: It’s enough when you are maintaining or growing readership, as demonstrated by visits to your website or sales of your work.

How many social media networks does this take? It only needs to take one if you’re very efficient and smart about how you use that network. Or it might be five, if you prefer diversity and experimentation. There is no single answer, but to increase the value of your activity, consider your sales funnel. (Apologies for the business term.) Your sales funnel reflects how you turn social media engagement into people who ultimately become readers. You can read more about sales funnels here [3]. Just as anyone who’s serious about quantifying their social media activity needs to have a website, you also need to consider the path readers take to find you, and how you can lead them down that path more quickly and effectively.

How do you quantify the worth of your social media activity? How do you decide when enough is enough?

About Jane Friedman [4]

Jane Friedman [5] has more than 20 years in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media and the future of authorship. She's the co-founder and editor of The Hot Sheet [6], the essential industry newsletter for authors. You can find out more about her consulting services and online classes at her website, JaneFriedman.com [5].