Dear Jon: A Story of How NOT to Build a Platform

I’d been blogging for just over a month when one morning in the shower I was struck with a fantastic idea: I would email Jon Acuff to ask if he would guest post on my blog.

Brilliant! Why hadn’t I thought of this sooner?

I couldn’t dry off fast enough. I threw on my sweats and zipped downstairs to my computer, where I composed the request in a flurry and hit send. I even suggested to Jon that I would guest post at his place, if he would prefer that (I’m accommodating that way, you know).

If you don’t know Jon Acuff, he’s the author of the books Stuff Christians Like and Quitter. When I emailed him he hadn’t yet published his highly successful Stuff Christians Like, but his blog by the same name was wildly popular. At the time he had thousands of followers and received more than 100 comments on each post.

I, on the other hand, had exactly two followers (one — my husband — if you don’t count me).

I did know one thing for sure, though, and that was the fact that I needed to build a platform if I had any hope of landing an agent and publishing my book. After all, that was why I launched the blog in the first place, and I was determined to make this platform-building thing happen. The book was written; I assumed I had the hard part done.

Jon Acuff had a mega-platform. I had none. So the perfect solution, I figured, was to lure some of his readers over to my place, where they would be wooed by my stunning prose and become fans of my writing forever.

Voila! Instant platform, right?

You can probably guess what happened.

For starters, Jon Acuff politely declined my tantalizing offer. The fact that he responded to my email at all speaks volumes about his character. He kindly mentioned that he didn’t typically write guests posts or feature guest posts on his blog (something I would have known, had I been reading his blog for more than two weeks), and then he said this:

“Just write what you know from the heart, Michelle, and people will read it.”

I wasn’t pleased with his response. In addition to the intense shame I felt for proposing such a ludicrous idea, I was dismayed that there wasn’t a quick fix, a magic bullet, to platform-building.

“Write what I know?” I thought. “Write from the heart? What the heck is he talking about? There’s got to be a better way.”

As it turns out, Jon was right; there is no magic bullet for platform-building. There is no quick and easy way to build a following overnight, because the fact is, blogging and other social media are not simply about luring readers to our words, they are about building a genuine relationship with those readers.

And that takes time. And it takes genuine writing — writing from the heart, you might say.

I’ve been blogging for just over two years now. I still don’t have a mega-platform, but I do have something I never expected. I have online friends. 

People come to read my posts, yes, but many of these readers are also people with whom I have a genuine relationship.  We visit each other’s blogs and leave encouraging comments. We retweet each other’s posts. We offer support and advice to each other via email. And when I have the rare opportunity to meet some of these people in person, we continue our conversation face-to-face, as if we know each other well.

Because we do.

Despite the fact that I die a little every time I think about my foolish email to Jon Acuff, I don’t regret that I sent it. Jon graciously taught me an important lesson about this business. In the end, it’s not as much about the platform as it is about the people.

So what about you? Do you have any mortifying platform-building stories? And what have you found to be the key to successful platform-building?

51 thoughts on “Dear Jon: A Story of How NOT to Build a Platform

  1. I will have been blogging for two years this December and while I don’t get a lot of traffic, I have a few regular readers who comment on my posts. Building an online presence takes time, which is something I’m only beginning to grasp now. I’ve matured a lot in these two years and my posts are now only starting to offer readings something of real value. Thank God I don’t write like I did when I was sixteen anymore, when I had just started my blog.

  2. Michelle,
    This is the sort of thing that needs to be said. I appreciate your sharing this.I am finding out the same thing. Slowly building a platform and find friends to encourage and be encouraged by. i have found joining critique groups, entering contest, writing articles, short stories and being available to speak also help build your platform.

    • Time is indeed a big part of it, Stacy. The thing about blogging is that you can put more and more time into it, and it will still take more — I have trouble finding a good balance sometimes. But yes, like any genuine relationship, an online relationship does take time to grow – the connections, if they are genuine, don’t happen overnight, which is what I learned (the hard way) with my email to Jon Acuff.

      Thank goodness, he was so gracious about the whole thing!

  3. Thank you. I struggle to find the time to write something on my blog. I occasionally write something several times a week, and then nothing for several weeks. I must try to write more “from the heart.” I enjoy writing such pieces, and as you point out, people seem to enjoy reading them.

    • And the blog “experts” do say that consistency is important — so that readers know when you’ll be writing and can more easily come to know you as a person and as a writer. Even if you only post once or twice a week, I think it’s good to try to be consistent with which days you post.

      Good luck, Paul!

  4. Dang, Michelle! How do you produce so many awesome posts on your own site, and then do the same thing over here?

    I might be tempted to be a little envious, except I’m too busy being amazed!

    Well, I’ve been doing this for only a little over three months, starting completely from scratch (as in created a FB account and a Twitter account, right after buying my domain name and loading WordPress…about two weeks before hitting the “Go” button on CreateSpace for self-pub’ing my first book), so I have a lot to learn yet.

    What I have learned, though, is that this is a lot more fun and seems a lot more productive when I completely forget about platforms and sales, and simply enjoy being a part of a growing group of on-line friends.

    Thanks for the encouraging post! Thanks, even more for being a pretty cool friend!

    • You are too nice, Joe!

      And man, you are doing a GREAT job — I didn’t realize you’d only been blogging for three short months. You’ve already got a great handle on what works and, more importantly, on connecting with readers in a genuine way. I am always so blessed by your encouragement and support at my place. Thank you!

      • Thanks! I appreciate the encouragement, Michelle!

        I guess it may actually have proven beneficial (in a backwards sort of way) that I jumped into this with both feet, before I had time to develop any real expectations.

        It’s probably easier not to get hung up on building platform, when I’m still not certain exactly what that means, anyway… ;^)

        I do know that I like being used of God to help and encourage others! =^)

  5. My first blog was basically a bust, despite enlisting two other great posters to be a part of it. Great idea (I still think it was!) Poor execution. It was just another writers blog.
    Now my blog is In Others’ Words–and it was birthed out of my addiction to quotes and the fact that people often commented when I posted quotes on my FB page. Hhhhm. I paid attention to what people liked. (And I happened to like it too.) I’ve expanded the blog to included posts on contemporary romance–what I write.
    Building a following slowly and liking what I do.
    So far, so good.
    Really appreciated your honesty and your lesson learned.

    • You were so smart to realize what wasn’t working about your first blogging attempt, Beth. I think too often we try to jam a square peg into a round hole and keep forcing the issue.

      And you make another really good point, too, when you mention liking what you do. Isn’t that the key? You can always tell when a writer is loving what he or she is writing about — that passion just shines through the words.

      I’m looking forward to checking out your blog — sounds like a cool concept! {I happen to have a thing for quotes, too.}

  6. Michelle – great topic. I’m struggling with the blog and how it fits into my individual platform right now. I’m a thriller author but I’d rather blog about what matters to me – not thriller-esque. So right now I’ve been pulling out true mysteries from history – which doesn’t thrill me. Still not sure what to do. I got more response when I was writing about what I was thinking but was I building an audience for the books – which is my intention. Sigh.

    • That is really tricky, Martha. I consider it lucky that I write memoir and personal narrative, because blogging fits so naturally and fluidly with that. I know I’ve read that if you are a fiction writer, you should blog on similar themes (which in your case would be thrillers), but if it doesn’t thrill you, so to speak, than it’s a real quandary. I’m no expert (and that’s an understatement!), but I still say blog about what you love. As a reader, I’ve bought books totally outside my typical genre preference (for example, historical Christian fiction) just because I loved the author and her voice so much on her blog. I bought the book both because I wanted to support her, and because I knew from her blog that she was a great writer.

    • Ok, so I haven’t forgotten the platform entirely…but I have refocused my heart on what’s really important, which is the relationships and friendships behind the stats. As a Triple Type A control freak, I was way too obsessed with the numbers side of things. Now I remind myself, fairly often, that it is in God’s hands, and he’s got the plan handled.

      Thanks for stopping by, David – always happy to see you around!

  7. Michelle,
    I went to see a famous blogger one time . . . and said something really stupid. I still feel silly when I think about it. I have a wonderful life and did not need any validation from her. What exactly was I looking for . . . goofy, eh?

    Fondly,
    Glenda

    • Isn’t terrible how these experiences haunt us, Glenda? I think that’s why I wrote about the Jon Acuff humiliation…because I wanted to help myself realize that there was a good lesson behind the embarrassment. God makes all things good, even our most embarrassing moments! 😉

  8. Michelle,
    Your post made me smile because what struck me first was your passion and vision to go for the stars. Fear keeps many people (and their amazing talents) hidden. Because of your fearlessness, you learned a valuable lesson that you’ve now used to help others. Thanks for this great post!

    • I appreciate you saying that, Donna, because I am typically not a step-out-of-the-box kind of girl. When I first started blogging I did so anonymously, until finally a good friend gently suggested that it might be difficult to build a platform without using my name. Good point.

      So yeah, “going for the stars” was definitely a risk. And it didn’t exactly pay off in the way that I’d hoped. But it certainly did offer me some valuable insights (and I got a blog post idea of it, so who can complain about that!).

      Thanks for your encouragement — I so appreciate it!

      • Michelle,
        Thanks for a funny and helpful post.
        You do seem fearless (when I read your post), so your comment that you first blogged anonymously resonated with me. I did the same thing when I began @ 11 months ago, then I used my initials after a few months, then finally my first name with my last name initial. I’m still shy about FB… but I do always try to write from my heart, which can be a bit scary at times.

      • Dolly, it took me even longer to get on Facebook, too…and then even longer after that to create a “Facebook Writer” page. I am a slow learner, I guess. But all in good time…

        Hang in there and keep up the good work — you can do this bit by bit!

  9. Wonderful post! It is definitely good advice. Writing from the heart is always a good idea. Blogging is about connecting — and the best way to connect is to write things that matter, things that others might relate to (like this post).

    Great entry. 🙂

  10. Awww, Michelle,….this is kind of sweet, actually. And how nice of him to reply. I think it does not hurt to ask, right? The worst that can happen is you get told “no” and you walked away with some great advice that helped.
    I have nothing interesting to add, but I wanted you to know I stopped by (saw this on Facebook) and that I think you are a great writer and I’m glad we’re blog friends 🙂

    • I am so glad we’re blog friends, too, Gaby — you are the perfect example of what I am writing about today. Meeting someone online, growing our friendship through encouragement, support and love — isn’t it just wonderful?!

  11. I read this last night and just cracked up. I would so do that! And it was so re-assuring to know that it DOES take time (not just for me, but for everyone). Platform Building usually gets said in this way like you can just go out and get it done. It’s a process and variable- not a project you can do within a time frame and guaranteed outcomes. Did you know this is guest post week at Stuff Christians Like? Funny timing if you didn’t. Smart timing if you did!

    • I’m glad you thought it was funny, Charise (I think it’s funny, too…now!). I didn’t know it was guest post week at SCL — how ironic! Maybe I should email him again? 😉

  12. As usual, love your honesty Michelle and what a great story! I have only been blogging regularly for three months and I feel like every day I open the comments it is like receiving a gift. Everything that matters in life takes time. I’m willing to wait!

    • Shelly, I can’t believe you’ve only been blogging for three months — you are such a pro already. You are such a genuine connector – I just love that about you!

    • FYI, the link in your comment heading takes me to a default “Hello World” WordPress page.

      • Hah! Sorry for the confusion, Michelle. I meant the comment for Shelly. I clicked on the words “Redemption’s Beauty” beside her avatar, expecting to see her website, but, instead, wound up on a WordPress default page.

  13. I’ve only been blogging since June, and I certainly have not written a book. I have not yet had a mortifying platform-building experience, but give me time. I’ll get there!

    • Oh year, I have those, too….like the time I was in line to have Anne Lamott sign a copy of her book. I was super nervous to talk to her, because she is one of my favorite writers and I am intimidated by her, and when I finally got up to the front of the line and handed her the book to sign, it was another author’s book, not hers! She handed it back to me and said, “This isn’t my book.” I was mortified.

  14. Having people read my blog is a mystery to me (I have five). My oldest blog receives a reasonable amount of traffic — even when i don’t post new content for a couple of weeks. People consistently stumble onto old posts, some of which are over a year old.

    And then a couple of my other blogs — my “platform-building” blogs — which I care about and put forth a concerted effort to produce regular, thoughtful content do not fair nearly as well.

    If there is a secret to blogging success, it has escaped me!

    • Maybe it is a question of how we define “blogging success.”

      If someone defined being a “good friend” as a function of how many friends they had and how often they interacted, most of us would find that a strange definition. We value friends based, not on quantity, but on quality.

      So, why do we tend to change the standard when we start talking about on-line friends?

    • Ok first of all, Peter, I can’t believe you have five blogs! Jeepers, how do you keep up with it all?!

      I guess what I would suggest is perhaps that you look at your older blog and try to discern exactly what it is that is more attractive to readers (and maybe you have done this already). Does it have a different tone from your less-trafficked blogs? Is the content different? Try to pinpoint exactly what it is that is so attractive, and then weave that element into the blogs that you want to drive more traffic to.

      But really, I do know what you mean. It is a mystery. Sometimes I write what I think is a top-notch post, and it doesn’t get nearly the response. Other days I whip something out, and readers react to it like it’s the best post ever. I try to figure out what I did on that day that was so attractive, but sometimes I just throw up my hands and shrug!

  15. I have only been blogging since July so I don’t have any horror stories. I do now have a total of twelve followers now which is cool. I learn something new each day so I feel like I am progressing.
    Thank you for your encouragement. I have found most published authors are very nice and extremely helpful.
    Glenda Parker

    • You’ve got exactly the right attitude, Glenda, in focusing on the fact that you learn something new every day. And that’s the beauty of writing and blogging — no matter how long you’ve been doing it, there is the opportunity to learn something new every day. That’s what keeps it fresh and exciting.

      I’m not published by the way (though I do hope to change that in the future!)…but thanks for implying that I am nice! 🙂

  16. Hi, Michelle! I guess the most embarrassing things I did was check my stats 1,000 times a day and curse those bloggers who never visited my site after I visited theirs. 😉

    My platform is still small, but it definitely started to pick up the last few months. I think the key is that I’m staying true to me. It took me almost two years, but I finally figured out what I really enjoy to write. No longer am I linking up with other writers with the purpose of gaining followers–I link up if their theme fits with what I want to write instead of forcing my writing to fit with them.

    And consistency is definitely key. As you said, even once or twice can make a huge difference.

    I will always love your ‘Dear, Jon’ story. 🙂

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