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When I met up with David, I assumed we’d be talking about the “business” of social media. He is, after all, a very successful photographer, author, and eBook publisher because of his robust online community: the Pixelated Image blog and nearly 13,000 Twitter followers.
“Everything I’ve gotten professionally has come through my social media involvement — without exaggeration or exception, literally everything,” he says. But when I ask him about “metrics” and “ROI” he looks at me with a bit of exasperation.
“The most important thing I’ve learned about business,” he explains, “is that every opportunity is the result of a conversation.” The heart of social media engagement is that it allows you to have more conversations with people farther away — that’s it. Trying to sell something through social media, David says, “misses the point.”
“The last thing I want to do is be known as a salesman, because that sabotages the community and then people put up their walls and keep you at an arm’s distance,” he explains. Trying to “monetize” social media, using it to make the sale, means you decrease your conversations, and your opportunities.
So what’s the right way to engage with social media? Here are the five things you really need to know. After David’s top tips, you’ll find an edited version of our conversation, including insights into eBook publishing and why social media doesn’t have to be a time-suck.
1. Don’t forget, the online world is still the real world.
You would never walk into a room and, without introducing yourself, assume that everyone wants to hear about your latest greatest thing would you? Most of us will spend time actually listening to people, finding out who they are, and gaining their trust before we try to sell them our AmWay products. Just because it’s technology, that doesn’t give you carte blanche to abuse people with your sales pitches.
2. Use your strengths
We all have ways that we prefer to communicate. Give blogging or Facebook or Twitter a try, but if you don’t like it, don’t force yourself. Because that’s going to be obvious. Some people are not naturally writers; you’ve got to use your strengths. If writing is really truly not your thing, do a video blog or a podcast. Or maybe you don’t even need a blog. You can use Twitter as an ongoing microblog. It’s still a place that people will come to hear little bits and pieces and connect with you.
3. Be yourself
You’ve got to find your own voice. If that is crass and rude and foul-mouthed, then be that person. Because you want your audience to be authentic, one that comes to you because there’s a genuine connection. I don’t really believe in this distinction between work and play. What’s amazing about that is, if you’re not seeing the division between work and play, you’re also not dividing people into “friends” or “clients.” They’re just people.
4. Be a rebel
It’s so funny, because everyone gets into photography and they want to be free spirits and they would never consider shooting the same photograph as someone else — and then when it comes to the business side of things, everyone is looking for a template. Everyone wants to follow rules. I think building your photography business should be as much an act of creativity as your photography. And by implication, your communication about the stuff you do should be creative. It should be quirky. It should be unique to yourself.
5. Be vulnerable
In comedy, you can either screw up on stage and pretend it never happened — and totally lose your audience — or you can screw up on stage and call the moment. When a joke falls flat, the funniest thing you can do is just recognize that the joke fell flat. Because we all feel like we’ve been there. The same is true in social media: You screw up? You fess up, you make a joke about it, you apologize, you move on. And I think that draws people in. The more human we make ourselves, the deeper the connections we make. And even if none of this ever makes a penny for anyone, I think that’s the ultimate reward.
Miki: So what was life like before you got your first book deal three years ago?
David: I spent a lot of time doing mailing lists and creating post cards and following up with clients and working on improving my portfolio. All of those keystone pieces of marketing that everyone, including myself, advocates you do. Then all of a sudden I found my activities switched, and I was spending more of my time just engaging.
I’d been blogging for several years, since 2005 but I got into Twitter kicking and screaming. A friend convinced me to get into it finally and the learning curve was just easy. And there’s something about Twitter that’s less unilateral than a blog, more immediate. Little things fly back and forth, and it keeps people engaged in small bursts, which is more like real life. You know, you make a quick phone call to your buddy, you go have coffee, it’s much more episodic than it is like one massive post every week.
The most important thing I’ve learned, someone said to me a long time ago, David, every opportunity comes as a result of a conversation. Every good thing I’ve gotten in terms of my career has come as a result of my engagement in social media. I think that’s because social media is about having more conversations. More conversations, more opportunities. You don’t pursue it because of the opportunities, but they’re a happy byproduct.
My books also came in some sense from having a platform. When you go to a publisher and you say I have a great book idea, the first thing they say is not what’s your great book idea? The first thing they say is what’s your platform, who’s your audience?
I started to realize that the strength of my audience — because it’s large but it’s not gigantic — is that I’m kind of in it for the long haul. I’m not interested in just selling someone a $5 eBook when I could spend time connecting with them and making friends. And I don’t really believe in this distinction between work and play. What’s amazing about that is, if you’re not seeing the division between work and play, you’re also not seeing the division between people in terms of friends or clients.
I know one guy who was initially sort of a fan/follower, he came on a workshop, then he became a friend. Since then I hired his company to do a $10,000 website project. People become friends and they become part of your community and hopefully there’s an honest interchange. It becomes this small-town mentality people used to have. They knew the guy down the street and they’d hire him because they knew him.
Miki: Are there common mistakes people make when they’re first getting into social media?
David: I think the biggest mistake is treating social media like it’s not the real world. Just because it’s technology, don’t treat it like you have this carte blanche to abuse people with your sales pitches. You would never walk into a room and, without introducing yourself, assume that everyone wants to buy your latest greatest thing. Most of us will walk into a room and spend time actually listening to people, finding out who they are, and gaining their trust.
Everyone is talking about monetization, and I’m sure there are industries where that matters, but I think talking about monetization misses the point. If it’s social media, let it just be social. I mean, I advertise our eBooks, but it might be one in twenty tweets, MAYBE that. When a new eBook comes out I say, hey the new eBook is out, here’s the discount code. I might tweet that a second time. But other than that, it’s like, ok, it’s out there, now let’s go back to having a conversation.
When you start looking at people as a potential cash outlet, a potential client, you start kind of writing people off. Because you’re assuming you know how it’s going to pay off for you. The “pay off” might just be relational, it might just be a good friendship. Or you may assume they have nothing to offer you and miss out on an opportunity.
People are pretty savvy. When they feel like they’re being sold to, they tune out pretty quickly. And the last thing I want to do is be known as a salesman. Because I think that sabotages community. Then people put up their walls and they keep you at an arm’s distance.
I want to be the kind of person where people want to have a cup of coffee with me. Instead of being the guy everyone tries to avoid because he’s just going to pitch me something. “Thanks for meeting me for coffee, you want to buy an eBook? You want to go on a workshop?”
Pursuing community for the sake of community has this fantastic pragmatic spin-off. But the moment you try to pursue the money, it kind of short-circuits itself. It has this natural self-destruct built in that forces you to be real and authentic.
Miki: What did you first tweet about and has it changed?
David: I think I was a little more guarded than I am now. Then I was trying to come up with things to tweet about and trying to be clever. Now I’ve become more off-handed and quite willing to be a little more me. I’ve become more sarcastic, which I am by nature. But certainly the way I use Twitter has changed in terms of me feeling like I can be a little more casual with it. Not planning so much. When something comes up you just kind of throw it out there.
Again, conversation is spontaneous. It’s not, ok, I’m going to meet with Miki and I’m going to talk about these three things. That’s a meeting, it’s not conversation. Whereas if you have a friendship it’s like, oh, I wanted to tell you this! That’s the kind of stuff I’m more and more tweeting…and the stuff I like to read. When I’m reading people’s stuff, I like the stuff that’s a little spontaneous, a little goofy. It’s a small little window into someone’s life. I think that’s the kind of stuff that builds connections. It makes you feel a little closer to people and again, and pragmatically speaking, the closer we are, the tighter community is, the more we want to support each other.
Miki: Do you feel like your blog has gone through that same transition of you opening up more and being more yourself?
David: When I started blogging, I remember writing something like, “I don’t know if anyone’s ever going to read this, but it will be a nice place to document my journey as I come back to photography.” So right from the beginning, the goal was not to create some thing with an audience, the goal was just expression.
Communication, you need an audience for. Expression, you can be in an empty room. And I think that was kind of the point for me. Just to journal it, to get it out there. So it’s always been pretty open and I’ve never kept anything hidden except really personal stuff.
Being authentic creates connections. And it’s all relationships, it’s just in a different kind of world. It happens through the keyboard and on iPads and laptops, but it’s still relationships. It’s reciprocity, it’s trust, it’s openness, it’s vulnerability.
There was this great TED Talk by Brené Brown on the power of vulnerability. It’s phenomenal. It’s nothing none of us knew, but she puts it into such a concrete sociological terms: vulnerability is a powerful thing. It’s just scary as hell sometimes.
I was in comedy for 12 years, and in comedy, you can either screw up on stage and pretend it never happened — and totally lose your audience — or you can screw up on stage and call the moment. When a joke falls flat, the funniest thing you can do is just recognize that the joke fell flat. Because we all feel like we’ve been there. The same is true in social media: You screw up? You fess up, you make a joke about it, you apologize, you move on. And I think that draws people in.
The more human we make ourselves, the deeper those connections can be. And I think, even if none of this ever makes a penny for anyone, that’s the ultimate reward. We have an opportunity to put our work in front of more people than ever would have seen Shakespeare’s plays in his lifetime. You share the work that you create, which is for most of us why we create it, and you build community and connections. What else is there?
Miki: The big thing I hear is, people are worried it will take a lot of time to be as engaged as they need to be. Do you think that’s true?
David: I don’t think it is. I think you can be very engaged, very high-touch, very warm, very human, without being the guy that sits across the dinner table and is always checking his email and twittering while you are trying to have a conversation.
If you’re comfortable with the technology, when you have a moment, you can just pop open Twitter on your iPhone and create a little tweet. I mean, it’s only 140 characters. It’s only when you think, “Oh my gosh, I have to blog today and I have to tweet today,” when you make it a big to-do items, that it becomes a little intimidating.
If you ask me, is it time-consuming to maintain a friendship with your best friend? No, it’s not time-consuming, because we want to fit it in. Now blogging, I do make sure to get it in a couple times a week if I can. But for me twittering, it’s quick. I sort of launch it to see what conversations are going on, I check in, type out a quick little reaction or retweet something. It’s more conversational. I don’t think most of us would say, oh, I don’t have time for conversations.
You’ve got to find your strengths. If you don’t want to blog and all you want to do is Twitter, then you look at Twitter as an ongoing microblog. It’s still a place that people will come to to hear little bits and pieces and connect with you. If writing’s not your thing, do a video blog or a podcast.
I have a friend Matt Brandon, who does a similar style of photography. I don’t think he’d mind me saying, he’s not a naturally talented writer. What he is good at is audio. So rather than force a square peg into a round hole, he’s just mostly doing video blogging. He also does these Depth of Field podcasts that are unbelievable. Or look at Gary Vaynerchuk, who sort of admits in his book Crush It that he can’t write, but his video podcasts are great.
Not everyone needs a blog or Twitter. It’s a powerful tool, so give it a try. But if you don’t like it, don’t force yourself. Because it’s going to come out. It’s like with me and Facebook. I hate Facebook, so as a result, I don’t post as often to it, I don’t respond as quickly. Anyone that’s watching would pick that up pretty quick. Twitter, on the other hand, I love. I just hate saying it. I hate saying I’m going to tweet you. But it’s better than saying I’m going to poke you.
Miki: Tell me about your eBooks and the Light & Vision online bookstore. Are eBooks profitable?
David: The eBooks are always $5 or less on my site, and last year we sold somewhere around 80,000 of them. Now, I have other authors, designers, a manager, so that’s not $400,000 in my pocket, but the numbers are certainly great.
The first book: I was in Thailand with my buddy Henry, who sells software, and he said, “David you’ve got to get some kind of eBook or something.” I said, I’ve seen eBooks; they’re white papers with lots of highlighting and underlining and they’re all written in courier and just shoot me now.
But he said, David, we’re sitting on this pier in Thailand eating Pad Thai, and I’m making money right now. When I go to sleep tonight, I’ll wake up in the morning and I will have made money. Because people are buying my code. But you have to BE somewhere to make money. If you want to make money on an assignment in Kenya, you have to go to Kenya. You always have to be there, so you’re limited.
I came home and I started thinking, if I could do eBooks my way … I also had intended to learn InDesign, so I gave myself an eBook as a project, because I don’t learn very well unless I have a deliverable. It took me about three days start-to-finish, and when it was done I thought, huh, I’ve got an eBook.
I found a way to sell it online, and I posted it on my blog, and damned if people didn’t start buying it. And then I thought, this is too good not to see if it can’t be done a second time. The first one was called Ten, the second one was called Ten More. I don’t think I’ve since become much more creative with my titles. But people kept buying it.
Soon I realized this is the reason people buy photography magazines, but without all the ads. It was great, big, glossy photographs that could be downloaded and shared. We don’t use any digital rights management, so you can print it, you can email it to someone, you can put it on five devices. And I found I really like putting them together. Then once a couple of them started doing well, I invited some others. My buddy Dave Delnea wrote one called Below The Horizon that did really well. And the whole thing has kind of steamrolled.