Thinking back to the start of the twenty-first century, the concept of a teacher, trainer or author promoting his or herself online in the way we’re expected to today was almost unimaginable. The word blog wasn’t coined until 1999, and blogging didn’t really hit its stride until around 2004. And what about Facebook and Twitter? They both feel so much a part of our day-to-day lives that it’s easy to forget that they were only founded in 2004 and 2006 respectively. I probably check Facebook and Twitter upwards of twenty or thirty times a day. How did these things become such an integral part of my personal and professional life?
As many of us know, websites and services such as Facebook, Twitter, and WordPress come under the broad heading of social media, while the use of these applications is termed social networking. Social media and social networking are elements themselves of a wider phenomenon (for want of a better word) – that of Web 2.0. If Web 1.0 was about the Web as a ‘pipe’, where information was poured into one end and consumed at the other, then Web 2.0 is a ‘platform’, where users collaborate to create content and meaning amongst themselves (thanks to Cleve Miller at English360 for the analogy). Put simply: Web 1.0 was top-down, while Web 2.0 is bottom-up. Put even more simply, think about what YouTube is without the videos that its users upload: an empty shell.
Aside from book sales, an author’s influence in the world of ELT used to be judged relatively crudely by their success on the conference circuit: how many plenaries they’re doing, that kind of thing. Social media has given us new ways of gauging that influence, and, when combined, they’re appropriately referred to as the author’s platform.
Some examples. How many Twitter followers does she have? How many people retweet her? How many people visit her blog each month? How does that number compare to people with similar blogs? Do her blog posts get linked to by other blogs? How influential are those other blogs? Does she have fans on Facebook? How many? When she writes something on her Facebook wall, how many people click ‘Like’ or write a comment? What kinds of things do they say?
Publishers are interested in an author’s platform for the obvious reason that it represents a variety of marketing opportunities. The platform is the author’s fan base, and it’s not difficult to convince your fans to buy your book; they already like you, after all. But what if you’re not an author and have no desire to be one? Should teachers and trainers be worried about their platform? Absolutely.
Your platform is a marketing tool, and marketing is all about creating opportunities for you to get your message out there. That message could be ‘Buy my book’. But it could also be ‘I’m a highly effective teacher’ or ‘I can help you achieve your language learning goals’. Curating a successful platform for yourself can reap benefits in a variety of ways: a new job offer, a new client, an invite to speak at a conference, a tap on the shoulder from a publisher or publishing agent.
So how do you go about it, and what are the potential pitfalls? The bare minimum, I’d argue, is a Twitter account, a Facebook profile, a presence on Linked In and a regularly updated blog. If you’re worried about some cross-contamination between personal life and work life, then simply create multiple accounts and use them selectively. Bear in mind, though, that the more accounts you have, the more complicated they get to manage.
Once you’re set up with those basic four – and you’ve begun following people, adding people, connecting with people and blogging – you’re on your way to becoming part of the online ELT community. And that word community is an important one to remember. Membership of a community is reciprocal: you can’t be part of it if you don’t take part in it. So read and comment on other people’s blogs; you’ll find that they’ll start commenting on yours. Retweet some interesting posts from someone’s Twitter account; they’ll often thank you, follow you back and retweet you themselves in the future (and if you’re worried about building your Twitter following, it’s amazing what a retweet from someone with 5,000+ followers can do for your follower numbers).
To finish, two warnings. First, authenticity is paramount, and people can sense a lack of it; always be yourself. Second, remember that promoting yourself through these channels is a delicate art. If you put enough in, there’s a tacit understanding that you can once in a while take something out. So if you’ve spent the week posting links to interesting content on the Web, sharing resources, and supporting fellow members of the community, no-one begrudges you promoting a new blog post, an upcoming talk or even your new book. But if all you do is talk about yourself or promote yourself, you might as well be speaking into a black hole.
(A version of this blog post appears in TESOL France Teaching Times Issue 64.)