Tim Lewis: I’d heard of Ian Sutherland quite some time ago, but I never actually met the guy until last November, when I met him at the YouPreneur conference in London. He’s a really nice guy and he’s been trying to use Twitter to market his books for years now. He’s gone through an interesting journey that I think a lot of people who use Twitter have gone through, where you try to, as much as possible, automate everything, and then you eventually end up running up against the fact that Twitter keeps closing down everything you try to do in terms of quick and easy ways to market your books using Twitter.
Tim Lewis: I was quite interested, in November, to talk to Ian about his new venture, where he started to use various authors using his Platform Sidekick service to actually work together to market their books. So that’s the main reason I’m a brought in on the show. It’s also quite an interesting interview in terms of his lessons and the changes in the way that he’s used Twitter over the years, as well. So now over to the interview.
Tim Lewis: Hello, Ian. Welcome to the show.
Ian Sutherland: Hi, Tim. Thanks for having me.
Tim Lewis: Okay, so I met you at the YouPreneur conference, in person for the first time, but I’ve heard about your fantastic use of Twitter for selling books. When did you first realise that Twitter was working for you, as a way to sell books?
Using Twitter to Sell Books
Ian Sutherland: Well, I got into Twitter quite soon after publishing my first novel, which I published in August 2014. I write cyber crime thrillers. When I first published in 2014, I had no list, no real platform, and a very basic WordPress.com website. This is the days before ads had really come to fruition with Facebook and Amazon and so on. I was looking at, well, how can I spread the word? I looked at all the social media platforms, with Facebook and Instagram and LinkedIn and so on, but Twitter, to me, seemed the one that you could scale your messaging on, simply because it’s kind of on a asynchronous connection. You know, you can follow someone without that kind of handshake where you have to agree to follow each other. You can follow as many people as you want.
Ian Sutherland: I thought Twitter made some sense, so then I looked at it, I had a little go, and it didn’t really work. So I then decided I would do a lot of research. I started looking at what people outside of the author community were doing, so some of the internet marketers, and I started picking up what their techniques were. People were quite happy to share all this stuff, as everyone does. I started pulling all these techniques together and I put it into a system that started to work for me, and it involved using a lot of third party tools and automation. It really started to work, and I started to find that the more I did on Twitter, the more followers I attracted, that the word was getting out about me and my books.
Ian Sutherland: But I ended up sharing … I put all this together and I started sharing some of these ideas every time I met with any other authors, author meetups, that kind of stuff, and a few of them said, “Well, Ian, why don’t you just write all this down? What you’re doing seems to be pretty different.” So I did, and then I … so I wrote what become known as Advanced Twitter Strategies for Authors. I published that in April 2015 and it encapsulated all of the techniques that I’d put together at the time. Yeah, it was over the course of that sort of first year from publishing my first novel.
Building up a Twitter Following
Tim Lewis: Okay. Now, I think I recently looked at your main author Twitter account … I know you’ve got a couple … and you’ve got 126,000 followers, or something along those lines. How did you go about building up your large follower numbers on Twitter and what tools did you use to do that?
Ian Sutherland: There’s obviously lots of things you can do to attract followers. You know, just by tweeting and using the right hashtags, your tweets will go out, people will spot what you’ve got to say, and if it’s of interest they may choose to either reply or retweet or even follow back. If you get follows from that kind of technique, that’s a really nice, organic, high quality following that you’re generating, because people are interested in what you’ve got to say. But it’s a low volume, you don’t really get a lot of followers from doing that, but those that you do are good.
Ian Sutherland: The number one thing anyone can do to attract more followers is simply to follow people first. There’s a sort of unspoken etiquette on Twitter, which is if someone follows you, many people will kind of follow back as a courtesy. So the more people that you follow in the first place, the more likely you are to attract people to follow you back. That’s easier said than done. If you try and follow lots and lots of people in the native Twitter … you know, the web application they provide, or even on your phone, it’s quite hard to do. If you want to follow two or three hundred people in a day, you’d spend ages trying to do that.
Ian Sutherland: So, there are third party tools out there and, at the time of writing Advanced Twitter Strategies for Authors, the tool I was using was called Tweepi, Tweepi.com. It still exists but I don’t actually recommend that tool anymore. It’s changed over the years, and so now I recommend something called ManageFlitter. The reason for using these third party tools is because they’re good at presenting you with lists of people that are relevant. You don’t want to follow completely irrelevant people, you want to follow … ideally, as authors, we want to follow people who are likely to read our books. The way you do that is you look at other authors with large followings and, you know, there’s an assumption there that those people are following those authors because they like what they have to say, and if they’re in the same genre as you then perhaps if you follow them and then they follow you back, then maybe they’ll be interested in what you write about.
Ian Sutherland: A tool like ManageFlitter will allow you to list all of those followers of somebody else … of a role model, I call it … and then allow you to quite quickly click through, pressing follow, follow, follow. It’s a manual exercise, it’s the number one thing that Twitter has made sure has never been allowed to be automated. You can’t run any kind of automation around following. The act of following has to be performed by a human. If you get into this, you have to click through that list. I mean, you can click through a list of three or four hundred people in five minutes. It doesn’t take long. You might wear your finger prints out, but it doesn’t take long. These tools help you do that.
Ian Sutherland: So a follow back strategy targeted to people who are likely to be interested in you is the way that I’ve grown my following so much across my accounts over the years, but it’s not just that. If you do that but you’re not doing anything else of interest to people, then they’ll soon unfollow you, because if you’re not adding value to them in some way, it doesn’t make sense. So I do use a lot of tools to automate, dripping out content that’s relevant to me, as an author. I link to website RSS feeds or websites that I believe, I’m interested in, therefore other people would be. And then whenever they write a new blog post or an article, I automatically tweet it through my account without me doing anything. That just runs in the background. I have queues of tweets based around old blog posts of my own, so that I keep … You know, I post those on a regular basis, week after week, and it drives people back to my website so that they can discover me.
Ian Sutherland: Then, in amongst all this, I then have some very blatant promotional tweets, saying, you know, “Here’s one of my books, if you’re interested.” I actually do that in a format of a kind of an excerpt of a quote from one of my reviews on Amazon, so it’s less sales-y. But if a lot of the stuff I’m pushing out is adding value, as in all the RSS feed from the other websites, my evergreen posts, all of that kind of stuff, then I’ve kind of got a licence that maybe 20% of what I can tweet can be promotional, and that seems to work nicely. No one complains and I get people clicking through to my landing pages on my website or through to my books on Amazon and the other places. So it works well as a strategy and obviously the more followers you get, the bigger your reach whenever you are tweeting.
The Death of Automation on Twitter
Tim Lewis: Okay. I know there are things that you used to do in terms of auto DMs and automated messages that no longer work because Twitter have changed the way they work. How have you kept up to date with what works on Twitter, and how have you worked out, basically, what to do next?
Ian Sutherland: Yeah, you’re right. I mean, it’s two and a half years since I first published the book … Advanced Twitter Strategies for Authors. I couldn’t even remember the name of my own book. Actually, most of what I’ve written in there is still relevant, and if I was to write a second edition now, there’s only two major things I’d change. One is, I’d remove the chapter I had around automated retweeting. I had a whole chapter in there, using a third party tool, which still exists, that allows you to automatically retweet based on key word searches or hashtag searches and so on. While it can work, Twitter is really frowning on that kind of automation, and you’re more likely to have your account locked from that kind of activity. So I’d remove that.
Ian Sutherland: And as I mentioned earlier, the chapter I originally wrote for doing the follow back strategy recommended a tool called Tweepi and I’ve rewritten that already to base it on ManageFlitter. People who subscribe to my mailing list can get that, so they get that version, anyway.
Ian Sutherland: Now, of course … and you’re right, you mentioned auto DMs. It wasn’t in the book, but I did develop a strategy around having an automated welcome tweet so that, as someone follows you, they receive a tweet in a special format. I used something called a Twitter card, website card, and it allowed people … I offered people who followed me the chance to get a free book from me by joining my email list. You know, classic approach, but this was done at the time of, as they followed me they’d receive the tweet, but it would be in a mention tweet, so they’d see it in their notifications area.
Ian Sutherland: That was a cool strategy and it ran for two years, and I’ve built a huge mailing list as a result of that, but about three months ago Twitter banned all uses of any welcome tweet and all of the third party add on apps out there that had a welcome tweet capability had that removed. So I’ve had to stop doing that and I stopped recommending that, as well. So that was a shame because it was a nice way to build a mailing list, sort of on passive autopilot.
Ian Sutherland: Obviously, now, since then, they’ve double the tweet size to 280 characters, so I’d make a big deal about how to make use of that if you want to. I also recommend, now, lowering the number of people that you follow in any one day. I think in the book I was up towards six or seven hundred people as the recommendation of sort of the maximum number of people that you should follow in any one day. Technically, you can go up to nearly 1,000, but Twitter, again, they’re sensitive to this kind of activity, so I’d lower that down to three or four hundred, maximum, in any one day.
Ian Sutherland: So those are the changes I would make now if I was writing a second edition, and people have asked me to, so it may be something I do this year.
Author Platform Sidekick
Tim Lewis: Okay. So now you’ve moved onto this new Author Platform Sidekick service. How does that work and … ? I mean, this is basically the reason why I brought you on. I mean, I’ve heard of you before but this sounded exciting to me, anyway. So you’re probably going to underwhelm the audience now.
Ian Sutherland: With such a great build-up … No, it is cool. The way it started is, although I wrote the book and the book is very easy to follow, a lot of people were still either technically challenged and didn’t want to take on some of the stuff that was in the book or follow the instructions, or just didn’t have the time. You know, I mentioned following people just takes a lot of time So I had quite a few people ask me, you know, is there any way I could do this for them as a service? I thought about it and I thought, “Oh, that’s crazy. You know, I need to write my own books. How am I going to do this?” But the seed had been sown and so I ended up building up what’s now become known as a service I offer called Author Platform Sidekick.
Ian Sutherland: Basically, everything that was in the book, I tried to get in there, so that all the stuff around following, I tried to get in there, all the stuff around RSS feeds, automating tweet content from other websites, using your evergreen queue of content, and also the promotional stuff. I built up a service with different subscription plans and then people can subscribe to the elements that made sense to them. It even had the welcome tweet capability originally in there, of course, for people to build their email list, but I’ve since removed that, as explained earlier.
Ian Sutherland: I ended up building this service so that they could interact with the Author Platform Sidekick website, and that’s, basically, we would connect to their Twitter account and then the author would fill in basically some very simple forms to provide the content that we needed. You know, which websites did they want us to tweet content from? I provide a list of about 70 that are well-known for authors, but they can provide their own custom websites. If they’ve got evergreen blog posts on their own website and they want to use the evergreen capability, then the needed to fill in the forms to provide the tweet content. I can’t write the tweets for them, the authors need to do that, but then I would then set everything up and have everything running for them in the background. That’s really how Author Platform Sidekick started, and it’s working really, really well.
Ian Sutherland: The exciting thing is, is a few months back, I realised, with the success of Sidekick, here we are, I’ve got hundreds of authors all active on this system and they’re all … Essentially, I’ve got the service running so that we’re tweeting out content via their Twitter accounts, and that’s great, and it’s stuff that they’ve controlled and it’s from websites they control, and basically generating a lot of activity through their Twitter accounts, which is helping them to improve their brand. But I realised that, well, if I’ve got all of these people on there, what if they tweeted each other?
Ian Sutherland: It took some thinking but I came up with an idea that, to help authors team up. I ended up releasing a new subscription plan … and there’s even a free version, a permanently free version, you know, with limited, but it still does everything … where authors can load up a series of tweets. Again depending on the plan is … the number changes. The free one you load up two, for example. Then what happens is … and you choose your genre for that tweet, because people want to work with authors in other genres … and then what happens is, is Sidekick will then take that tweet and tweet it via someone else, in the same genre, via someone else’s Twitter account.
Ian Sutherland: Okay, so the tweets that we load up, the form is deliberately restrictive so that it’s done in the format of a name of the book, by the name of the author, their Twitter handle, and then an excerpt from a review quote, same as I do for myself, as I mentioned earlier, who the review is, and then a couple of hashtags. That makes it okay for someone else, who may not even know you, to tweet out on their account about you.
Ian Sutherland: So I launched that, and that’s been great. What it means now is anyone who’s on team up is now having other authors in their genre promote them and their books and not appear to be self-promoting, which is pretty cool. It’s a really great way for authors to cross-promote each other fairly, but it’s done in a way that the Sidekick manages it all and ensures reciprocity … here’s a big word … but to ensure that if you’ve loaded up your tweets, that you’re tweeting the other authors just as much, as so on.
Ian Sutherland: That’s the new thing that’s come out recently and it’s really quite exciting. If anyone’s interested and, like I said, there’s a free version of it, then please sign up.
Tim Lewis: Have you thought about making the other authors in that genre retweet the original tweet? Do you do that kind of thing or is just a case of a different author in that category tweeting out about the author’s post?
Ian Sutherland: I have thought about it and I’m going to refer back to what I said earlier about one of the chapters I’d remove would be the automated retweeting.
Tim Lewis: Yeah.
Ian Sutherland: Twitter is really frowning on that kind of behaviour so, while I know I could set it up, I do know I’ve got the technical capability to do it, the last thing I want to do is have anyone’s … be the cause of someone else’s account to be locked out. That would be crazy. I haven’t gone there and I’ve just done it as the initial tweets going out.
Ian Sutherland: But, actually, also, that kind of … it has more impact, anyway. If you think about it, when you go to someone else’s website and you’ll read either a blog post or something, and it has click to tweet, and you do that, you’ve just tweeted something that they’ve pretty much composed for you. The same sort of concept, and it has more impact because it’s not a retweet. I think I’ve got it the right way. Like I say, I don’t want to risk locking anyone’s accounts.
What Would Ian Do Differently Now?
Tim Lewis: Yeah. Well, my next question, you’ve kind of already answered anyway, but I’ll ask it again. If you were starting again on Twitter now, what would you do differently over what you did in the past?
Ian Sutherland: Yeah, it’s a good question. Not a lot, really. No, not a lot differently. Certainly, for the way I’ve used it and the subscribers to Author Platform Sidekick are using it, it’s working really well to help build a brand and … I do it in two different ways. I do it on my fiction account and I only talk about thriller writing and my own books and other thriller books on there. Then I have my other account, which I use for Author Platform Sidekick, and obviously I’ve got different follower bases and I’m talking about different things. But it really works really well and I’m able to build the two brands separately.
Ian Sutherland: But now, starting now, Twitter is a bit harder now. I mean, they really are trying to clamp down a lot more on all forms of automation. They will lock accounts if they spot it. They’re just trying to keep it social. They’re trying to keep it less about volume and mass, and much more about intimacy and good content. The only way they like you to go beyond that is if you pay to use their advertising platform, of course.
Ian Sutherland: The one thing I would change than what I did earlier is I would go a lot more graphical. A lot of my early tweet content that I was putting out didn’t have a lot of graphics, it was just the actual tweets themselves. I’d spend a lot more time on the likes of Canva.com, building kind of graphical cards to help stand out in the timeline because with so many people on Twitter, the skill is standing out in someone’s timeline so that they see something of interest and click through or interact. That’s probably the one thing I would do, is just spend more time on the quality of the tweets, particularly on anything graphical.
About Ian Sutherland and Author Platform Sidekick
Tim Lewis: Okay. Let’s talk about Ian Sutherland. How can people find out about you, your books, Author Platform Sidekick, and anything else you’ve got going on?
Ian Sutherland: Easy. As we’re talking Twitter, let’s start there. For my fiction life, you can catch me on the handle @iansuth and for my life around Twitter marketing, Author Platform Sidekick, and the Advanced Twitter Strategies for Authors, then you can find me on @ianhsuth and that’s actually how I did the books. My thriller books are Ian Sutherland and the Twitter book is Ian H. Sutherland in a little nod to Ian Banks, who wrote his contemporary novels as Ian Banks and his sci-fi novel as Ian M. Banks, and I’ve the same first name so that works. So that’s how you find me on Twitter, and I have two websites. My author website is Ianhsutherland.com and the Author Platform Sidekick website is, conveniently, AuthorPlatformSidekick.com. You can find everything you need there.
Tim Lewis: Well, thank you very much for appearing on the show, Ian.
Ian Sutherland: Thanks very much, Tim. It was great talking to you.Really enjoyed @ianhsuth interview on the Begin Self-Publishing Podcast - a great discussion on how to use Twitter for AuthorsClick To Tweet