Social media marketing for writers: jabs and right hooks and Twitter and talking like a human

I had an acquaintance who joined Facebook for the sole purpose of promoting his book. This is, without a doubt, the worst reason to join a social network, and my acquaintance is a textbook example of why.

Within hours of accepting his friend request, I started to get the posts. “Coming soon, A Great Masterpiece by Author K. Authorson. Pre-order now!” or “Blurby Blurbson calls A Great Masterpiece ‘A book for our times.’ Have you ordered your copy yet?”

You have to admire the impulse, I guess. Agents and publishers want their authors to be active on social media, and in the age of slashed PR budgets, social media is key. But oh man is this not the way to do it. Self-promotion like this doesn’t work on social media because it’s fundamentally antisocial. It’s like walking into a party and saying very loudly and repeatedly, “Look at how charming I am! I’m so funny! Everybody likes me!”

"I totally fit in here!"

"I totally fit in here!"

People don’t like to be sold to. But if you’re trying to sell a book, what else are you supposed to do?


Gary Vaynerchuk’s jabs and right hooks

In 2013, Gary Vaynerchuk, a famous marketing dude, published a book called Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook: How to Tell Your Story in a Noisy Social World. This was just as brands were starting to figure out social media, and it gave struggling social media marketers a blueprint for how to sell their product without looking like a total shill.

The key is to give much, much more than you take. You add value, you add value, you add value, then you ask for a favor.

Vaynerchuk’s thesis is this: brands are failing at social media because they don’t understand how to nurture their followers. They are giving them near-constant sales ploys, and nobody follows anybody or anything on social media to be sold to. Instead of constant sales ploys, brands would do better to build a feed of content that entertains their followers, or emotionally engages them, or gives them something useful for free, so when the marketers do have an “ask”—buy our product, come to our event, etc.—their followers are warmed up and more predisposed to say yes. The key is to give much, much more than you take. You add value, you add value, you add value, then you ask for a favor.

Vaynerchuk uses a boxing metaphor for this. A boxer jabs at their opponent to soften them up and get them ready for the knock-out blow, the right hook—Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook, get it?


So what does a jab look like?

A jab adds value for a brand’s followers. It entertains them, gives them something for free, or otherwise stops them and enriches his or her day. For lifestyle brands, it might be an inspiring picture:

Other brands might post tips:

My favorite brand on social media, Arby’s, is run by nerds. Their posts are a mishmash of meat puns, video game references, and sci-fi and cartoon fan service:

For the Nintendo game Metroid’s 30th anniversary

Vaynerchuk also notes that a good jab varies from platform to platform. An interesting tweet has to be a lot more compact than a comparable Facebook post. Snapchat has its own weird conventions, and an Instagram post better be gorgeous as hell, or you won’t have engaged followers for long.


What this looks like for writers

I should note first that when I talk about writers on social media, I’m defaulting to Twitter. Twitter is the go-to network for most social-smart writers, for reasons more intelligent people than I have laid out (like this person and this person).

Twitter primarily rewards people who listen and give, not those who ask and take.
— Gary Vaynerchuk

The right hook should be obvious: buy my book, read my new poem, pick up this journal, etc. But the jab isn’t quite so easy. Writers most likely don’t have cleaning advice or discount codes or photographs of attractive young people reading their books, so what can they offer?

It helps to think about why people follow writers on social media. Writers, editors, and agents follow writers for networking purposes. Readers follow them because they enjoy the writer’s work, or maybe just because they enjoy their social media presence and commentary. So what might jabs look like for writers?

  • Retweeting an interesting article
  • Sharing a short critique of an article that’s going around
  • Commenting on current events
  • Sharing creative work (and tagging the writer—it’s nice to know somebody’s reading and appreciating you)
  • Joining conversations when you have something to add

The key is to come by it honestly. Don’t force yourself into other people’s conversations. Don’t try for humor if you’re not funny. Twitter is an ongoing conversation, and it takes time to learn your place in it. As Vaynerchuk says, “Twitter primarily rewards people who listen and give, not those who ask and take.”

Looking for examples? These writers have exceptional Twitter accounts: