Are you a content creator? Then you have to grow your platform! You’ve heard that one, right? This mantra is everywhere. And so is that word, which in the world of content seems to be more powerful than Expecto Patronum. When it comes to content, few terms are as widely used, as vastly differently interpreted, and as often misunderstood as platform.
Every blog out there urges you to build one. You are advised to start with it, to nurture it daily, and to put its growth above any other objective. The notion of its importance is so prevalent that sometimes, it may seem that having a platform is more crucial than producing content. Which in some ways may be true — if your goal is to have a podium, but no coherent message to share with your audience.
A curious case of convoluted terminology
And yet, unlike simple concepts like blog, CTR, and meaning of life, platform, for all its prevalence, is a surprisingly elusive idea. If you ask ten people in any content business be it book publishing or video, what a platform is, you are likely to get eleven different answers (because one person would give you three definitions and one would offer none).
Some would talk about the combined number of followers on all social… you guessed it, platforms. Others would say that the sheer amount of followers doesn’t matter as much, as their engagement. They would encourage you to look at likes, reads, comments, and other numbers that show how much your audience cares about your creative output. And then, of course, some would say that none of that matters and that the only — ONLY — metric that is worth paying any attention to is the number of people on your mailing list.
There also would be those who point out that your platform has nothing to do with your presence on social media and is defined only by a 3rd party validation of your achievements, such as the number of books sold, the importance of festivals where your film has been screened, and the number of interviews you have given.
Finally, to make matters even more confusing, any content distribution system, be it YouTube, Medium or Twitter is referred to as platform as well. Which makes a sentence like this one technically accurate: “Wattpad is a great platform to start building your author’s platform, which later can be extended to a self-publishing platform like Amazon KDP.”
The curse of platform
All that platform talk results in content creators spending time obsessing over dozens of metrics, playing for ads, and endlessly trying every new hot social media of the day — only to discover that much of their effort, money, and time go to waste.
Why? Because as long as we agree that the purpose of having a platform is to reach your intended audience, the real platform has little to do with likes and even with followers. And to understand what a real platform is let’s take a look at one famous example.
A million followers in 5 hours
On October 15, 2019 a new Instagram user became the first person to get to 1 million followers 5 hours and 16 minutes after creating an Instagram account. Chances are, you have already heard the story, but even if you have, let these numbers fully sink in: one million followers in a little over 5 hours. That’s 3,164 new followers every minute.
That person was Jennifer Anniston. In order to gain that massive follower base, the star of Friends didn’t have to post thousands of posts, look for the right hashtags or spend a fortune on Facebook ads. She just needed to create an account and post a photo of herself with her former Friends co-stars. Fast forward to August 2021 and her account has over 37 million followers, i.e. about 650K for every one of 57 posts the account has to date.
Does Jennifer Anniston have a platform? Of course. But that platform has very little to do with a dozen posts. The platform existed well before she created her Instagram account and will exist tomorrow if she decides to close it.
The Yin and Yang of a platform
The real platform — as in, the primary tool for getting your content bought by your intended audience — is neither the number of followers nor the number of likes on an Instagram post. The real platform consists of two parts:
- The strength of your brand. This is the total number of people who care about your brand, be your book, your movie, your company, or you. These are not just people who know about it. These are people who enjoy discovering new things you have produced or connecting with others who are interested in your work. In other words, this is your fanbase.
- The breadth of your reach. This is the total number of people you can reach at any time without depending on gatekeepers. Not that it’s not a number of Instagram followers, Facebook friends, or YouTube subscribers. It’s the number of real people you can realistically reach whenever you want, not when Facebook allows you to reach them.
These two components are Yin and Yang of a platform and just like the Yin and Yang they complement and depend on each other.
If you have a strong brand, it opens the doors to a massive reach. Not only people who know your brand will be open to listening to your message, but the gatekeeps would want to let you use their channel. Likewise, if you can reach a broad audience easily, you can always send new content their way — and you’re quite flexible in trying new things without endangering your brand. But if you have neither fanbase nor reach, the quality of your content is essentially immaterial. Even the best and most original content will be lost in the vast sea of available alternatives that these days can be accessed everywhere.
Which one is more important? If you had any doubts, just look at Jennifer Anniston’s Instagram numbers again. Brand recognition beats reach hands down. If there are a million people out there who care about your brand they will listen to you on any channel. Moreover, they’ll be seeking your content and sharing it with others. But if you have a million followers and subscribers who got on your list due to some random one-off engagement, they won’t care about your content. They’ll be busy seeking and consuming content from brands and creators they truly care about.
Building the real platform
So what does this all mean in practical terms? First of all, this means that your platform is not the number of your Instagram/Facebook/Twitter/TikTok/The-Hot-Social-Media-of-Today followers. These numbers are proxies. Very useful, but still proxies, as any former MySpace star would attest to. Even your mailing list is a proxy. And what isn’t? People.
Your true platform is your fanbase. It’s the number of people who care about your product, be it books, music, or videos.
And that’s the number you need to focus on relentlessly as a creator. Everything else will follow. Sure, you do this by leveraging Facebooks and TikToks of the world, but don’t mistake their likes and follower counts for the real platform.
And how do you build that real platform? By following these simple core principles:
- Do your best to make your content is valuable for every reader/listener/viewer in your intended audience. And keep getting better at what you do.
- Make every piece of your content seen by as many potential fans as possible. Unless you have a significant existing fanbase, don’t worry about the best platform to put your content on. Does it help you reach more people from your target audience? Put it on the list. You never know where a new fan will discover your content and fall in love with it.
- Make it simple for your fans to stay in touch. That’s where email lists, follow buttons, and subscribe links come into play.
None of this is eye-opening. Except for maybe one thing. I know it was for me when I realized it. At the end of the day, the fanbase is the only thing that matters. How much time have Beethoven, Presley or Van Gogh spend posting on Instagram? Yet somehow their content still dominates all relevant charts and view counts. Platforms come and go. Great content stays. And as a creator, you want to be great, don’t you?