Forget boosting your signal – create friendship feedback loops

Friend CircleOnline marketers talk about “boosting their signal.” By this, they mean the process of getting other people to engage with their posts or their products – repeating, retweeting, sharing, liking or +1-ing their contributions to a wider audience. But as anyone who understands signal processing can tell you, there’s one thing you could do that would be even better than merely boosting a signal, and it’s this: create a feedback loop with it.

When we market online, we write blog posts, we comment on G+, we write FB statuses and we tweet things, all in the hope that somebody might like what we say well enough to repeat it to their own friends, taking our output and relaying it further than it might otherwise have gone. Thus, they are said to be boosting the reach of our original signal. But what happens to this boosted signal? Where does it go? Inevitably, it peters out. Just like a radio transmission, the further it goes, the less energy it has, until finally, it vanishes into a squawk of static and noise. Sure, you reach more people, but if each signal you broadcast eventually dies out, then to keep things going in your online presence campaign, you have to keep generating new signals to replace the old ones. And that takes time and energy away from what you should be spending your time: writing, or composing, or dreaming up new smartphone apps, or whatever it is that you do. So today I want to shine a little light on a related technique I’m exploring that works similarly, but has some distinct advantages over simple signal boosting.

As I said above, the problem with simple signal boosting is that each thing you create dies out pretty quickly. Each signal we send does some little bit of work for us, reaching some new people and introducing them to us and our message. Wouldn’t it be awesome if there was a way to capture that new expanded territory of listeners and be able to reach them directly the next time, without having to rely on that same chain of signal boosters to get it to them? That’s the secret of what I’m calling my friendship feedback philosophy, and it works in a number of different ways, but the basic kernel of this approach is: think of your communications as building friend relationships with your audience, and treat them the way you would any other friends. I think you’ll find the results surprising.

Step One: Remember to say “Thank you”

HandshakeSounds pretty simple, huh? Your basic kindergarten etiquette. But think about it. When a friend relays a message to his own circle of friends, those who see it have no connection to you. Their connection is to your friend, so to reach them again, you have to convince that intermediary friend to relay your next message as well. There are two things you can do here that will improve your future broadcasts. 1) Strengthen the relationship you have with that friend, so that they will be more likely to repeat you again in the future, and 2) Do what you can to establish your own direct connection to the people he is relaying you to. After all, if his friends become your friends, then you have successfully expanded the audience of your initial broadcasts, and you no longer have to rely on his referral to reach them.

Fortunately, both of these goals can be achieved by simply remembering to say “thank you.” When somebody reshares or repeats your message, drop them a direct note to say thanks. This won’t have a dramatic impact when it’s your wife, or your best friend who have repeated you, but when it’s a tenuously connected online friend, your simple thanks will validate and strengthen the connection between you. And if you thank them publicly, then you also raise their status among their other friends and increase the likelihood that they will repeat you again in the future.

Where this thank-you technique really has value though, is when a friend of your friend also repeats your signal. Thanking this stranger for relaying you creates a direct connection to him or her, potentially converting them into a direct friend. So thank them publicly, and then add them to your circles, friend them, follow them, or whatever the appropriative metaphor is in your social medium. I usually spend a moment to look over their profile and see if there’s anything consistent about their own signals that would allow me to include them in one of my existing groups/circles, but if I can’t find an appropriate grouping for them, I add them to my default group of “Signal Boosters.” The point of this inclusion is not to start firehosing them with directed content though. It’s to make sure that you start receiving some of their signals so that you can comment on them. Which takes us to the next part of this philosophy.

Step Two: Acknowledge people when you see them

High fiveYou know that guy in highschool who was always smiling and nodding at people he passed in the hallways? Maybe he would stop for a moment to ask how you did on a test, or to high-five you for your great performance in yesterday’s wrestling tournament. Chances are good that he was one of the most popular people in your school. When he threw a party, everybody wanted to be there, and when he put up a poster or ran an event, everybody checked it out. Why? Because acknowledgement is addictive. We all want to be noticed. We all want to have attention paid to us by people we perceive as being valued. And we value people who pay attention to us. See how that kind of feeds on itself? The more attention you pay to people, the more they will crave your attention.

So, now that you have been expanding your circle of online friends, don’t neglect them. You want to make sure that some of their signals are reaching you, and when they do, make sure to smile, nod, and high-five them. Add a comment to their posting. +1 or like it. And if it’s good, and the kind of stuff your own friends would like, pay it forward by sharing or retweeting it. But don’t just do so coldly. Add a comment to your repeat thanking them for the great content. The more you engage and share from them, the more they will do so for you, but it’s not some cold, calculated tit-for-tat thing – it’s a psychology thing. Human nature.

Step Three: Exchange gifts with your closest friends

Gift exchangeAll this discussion of online content sharing, however, is not really the point of our marketing efforts, is it? I suppose if you’re a blogger it might be, but for those of us trying to attract attention to our books, or music, or video games, these efforts are secondary. What we really want is for those online friends to take the next step and read our books. Of course, we also want them to love our books, and then write lengthy songs of praise about them, that they then share with the world. Because, as any good marketer will tell you, word-of-mouth advertising is gold, Jerry! Gold! So how do we encourage people to take that extra step and take the time to write up their impressions of our work, and then share it with the world?

Well, for starters, you could try asking them to. Yup. Just a simple request: please review my book. And how do we convey this request? Do we send out an email to everybody we’ve ever met, asking them for a review? No. Quite simply, we catch them at the moment when they are most completely immersed in our story world: at the end of the book. But like I said, this is a gift exchange. You’re asking your readers to please do something of value for you, so in the spirit of creating a friendship bond, you need to be offering something of value in return. So when you ask for the review, what are you going to offer? Well, I like to presume that if somebody finished my book and read the request, they didn’t hate the book. So maybe they would see value in getting a free e-copy of your next book. That’s why I recently re-released Strange Places with some new material at the end. I now make a very simple offer in my back matter. Post a review anywhere on the web, and send me a link to it, and I’ll send you a free copy of one of my other books.

Now, I can’t take credit for inventing this. I first encountered it at the end of Debora Geary’s book, A Modern Witch. It’s a simple, honest way to encourage people to help you spread the word, and it says thank you to those who do so, in a way that has value for everybody. (And you’ll note that I’m giving Debora a shout-out here, as my way of thanking her for a heart-warming story, and a great marketing idea.) But what appeals to me most about her idea, aside from its simplicity, is the fact that it creates a win-win value cycle. Even if somebody didn’t like my book, if they take the time to post a review about it, I am grateful. For those who did like it, their review will be positive and I definitely want to be able to turn to them for another review when the next book comes out. The hard part is finding them all. So by asking them to contact me and tell me about their review, I make my job of finding them that much easier. And by offering a free book, I’m providing them with value for doing so.

But what about the people who post negative reviews? Well, not every book will appeal to every reviewer, but if somebody takes the time to post a review, I want a chance to win them over with something else – especially the people who are predisposed to writing reviews. So for these reviewers, I’m unlikely to send them a free copy of the next book in the series they didn’t like, but I will send them something from a different series, or a standalone. And for as long as they keep posting reviews and telling me about them, I’m happy to keep sending them more free books to review. As long as reviews are tactful and polite, I don’t think there’s any such thing as a bad review. After all, ask yourself, which book are you most likely to take a risk on? The one with four reviews and a 5-star average, or the one with 10,000 reviews with a 3.3-star average? Me, I’m more impressed by the 10,000 reviews than I am by the 5-star average. So yes, I believe that even negative reviews are helpful.

Step Four: Don’t always expect to be “paid back” by your friends

I had a friend once who was a bit of a karma accountant. He seemed to keep track of everything he did for me and everything I did for him and he wasn’t shy about telling me when I was falling behind. (Curiously, he never seemed to call attention to it when it was him that was lagging.) Eventually, I tired of this bookkeeping approach to friendship and lost interest in trying to keep up my end of things. It was beginning to feel more like a business arrangement and less like a friendship.

Don’t be that guy.

Feedback LoopDon’t treat your network of friends and colleagues as a giant spreadsheet of accountability. Instead, treat it as a feedback circle where you each just put energy into the system, without worrying about who is taking out what. Be generous. How? Give of your time and your energy without expecting things in return. In my case, I write blog posts like this one. I run an in-person writing group for genre fiction writers in my community. And I give my short stories away for free. Sure, I might be able to find paying markets for them, and I won’t say no if one of those markets approaches me for permission to re-release, but I think of my extended network of readers as friends, and giving them the occasional short story is just my way of maintaining our connection. It’s a little thing I can do for them. I hope they’ll like the stories and share them with their own friends, but I don’t require it, and I don’t ask them to review the stories either. But you know what I’m finding? My readers want to help out by doing these things. I guess, because that’s what friends do for each other. And I am honored each and every time it happens.


So, it’s all well and good to have a theory, but can I point to any practical results? Yes, I can. A few. I’ve been pursuing this new plan in my online behavior since early Feb – about 6 weeks now – and the new materials at the end of the ebook have been circulating for the last three weeks. But I am happy to report that in the last month, Strange Places has received more reviews than in the entire 2 years prior to that, since its release. That is a phenomenal improvement, if you ask me. Sure, these are still early days, but there’s another huge advantage to this approach, which I am only just now beginning to notice.

I’m happier.

I don’t find my marketing efforts as stressful as I once did. In fact, I’m finding it rewarding. By shifting my focus away from selling something to people, and instead focusing on meeting people and getting to know them, I’m having fun doing it, and not worrying anywhere near as much about what actions are having what effects and where my time is best spent. I can’t promise that you’ll have the same results. But if there’s a chance of that, isn’t it worth giving it a shot?

And before I forget, thank you for sharing your time with me today.

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About the author

Jefferson Smith is a Canadian fantasy author, as well as the founder, chief editor and resident proctologist of ImmerseOrDie. With a PhD in Computer Science and Creativity Systems compounded by a life spent exploring most art forms for fun and profit, he is underqualified in just about everything. That's why he writes.