I just went through the process of changing my Twitter handle. (I’ve changed from @BluEyedReindeer to @JDerrickAuthor.) It was time for a more professional username. Twitter was the one social media site where I was active before I started building my platform so, since it was all personal at the time, I chose a fun name and one that wouldn’t identify me personally.
Then came the book deal and platform building. I kept the name for a year because at least it had some relevance, being a variation on my now defunct, non-writing-related blog, BlueEyedReindeer. I figured it might be good enough, so I kept going under the old name. And then one day I realized that I was probably shooting myself in the foot. There was no grand event or missed opportunity, just a general feeling that it would be better if my Twitter name more closely matched my other professional-sounding social media handles. Those were created post book-deal, so I got those right!
While Twitter made this process easier than it could have been, it was still a pain to change all my links and notify people who regularly tag me in tweets. I should have just started with a professional name. And I really should have known better.
I’ve seen this happen to many writers (and other professionals). What begins as a personal account or website suddenly morphs into a professional endeavor. Then the re-branding effort is on and the headaches begin. In some cases, I understand being blindsided by success. Say you start a little financial journal or collection of your best recipes. You do it as a hobby and you never expect it to turn into anything more. Until the day that, for whatever reason, your little project goes viral. Then you’re scrambling, trying to secure meaningful domain names, better web hosting packages, and stronger social media handles.
The headaches only multiply the longer you’ve been active on the web. If you have thousands of followers, links pointing to all of your posts, a solid Google ranking, and your name/website/social media handles are splattered all over the web, your re-branding campaign will be a nightmare. You will probably lose followers, your ranking will drop, it will consume a ton of time, and you may never completely recover. This is a scenario you want to avoid unless you like pain.
For writers, however, it’s a little easier to see the need for a professional platform coming. If you have any dreams of ever monetizing your writing, you need to be professional from the day you start posting on the Internet. I did this with my domain name and email address when I started freelancing, but I didn’t think far enough ahead to prepare for social media. Lesson learned.
So if you are a sensible person who doesn’t like pain, here’s some advice for future-proofing your platform long before you think you need to.
- Consider your goals. Do you hope to one day be published, self-publish, or have a freelance career? If the answer is anything that has the word “Yes” in it, even if it’s, “Yes, but that’s so impossible/unlikely/far off that I don’t need to worry about it,” then you need to be professional from the get-go. Trust me on this. Writing is a funny career with many paths and twists and turns. You don’t know where you’ll end up, so it’s best to start like you’re serious. Worry about it now so you won’t have to worry about it later when you have other things to do and the stakes are higher.
- Secure a professional domain name and hosting package. I understand the desire to avoid sinking a lot of money into something that may never pan out. Paying for your own domain name and hosting service may seem like a waste if you’re just starting out. After all, there are plenty of free services out there like Blogger and the free version of WordPress. There are problems with “free,” though. First of all, you don’t control it. If the site goes belly up tomorrow, you’re screwed. Second, your domain name isn’t yours and won’t travel with you. Third, free hosting packages/websites don’t come with a lot of storage space. If your site grows and/or you want to host larger files like videos and podcasts, you’re going to hit your limits quickly. Fourth, free equals basic, so if you want to do things like take comments, use forms, set up a newsletter, or use plugins, you may not be able to. Domain names and basic hosting packages aren’t that expensive. Get good ones at the beginning and save yourself the pain of starting over later.
- Consider the pitfalls of using branding instead of your name. I know several writers who chose domains and usernames that reflected their brand, rather than their name. So, for example, Sally Jones might be SJWritesYA or GreatYAWriter. Her domain might be GreatYAWriter.com. (I’m pulling these out of my head, so if they exist and I’m upsetting anyone, sorry. They’re examples only.) This is fine as long as Sally only ever wants to write young adult books. But what if the day comes when Sally wants to freelance, or write adult horror? She’s going to hit a wall because all of her name recognition is tied to YA and there’s no room to branch out. Stick to your name, if possible, or at least some generic branding like “GreatWriter.com” that doesn’t lock you into a genre or field. Your tastes and the marketplace will change, so give your online persona room to change, too.
- You can always undo or cancel things if you change your mind. Nothing is forever. If you invest in domain names and create professional usernames but later decide you don’t want to be a writer (or anything else where professionalism is important), you can cancel or delete everything. If you do become successful, those expenses may become tax write-offs as costs of doing business.
- Don’t worry about looking pretentious. Some people don’t want to start out professional for fear of looking pretentious. “People will know I’m not legit and it’ll just look weird,” they say. The saying, “Fake it ’till you make it,” applies here. No one is likely to make fun of you for using your real name or a professional-sounding brand, but when you become successful (or begin reaching out to agents/editors), they will make fun of your college username, “SuperKappaBoozeHound.”
- Get a professional email address. If you buy your own domain name from a site like GoDaddy, you’ll probably get one address along with the package. If you don’t buy a domain name/email package, at least go for an email that sounds professional, even if you use a free service. SallyJones@gmail.com is much better than SallyLovesRainbows376@gmail.com. You don’t want to be applying for positions or submitting query letters under an unprofessional email address, and changing addresses later can lead to missed messages and lost contacts.
- Consider the implications of pen names. If your name is Sally Jones but you plan to publish under the name, “Sally Smith,” you can use that name for all of your Internet branding. However, if you ever plan to drop the pen name, or do different work under your own name, you may run into problems. You have the option of maintaining two identities, but this can get time consuming and even confusing. Pen names are great, but think about the pros and cons before deciding to use it exclusively forever and ever.
- Consider the implications of marriage. Marriage brings special considerations when choosing domains and usernames. It used to be that if you got married or divorced, you changed your name with the government and your bank and that was pretty much it. Now a name change is a much bigger deal if you’re active on the Internet. If you’re single now, will you be content to continue doing business under your maiden name if/when you get married? If you’re married now, what happens in the event of divorce? Do you want your Internet identity tied to your ex’s last name? I realize that these aren’t easy questions to answer and require a crystal ball that you probably don’t have, but it’s worth at least giving some passing thought to the what if’s of a name change.
- Use the professional social networking options. On Facebook and Google+, you have the option of creating a personal profile or a business page. (Both are free.) Go with the business page. First of all, if you want to follow Facebook’s rules to the letter, you cannot conduct any business activities from a personal profile. (Google+ doesn’t seem to care.) Do they crack down on that? Not really, and plenty of authors/freelancers use their personal profiles for their work. However, if Facebook ever does decide to enforce their rules, you could be in trouble. Also, business pages come with benefits that personal profiles don’t, such as performance metrics, more professional URL’s, and they allow for larger followings. Plus, having a business page makes it so much easier to keep your personal life and business profiles separate.
- Separate the personal from the professional. Now that you’ve gone to all the trouble of creating a professional online identity, don’t muck it up with a lot of personal, unprofessional content. Your name is your brand so steer clear of controversy, public meltdowns, embarrassing photos, etc. Create personal sites and usernames to house all that stuff (and lock your profiles down so that only friends and family can see them).
It’s so much easier to manage your online presence if you set it up correctly in the first place. Spend some time in the beginning thinking about the work you want to do and how you want to be perceived. It can save you from having to make time consuming and painful changes later.