It's the hot, new term in marketing...for something you've (hopefully) been doing all along. When I was coming up, all the cool kids in marketing—if there even is such a thing—were talking about positioning. This is when you started hearing things like "unique selling proposition" (or, if you were in the know, "USP") and variations thereof. (If you're interested in learning more, Jack Trout not only apparently coined the term—he absolutely (co-)wrote the book on it.)
When the marketers were done wearing out that term, they moved on to "branding". Everything became about "doing your branding" or "building the brand" or, in a neat example of marketing eating itself, "repositioning the brand.
Having beat that poor, innocent word to death like the defenseless, baby marketing seal it was, we seem to be moving on to "platform" (you'll pardon the pun, please).
What is a platform?
Most often, "platform" is used to describe the marketing apparatus that supports your message or your work. It's the combo platter of website + social media + content marketing (e.g. blog, videos, podcasts, photos, etc.) that lets people see you and what you do.
Former publishing CEO and productivity-blogging juggernaut Michael Hyatt has just written the book on it, although I date the first time I heard "platform" used in this context to Christina Katz's excellent book for writers looking to establish their online empires. (You can read an excellent summary of her take on platforms here, too.)
While I absolutely agree that it's a great idea for all artists and small business people to (a) have a marketing plan, however simple, in place; and (b), to establish some sort of presence online, I believe the sturdiest, broadest, splashiest platform in the world is meaningless unless it is supporting the very best work you can do. Authors Hyatt and Katz agree, and each is a paragon of Doing It Right, with impressive resumes and a rich, deep history of successes in their respective fields of publishing and writing instruction.
Still, when marketing types try to explain how marketing works in this new, attention-based economy, too frequently we give short shrift to the work itself. I've seen it happen too often in my own teaching and lecturing: when I'm hired to explain the effective use of social media, I end up spending far more time talking about right use of Facebook and blogging and email signatures than I do emphasizing the importance of having an amazing, mind-blowing back catalog for people to be wowed with when they're intrigued enough to click through.
Where things got confused (a.k.a., the boring, Media 101 part you should read anyway)
In the golden era of marketing—let's call it early 20th-Century until the advent of the interactive Web—the lines between product and marketing were sharply drawn. You made a product, then you marketed it, usually by advertising in one-way media (print or signage, first, with radio and TV added later on).
Unlike these earlier media, the Internet is both a marketing and a publishing platform. You create a blog or a podcast or a YouTube series; this content that you create is both the product and, most of the time (or so we hope), marketing for the product—not all of the marketing, but the product is no longer "pure".
Which is far from a bad thing! Done right, it can be marvelously efficient, not to mention infinitely more fun than dealing with two things separately.
But when it's done wrong—when something thinks she can "just" throw up a blog/YouTube channel/podcast/whatever, promote the crap out of it on Facebook, and have Hollywood come beat a path to her door—it's a sad, sorry disaster. And that's if it even registers on the event-Richter scale.
The solution? An equation!
In my talks, I frequently reference the 95/5 principle as a wise ratio of creating great content to promoting it.
I'm doubling-down on that stance to say that you should be spending 95% of your time creating an impressive body of acting work, and 5% of your time promoting it. Feel free to include a certain amount of training and general actor-instrument maintenance in that 95%, but don't kid yourself. The main idea here is that when you finally do bubble up to public consciousness in the media, you have a rock-solid ability to deliver and an IMDB resume (or equivalent!) that blows people's minds enough for you to take up permanent residence there. Yes, there are one-hit wonders out there, but most of them don't hit big enough to create a paycheck that lasts long.
Besides, if you're a real actor, no amount of money can make up for the thing you really want to do—act.
So spend the bulk of your time building something that really supports you: an amazing, enduring, thrilling body of work that truly represents you. And that, hopefully, helps make the world a better place.
Bonus link: nerd hero Merlin Mann devoted an entire episode to the topic of "platform" on his "Back to Work" podcast with Dan Benjamin; he's jolly fun to listen to, and you're bound to pick up some good tips if you put your civilian-translator hat on.
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I was interviewed on The Inside Actor Podcast about all kinds of actor-related stuff: how my own career came about; how I managed to raise $111,000 in 50 days for charity; and of course, how to market yourself effectively as an actor. I yakked on so long, they had to bust it up into two parts. Part one covers my background and 50-for-50; Part two is the marketing/networking/communicating stuff. If you're looking for a living, breathing example of Doing It Right, look no further than Trevor Algatt and A.J. Meijer. Stellar actors! Stellar!