“I post one image on Instagram and talk about the book, then you’re in the Amazon Top 100 within about five minutes. It’s just so effective, because it’s so direct.”
Dawn O’Porter is an author, freelance writer, presenter, podcast host, entrepreneur, and influencer. Her most recent novel, The Cows, debuted at Number Six on the Sunday Times Bestseller list. The narrative is an examination of the expectation of a woman’s role within society.
I sat down with Dawn to discuss how she maintains her extremely popular and engaged following, the evolving effect of social media since her career began, authenticity, and how she almost quit Instagram shortly before it would benefit her most.
Massive congratulations on The Cows. How did it feel when you first saw your name on the Bestseller list? How did you translate those emotions onto your social media channels?
Okay. My whole thing with social media is I try to be myself as much as possible. The idea that there is no one editing is something I love. For instance, on TV I would have said something, then about six other people were involved in the editing process, then even more in the producing process, to such an extent that sometimes they completely change your train of thought to fit with the program. On social media, this doesn’t happen. On social media, you get to be completely fluid and completely yourself.
You get moments like that – when I was on the Sunday Times Bestseller list – and I should probably act cool, and say something really smart… But I was so joyous. Capital letter EVERYTHING, screaming into Twitter. I wanted everyone to know that it doesn’t matter what you’ve done in your career, moments like that mean the world. Cows is my fifth book – I’ve never been on a bestsellers list before and it was an unbelievable moment.
So would you say your social media presence is unfiltered, rather than premeditated?
Always. Sometimes that’s a bit embarrassing, and I’m a real terror for drunk Instagram stories and stuff like that. Then you wake up the next morning and you’re like – shit what did I do? - but it just doesn’t matter. I think it’s quite refreshing to put yourself out there and be honest and unfiltered.
That’s one thing that’s really important to me is there’s no disappointment in real life – as if I'd created some sort of ‘other’ personality, or used a filter on my face so I look twenty years younger. I try to keep it as real as possible, and usually, that gets the best response.
You need to stay authentic to keep engagement…
Especially when you’re doing something like writing. I need people to, not only respond to the idea of my book, but to be engaged for 100,000 words until the end. I think the least I can do is be honest about the process; who I am, how it makes me feel and how important is it to me. It’s a real transaction. Anyone can sit down and turn a TV on, sit through a half an hour program and hate it. But with a book, they’ve got to stay with you the whole way through, and I see my social media presence as an extension of that. Keeping people engaged, people keeping in with who I am.
If you’re really yourself then people who just don’t like you stop following. Then suddenly you’ve got this really captive audience of people who like you and will probably buy your book. You find your people on social media. The people who like you stay, the other drops out. I get told all the time, “Oh you’re boring, I’m not following you.” My response would be; You just don’t like me, that’s fine. You’re not who I am trying to reach.
It’s also that idea of getting an instant response to everything you do.
The more Instagram and Twitter have become part of what I do, the more frequently I get offered jobs to post content. Once I realised that this was a thing and brands would occasionally pay me money, you start to work on that engagement.
If I post something really personal, I get a massive response. If I post something about The Cows on a Tuesday, it will get a good response. If I post something again about The Cows on a Wednesday it gets nothing. You do subconsciously start to work out how to promote, how to stay interesting, how to be funny – I’ve started to notice what my followers think is funny and what they don’t.
So, what was once a simple extension of your personality, is now also an extension of your career?
Yes, it feels so important. There were a couple of times a few years ago when I thought ‘I’m going to get off this, because I’m on it all the time’ – but I couldn’t do it.
How the hell would I sell a book if I wasn’t on Instagram or Twitter? How would I tell people that I have a book event somewhere? What? Put something in a newspaper? That just doesn’t happen anymore. Traditional PR is just… worthless.
You’d just be handicapping yourself without it…
In a way. I have this captive audience that are interested in me because no one who doesn’t follow me on Instagram or Twitter is ever going to come to anything I do. Everyone is on it. Everyone who is interested in me is on it. I have an audience of a few hundred thousand (310,000) - that’s enough people for me to sell out a book tour - it’s so important. So when I thought ‘I’m going to leave it’, I suddenly felt powerless in my career.
[In comparison to traditional PR] I had an article written about me, and a photoshoot in Grazia, I’d go on Loose Women - how many millions of women watch Loose Women? Then you see a tiny peak in book sales afterward. I post one Instagram and talk about the book, and you’re in the Amazon Top 100 within about 5 minutes. It’s just so effective because it’s so direct.
The value is in recognising that shift away from traditional advertising. Even in the past four to five years, its changed in such a universal nature that if you’re not switched on to it, you’re not going to be able to sell yourself or your ideas…
Every brand is trying to get followers on Instagram on Twitter. So, a few years ago I had a clothing line -BOB- and I spent thousands of pounds on a traditional PR company to get me press coverage. Literally three to four grand a month. They’d come back with, ‘The Telegraph has referenced you on their fashion page’ or ‘The Guardian has mentioned you one some article’. I’d watch my website, no sales.
I’d post a picture of a dress on Instagram, I’d sell six within five minutes. It was so different, and I felt sick about the amount of money I was spending on traditional PR - I’d never spend that money again. It just wasn’t effective. I think people now need a much more direct approach - see a picture, click a link, buy a dress. It’s just how people work now. So, if I was to come off it, I would just be shooting myself in the foot.
I would never have got that business off the ground without social media, I don’t know how I would have done it. Until I had a physical shop and a pop-up, Instagram was the only way I sold my product.
You’ve recently spoken about shaving your work down, choosing and selecting projects that interest you - does social media as a platform allow you to pick and choose what you want to do?
I feel like I own my work now, I get offered lots of jobs - I don’t want my social media to become an advert or a constant load of #ad - I’m happy to do the occasional one for the brands I like. Why shouldn’t I monetise on that? I do try and be funny and I do try to be entertaining; I think people are just going to have to accept that sometimes I’m going to have to be paid for this free source of entertainment.
When approached by brands, what can they do to make it easier for you to produce content?
Hmm, how can I answer this question? I’m just about to do this thing for Kettle Chips - I’ve been talking about them online for years and I absolutely love them. So they’ve asked me to collaborate with them by making an Instagram story and a post about their new flavours. They came to me with this idea that I didn’t really like. I said, ‘I’d love to do this, but this is how I want to do it.’
I believe the most important thing is that if someone wants me to do something, it has to keep in keeping with my tone on Instagram. They can’t give me a script. They can’t say ‘set up this scene’. As soon as I start doing that, I’ll lose my audience. But if I make a joke about the fact I’m doing Kettle Chips, and I keep it all within my normal tone, that’ll be fine.
I know my followers will go out and buy your chips - you’ll have to trust me, not send me a script.
It’s the trust in your voice you value. You want to avoid that copy and paste culture…
Yes! It’s like, ‘You can get anyone you want to do what your asking; but you’re asking me to do it.’ If you’re asking me to do it, it has to sound like me. But that’s something that comes with confidence having worked in the entertainment industry for fifteen years. You start off with people telling you what to say and, after a while, you don’t have to follow that pattern anymore. You can reject work. But back in the day, when you haven’t found your place yet, you just say whatever anyone tells you. And it’s just really embarrassing.
So what prompted your shift away from television?
What prompted it was the work dried up. It was that simple. I was supposed to be doing a second series of ‘My Extreme Wife..’ with Channel Four.
I was out in L.A. and it never happened. Living out in another country, and it all fell apart for a couple of years. It was a really odd time where I just felt like the TV industry was very disloyal... But this was around the time social media started to become massive, especially when Instagram came on – then I realised - I’ve basically got my own TV channel.
As you turned your back on one visual media, another emerged, one that you are in full control of…. It’s almost like you planned it.
It couldn’t have worked out better. And the door isn’t completely shut on TV, but in the last five to ten years an idea hasn’t come in that has really interested me. In the meantime, I feel like something is always happening. You’re always putting content out there; reminding people who you are and what you do. And I’m totally in control of it.
If you could go back to when you were 22 and graduating what would you say to yourself?
There’s a difference between what I would say and what I would change. I’ve got friends who say I was so blinkered and focussed on work when I first moved to London, that I was quite hard to be around. I wouldn’t change that though, because I’m not exactly where I’d want to be.
One thing, it’s such a cliché, but accept failure. My twenties were successful; I had TV shows, my name on the BBC - then it all fell apart in my late twenties and early thirties. I just wallowed for years and found it really hard. Same time, I married Chris and he did Bridesmaids. He broke Hollywood and there’s this weird thing where he’s taking over the world, and I got sacked from everything and lost all my writing work. It totally consumed me for a few years.
That’s my only regret, not realising what I should have done. It is that old cliché, but when one door shuts, another opens. Two and a half years into it, a publisher called me and said, ’have you ever thought about writing books’ - and that phone call changed my life. I just wrote a book. Everything changed, and what had happened is that I’d let failure stop me - so I stopped producing. Anytime during that period, I could have written a book, but I was waiting for someone to give me that opportunity. When in reality, I should have just written it before anyone called.
Creatively, what keeps you motivated? What drives you to want to put stuff out there?
It’s really simple, I still can’t believe I’m a published writer. I get paid to do the job I’ve wanted to do since I was 16. Because I had a moment where it all fell apart, I don’t take any of it for granted. If I don’t work, I don’t get paid.
You’re only as good as your last book and I want to be remembered as a good writer. There’s no better feeling than a paycheck than someone saying they read your book and liked it. It’s unbelievable, it brings me so much joy. It’s very solitary, but the payoff is when you’re sitting on the tube and you see someone reading it.
But this happens every five minutes on Instagram. It’s like sitting on the tube and watching someone read your book all day, every day. You can always find someone who’s enjoying your work, that’s why it’s so addictive and so powerful.
// Speaking to Dawn only highlights what we already know; that the advertising landscape has dramatically evolved in recent years - as has the way we interact, curate and publish our work. Being aware of this shift away from traditional PR is not only crucial, but it is also the driving force behind how we now view content. Whalar's aim is to fuel this transformation. For more words from a liberated voice, follow Dawn O'Porter Here.