Your platform (a group of friends, followers, and social contacts who make up your initial audience) is quite possibly the most important factor in determining whether your career ever has a chance to start. Sounds pretty scary, right?
First, try not to sweat it. Building your platform is hard to screw up, but it does take time, patience, and a little creativity to make it work for you in the way you need it to.
I started cultivating my platform about a year before I pitched my first non-fiction book to a publisher. According to everyone I've talked to and all of the expert recommendations I've read, one year of network-building is really just the beginning. I may have jumped into my pitch prematurely, but because I had targeted my connections and built my platform strategically, it worked for me.
Here's what I did:
Find your online community and become a contributing member.It's okay to lurk for a while to get a feel for things, but once you've found a like-minded group of people online who share an interest in your topic of choice, join in the conversation. Share helpful and interesting articles, links, and upcoming events. Reply to questions if you know the answer. Add meaningful comments where you can, and above all else--don't spam or troll.
Find a local social group and meet people face-to-face.Use the web to search for local social groups centered around your topic or interest and do the homework to learn how you can attend a get-together. If no formal membership is required, RSVP and go start shaking some hands.
Physical bulletin boards still exist in lots of places, so seek them out and look for upcoming meetings and events. Check out the community calendar in your local newspaper or even on (gasp!) Craigslist for potential ways to meet folks in your niche. If you're shy, bring along a talkative friend to help break the ice.
Can't find a local social group? Start your own!Facebook.com and Meetup.com make this easier than ever.
When I first went looking for local enthusiasts of the paranormal, there were no groups yet established. I used Meetup.com and set up a place for folks to congregate online. I met with local businesses who had meeting rooms or who simply had enough space to host a dozen or so people to get together and chat. My group quickly grew so large that we had to start reserving a 100-person capacity presentation room at a local library (bonus: it was free to use) for our monthly meetings.
Meetup requires a monthly fee for its use, but Facebook allows you to create and manage an online group for free. While it doesn't have some of the same administrative conveniences as Meetup, the fact that it costs nothing to start means that you need only to risk your time on the venture.
Get out there and volunteer.Helping out in your community can not only benefit the organization you're volunteering for, it can also work as a bonus for you by putting you in contact with people who will become part of your network. (Let's not forget that volunteering is super for your self-confidence and overall karma!)
Ask for help.Tell your friends that you plan to start a blog or write a book about whatever the topic is that you've chosen. Ask if they could help you to connect with anyone in their networks who might be interested in reading about that same topic. This method often has a way of snowballing when each new contact learns more about you, begins to trust you, and then connects you with even more people.
If you're still sitting there asking yourself, "Why do I need a platform now? I haven't even finished my first draft yet," then pay close attention:
Your existing platform can make or break a potential book deal.
My first non-fiction book was about something that I'd studied as a hobby. While I was about as far from being a traditional expert in my field as one could get, I had a well-established platform of targeted readers who respected my opinions and who looked forward to reading a comprehensive work. This was what made my publisher decide that my first book was worth their financial gamble.
My platform led to the publication of a book, which led to a larger platform and the publication of books two and three. After that, my platform was substantial and stable enough that I ventured out on my own and self-published a few things.
The lessons I learned?
Never take any relationship for granted.
Always give before you hope to get.
If you need help, don't be afraid to ask for it.
Now that you're armed with all of the things I know now that I didn't know then, get out there and build something awesome!