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18.09.08 | Hannah Davies
It's official—publishers and their authors are taking over the world of online social networking. A search of "books" on YouTube finds more than 156,000 videos, ranging from author talking heads to publishers' animated promotional films.
This month, an author tracked down a number of Bookseller employees and sent them Facebook friend requests. And the latest: if you are single, Penguin can now help you find your future romantic partner with its newest online initiative, a dating service run with Match.com.
Publishers are starting to prove their online credentials, despite initially lagging behind other creative industries in the development of user-friendly and content-rich websites. But are they simply jumping on the bandwagon, abandoning traditional marketing methods to invest in new media tools just because everyone else is? Or are these commercially sound strategies helping to target core markets and build new audiences of book buyers?
A recent study of 5,000 internet users by PR company Fleishman-Hillard suggests the internet has eight times the impact of traditional print media on the average consumer's buying decisions. In the F-H Digital Influence Index, the web was rated as the most influential medium, with double the impact of second-placed television, while magazines and newspapers were at the bottom of the pile.
There is clearly huge potential for reaching consumers via the internet, and publishers have recognised that a shift to online marketing is essential. But with the concept of social networking being relatively new to the world of books, are publishers using the web to their full advantage?
Jon Reed, director of social media consultancy Reed Media, says that over the past year or two, publishers have been treating online marketing tools like new toys, rather than thinking tactically about how to use them. "A lot of publishers have been dipping a toe in the water and experimenting, often just trying out the new tools for the sake of it," he explains. This "give it a try and see what happens" technique is unlikely to be listed in a marketer's handbook and is even less likely to translate into sales. Anna Rafferty, online marketing director at Penguin, says: "I see a lot of brands setting things up but not following it through. That is a disappointment to readers.
"There is a risk to online marketing so publishers shouldn't start doing it if they aren't going to put time and thought into it."
However, Reed says publishers are learning to become more efficient. "They are beginning to treat online initiatives much as they would their traditional marketing—thinking strat-egically about their marketing aims and objectives. I encourage all my clients to think about who their audience is, where they hang out online and what blogs they read, and then they can decide what the most appropriate tools are to reach them."
Online marketing tools are plentiful, including Facebook groups, MySpace pages, publisher and author blogs, online games, competitions, videos and podcasts. The key motivation is to increase sales of books, whether by driving traffic to transactional websites, increasing brand awareness, forging meaningful relationships with customers or using online feedback to create products readers really want.
According to Reed, the publishers leading the pack in harnessing social media tools are those in the academic and STM sector. "They are much further ahead than trade publishers, primarily because they have form when it comes to pioneering digital technology," he explains. "But also because there are already well-established online communities in academia for them to tap into."
Big academic publishers have used their resources to establish what these communities want, which is to be constantly updated with relevant information and given a place to discuss it. By using social media to provide these facilities, publishers have added value to their existing products by cementing their reputation.
Reed points to Nature Publishing, part of the Macmillan Group, as a particularly good example: "It has its own social network, called the Nature Network, it has been running podcasts for years, and it now has three islands in the online virtual world Second Life, which provide a place for the scientific community to meet and experiment. It has identified its niche audience and learnt how to reach them at little expense."
Academic digital nous is starting to filter through to the trade side. John Wiley & Sons has been using the concept of targeting niche audiences for its non-STM professional and business division. Julia Lampam, associate director of publicity and events at John Wiley, says the new media features on its computing website, Wrox Blox, have been very popular with the programming community. The website is feature-rich, with a programmer-to-programmer forum, a video library full of technical presentations and free downloadable sample chapters and codes.
Shaun Tavares, Wiley's associate marketing director for online and new media/technology, says the aim of such initiatives has been to engage customers in a mutually meaningful way: "We want to open a dialogue with our customers to encourage their input and feedback."
The key tool Wiley has been using is video. On YouTube, the Capstone list has its own channel full of videos based on its business skills and personal development titles. Tavares says the viewing figures have been impressive. One Capstone video, "Exclusive Leak", produced to promote Leap! Ditch Your Job and Start Your Own Business, was shortlisted for the 2008 Broadcast Design Award as part of the Rushes Soho Shorts Festival.
This autumn, Wiley will be using its video expertise to boost the online marketing for its biggest brand, the For Dummies series. A relaunched website in October will feature a series of "how to" videos for a number of subjects covered in the For Dummies print titles.
Penguin is another publisher using the web creatively to find new readers. Its new dating site with Match.com signals how far publishers have come in expanding their reach on the internet. Launched two weeks ago, it is a clever brand partnership that has generated acres of publicity. According to Rafferty, it is also extremely cost-effective, having already turned a profit for Penguin. "We've had 60,000 people visit the site already, and 1,000 have subscribed. We are revenue-sharing with Match so Penguin is benefiting financially."
When coming up with such initiatives, Rafferty says Penguin's focus is always its readers, and whether something will be of interest to them, because "the readers are who the brand belongs to". This was the motivation behind a number of its popular social media sites, including Spinebreakers, a site for 13 to 18-year-olds now run by a panel of teenagers, as well as Blog-a-Penguin-Classic and Blog-a-Holiday-Read. The two blog sites follow the same principle: Penguin sends out batches of its titles to readers who have registered and, in return, the readers provide the site's content with their book review blogs. Blog-a-Penguin-Classic has been so successful that it won the award in the Entertainment category at the New Media Age Effectiveness Awards this year, beating stiff compet-ition from E4's "Skins" website.
Rafferty thinks Penguin's achievements in online marketing come from tailoring each project to suit the target market, rather than using blanket social networking methods for all its titles and authors.
Penguin ran an effective online competition for Sebastian Faulks' Devil May Care in May, partnering with MySpace to reach a new audience of musicians. The publisher ran an "X-Factor"-style competition to find a theme tune for the book. A panel selected a shortlist of bands before they were put to a public vote.
Rafferty says it was a great driver of traffic: "Every time there was a MySpace announcement about the competition, the Amazon pre-orders for Devil May Care spiked. It had a direct effect."
Access for all
It is all very well for the big corporations to invest money in online strategies, but is social media accessible for the independents with smaller budgets? Reed thinks so. He says there are huge opportunities for smaller publishers to get involved and, in some cases, it can be easier for them to develop meaningful relationships with consumers.
"Social media have a personal quality—authenticity is important. It can often be much harder for corporations to achieve these personal relationships than independents."
Chris Hamilton-Emery, director of independent Salt Publishing and now the company's full-time web developer, says: "For an independent, it is critical to make the best use of the web. It is one of the ways we can level the playing field and compete against much larger businesses."
Although Salt Publishing has had a web presence since 1999, Hamilton-Emery says the introduction of a proper web strategy this year has accelerated its exploitation of social media opportunities. Salt has a cluster of blogs, two free online magazines and a Facebook group of more than 1,000 members, which includes an hour-by-hour "Big Brother"-style diary on Facebook Notes. An online Salt TV channel is also on the way.
"The web has become our primary means of publicising and marketing," says Hamilton-Emery.
"Time, rather than money, is the biggest requirement—we spend all day, every day doing social networking and have now virtually stopped all our traditional marketing."
The result of Salt's complete shift online has been staggering and is proof of the power of the web. Hamilton-Emery explains: "In the period since we stopped traditional methods, our trade sales have tripled and overall sales have increased by 68%. The only reason that can be happening is because people are finding out about us via the web."
Recognition of Salt's dedicated approach to promoting its poetry online to new audiences came this year when Salt won the Nielsen Innovation Award at the Independent Publishing Awards.
Other independents are catching on to the cost-effective nature of online marketing. Canongate is working hard to improve its internet presence with a new website, Meet At The Gate, currently in beta testing and being launched in the next few months.
Andrea See, online marketing executive at Canongate, explains its purpose: "We want our readers to get to know Canongate as a group of people who love the books they publish, rather than a company that simply publishes and sells books. "We have worked for many months on developing an online identity and community that ties the love of books and reading in with cultural recommendations."
As well as dedicating time to third-party media sites such as BookCrossing, GoodReads and Twitter, the company has produced one-off online campaigns for specific books, such as the "Alternative Reality Game" it created for Steven Hall's The Raw Shark Texts, which got Canongate shortlisted for the Guardian Marketing Campaign of the Year in 2007.
While the immediate impact of building a relationship with readers is hard to measure, See says early feedback is good. "We have received emails from readers who now view Canongate titles preferentially when they go book shopping because of the time we have spent with them."
For big corporations and independents alike, the web is a cost-effective way forward for marketing books, authors and brands. After his resounding success, Hamilton-Emery encourages all publishers to give it a go: "Social networking should be one tool in the armoury that you use every day of the week. It is about interesting features and the brand. If you get that right then the traffic and sales will follow."
Becoming a Social Media Specialist: The Essentials
1. Establish who your target market is and find out where they are hanging out on the web, such as which social networking sites they are visiting and which blogs they read.
2. Choose the correct tools—remember your readers are the most important people. Find out what they will find interesting, and what they care about.
3. Your tools also depend on your authors. What are they comfortable with? Do you have a video star in the making or are they better at sticking to what they know and writing a blog?
4. Be honest, open and authentic. You want to engage your readers and invite them into your world. Don't be too corporate and don't go in for the hard sell.
5. Update your website, group or blog regularly. Once you have got your visitors in, don't disappoint them or you will lose them.
6. Remember your aim—driving traffic to a transactional page to sell books. Think of it like a funnel—use the external pages to move people back via links to your website.