What social media can give

Bloody social media.

It’s everywhere.

What started out as a fun way of keeping in touch with friends is now completely re-inventing the way businesses work.

The reason is pretty simple—social media gives texture to data. It goes beyond demographics and gets into the guts of how people really think and feel.

This kind of information is gold for anyone who is trying to sell something. Check out Zeebox to see a brilliant example of how social media is refining our understanding of audiences. Indeed, I predict that half the publishers in the UK will be major advertisers by the end of next year.

But to think of social media as merely a marketing tool is probably six years out of date. Of course, at first its influence was confined to marketing departments as a cheap alternative to advertising. Customer services got in on the act next, using social media to track satisfaction levels.

Now, social media is being integrated into everything from package design (Durex and Jones Soda) to distribution (PantybyPost and Old Spice) to new product development (Timbuk2 and Threadless).

Social media is driving more and more decisions within more and more areas of industry. Except, of course, for publishing. The recent Bookseller Creativity Conference highlighted not only how insular publishers are, but how insular most departments are within them.
The vast majority still work to a “Silo model”—and in a sequential manner: Different people work on the covers; the Amazon trailer; the blurb; the microsite and the social media campaign. Even within the “Creative and Design” side of the business, integrated thinking is a long way off.

This makes it much more difficult to exploit the rich opportunities that social media and consumer engagement provide. To see what can be achieved, one just has to look at the brilliant work Hodder did on the “Faces” covers for Stephen King’s The Wind Through the Keyhole or the lovely campaign from Faber for the recent school edition of The Lord of the Flies. Sadly, these remain fabulous one-offs.

Sadder still is the fact that if the marketing side of the business is so slow to embrace the learning that comes with social media, then there is little hope of editors profiting from getting closer to consumers in the near future—which puts publishing at least one evolutionary stage behind many other creative industries.

If Stage One is to integrate learnings from social media across marketing and Stage Two is to use it to influence product development and production . . . then Stage Three is to start combining with other businesses.

This last stage of using consumer insights to combine different skills and forms of engagement is called the “Collaborative Ripple”—and logically there is no reason why it should stop at the boundaries of a single company. Take Polydor, for example, which teamed up with Nike to promote the singer, Ellie Goulding.

Ellie loves running. So Polydor got together with Nike and built a successful campaign that focused on her twin interests of jogging and music. This encompassed everything from special downloads; to YouTube films; a blog and Twitter campaign. The clever thing about this is that by sharing their messaging, both brands (Nike and Ellie Goulding) could tap into entirely new audiences, without it feeling odd or contrived. The trick was to make everything pull in the same direction.

Let’s go back to books: We know that Chris Cleave became obsessed with cycling while writing Gold and Ian Rankin is a passionate music fan. Stage three in the Collaborative Ripple would see their publishers working with partner brands to exploit these interests to reach new readers in ways that go far beyond the usual book promotion.

This is what social media can give publishers. Collaborations like this open so many new doors. But we aren’t going to get there if we can’t even get different departments to collaborate and integrate their thinking. It is time for publishers to move up the evolutionary ladder.