Digital Focus: Word of mouth

<p>Last month the internet turned 40, but for most of us it only became a household term in the 1990s with the advent of email and chat rooms making the wider world a lot smaller through the ease and speed of communication. <br />
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The past decade has only amplified this with the arrival of blogging and social networking sites from MySpace, to Facebook and the most recent emergence of Twitter making it all the more easy to spread news and share information. Because of this, the &quot;going viral&quot; phenomenon has never been so simple; sharing content from one to site to another, in particular to users' social networking profiles, is often only one click away and with printed media paying just as much attention to web activity, even offline audiences can find their way to popular content circulating the net. <br />
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Online marketing teams have been keen to exploit this and even for publishing, viral campaigns have proved a successful way to spread the word about books and their authors. But what exactly does &quot;going viral&quot; mean and with the internet's grapevine fast becoming a jungle, how can publishers cut through it to reach their target audience? <br />
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Mathew Riley, group account director at Tangent One, a digital agency that specialises in working with publishing companies, explains: &quot;Viral marketing is simply word-of-mouth&mdash;you start at one place and spread it out accordingly. The model is usually who you know will spread it for you, if they like what you're doing.&quot;<br />
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But predicting what your audience will be excited by enough to tell others about is tricky and initiating a word-of-mouth or viral campaign can be easier said than done. Even for Canongate, an independent publisher which has led several successful digital campaigns for books in the past including Steven Hall's <i>The Raw Shark Texts</i> and Nick Cave's recent <i>The Death of Bunny Munro</i> is not comfortable that it can always pull it off. <br />
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Andrea See, online marketing executive at Canongate, says: &quot;When a marketing team or digital agency hears the phrase 'go viral' from a client, their collective hearts sink. When something 'goes viral', that means unbiased but interested observers have found a particular piece of content compelling and entertaining enough to share it with their friends, and their friends&nbsp;felt the same and decided to share it too,&nbsp;so the content ends up reaching far more people than the creator of that content ever imagined.&quot;<br />
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<b>Difficult to control</b><br />
The unexpected element normally associated with going viral is one of the biggest challenges for digital marketers to harness and See adds: &quot;A marketing or agency person cannot ever&nbsp;promise that a campaign will 'go viral', but if your content is well produced, original&nbsp;and interesting enough for its intended audience&mdash;and you've cultivated a loyal online following over a&nbsp;period of time&nbsp;using the channels you commonly&nbsp;target for campaigns, you are well set up for a campaign to 'go viral'.&quot;<br />
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The list of &quot;commonly targeted channels&quot; as See puts it has grown bigger every year for publishers, who often juggle standard websites, blogs, Twitter profiles and Facebook pages all at once. And the unexpected response from a loyal following on one of these channels is something Chris Hamilton-Emery, the director of Salt Publishing, has directly experienced. Salt's Just One Book campaign, started by a post on his company's Facebook page, is an example of going viral that resulted in Salt being saved from insolvency. <br />
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&quot;We found ourselves in a very tricky situation when our Arts Council funding came to an end,&quot; Hamilton-Emery says, &quot;We decided to go public; we'd tried all other avenues and it was the last thing we could think of. So we posted a note on Facebook saying, very simply, we need some support, buy one book and tell your friends to do the same.<br />
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&quot;I had absolutely no idea how that message would take off. I think we did over &pound;10,000 of business in the first few hours.&quot;<br />
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The Facebook message, posted back in May, spread around rapidly as the members of Salt Publishing's group (between 3,000&ndash;4,000 at the time) shared it with others. Eventually the campaign extended to include a tongue-in-cheek video based on the World Wildlife Federation's Adopt a Polar Bear advertisements and enough money was raised to see the company through to the end of this year.<br />
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The timing of the appeal was key to Just One Book's success, with Salt becoming the poster child for the plight of independent publishers when the recession first took hold. Hamilton-Emery knows that this type of campaign to promote a company as a whole cannot be replicated.&nbsp; <br />
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<b>Genre-specific</b><br />
On a book-by-book basis it is possible though and publishers can use the web to their advantage if they have the right channels, the right material and the right strategy. <br />
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According to Mathew Riley, accessing the content of the book is key: &quot;My personal gut feeling is that not every single book is right for viral marketing and publishers have to question and admit to themselves 'Has this book got a buzz about it?' or 'Has this book got something that people would talk about if it was taken out of context and placed on the web?'<br />
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&quot;My feeling is that fiction is certainly more difficult to market virally unless it's a specific genre, like a vampire or zombie book. Or possibly if it simply has a massive following because the author's already done the work 10 years ago like Stephen King's <i>Under The Dome</i> campaign that's recently been launched by Hodder &amp; Stoughton.&quot;<br />
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Prior to the release of Stephen King's new novel, Hodder &amp; Stoughton launched an online game inviting readers to hide and seek excerpts from the book, giving people a chance to read parts of the book before its release date. There was also a competition to win an exclusive copy and night in a luxury hotel to read it. But even when there's a devoted following for the author at hand, how can publishers go about attracting their attention, directing the readers to their channels and initiating the campaign in the first place? <br />
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Mathew Riley advises that publishers utilise as many of their contacts as possible, in and outside of the industry. He also suggests another interesting way, especially for directing people to sites set up specifically for viral campaigns, is to decide on Google Adwords, a service where you can &quot;buy&quot; a word from Google so that your link comes up when people search for that word or phrase.<br />
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&quot;You've got to give yourself a bit of a budget,&quot; Riley says. &quot;Say for a couple of grand, I could spend &pound;200 for 10 months on Adwords and try and compete for certain quirky words, depending on what type of content it is, and drum up traffic that way.&quot;<br />
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And when there isn't an obvious loyal following? How do you know if the content of a book will garner a reaction in the first place? Canongate's Andrea See says: &quot;Research is vital to determine what people find interesting, and there are loads of online tools to help a marketer see what people are talking about or voting for on popular social sharing sites like&nbsp;Tweetmeme, Techno-rati&nbsp;and&nbsp;delicious, for example.&quot;<br />
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But luck is often the most useful and untamed tool in a viral campaign as See knows from experience: &quot;David Eagleman's <i>Sum</i> was a book that we felt could definitely be marketed via word-of-mouth and it was actually succeeding without making a big splash. Then a highly-influential network node (a person who has&nbsp;a huge number of connections)&nbsp;known as Stephen Fry recommended it on Twitter and it sold 16,000 copies in the following month.&quot;</p>