In digital marketing circles, 2018 was widely hailed as the year we'd see 'the death of the influencer'. Well, true influence is never going to cark it, but those who wield it have certainly got harder to reach. I worked in a word of mouth agency for eight years, and back when I started in 2007, there was no shortage of people who were delighted when a brand offered to fuel their particular passion with some freebies or an invite to an event. But it wasn't long before expectations on both sides changed. An exchange of opinions for the inside scoop on products turned into paid posts, which in turn evolved into expensive longer-term contracts and more traditional advertising-style sponsorships.
And ironically, as the influencers got more professional, their power began to wane. Nowadays, whether it's down to simple over-saturation, or disillusionment with all those Insta-stars hyperlinking every covetable item in their perfectly curated lives, the backlash against social media opinion-formers is in full flow. Consumers are fed up with what feels like brand-sponsored 'fake news', while there's a growing awareness from brands that followers offer no guarantee of sales, or even decent word of mouth (it doesn't help when a good few thousand of your followers are bots).
Book bloggers (whatever platform they share on) have long been a powerful force in the publishing industry, and rightly so. Their genuine love for reading and ability to articulate why others should join in has never been more valuable. But it's increasingly hard to capture their attention - and, in a world where the book trade's biggest issue is reaching new audiences, recycling hype amongst the same few networks can feel like swimming hard to stay still.
One thing's certain: we're no longer in a world where mailing out sexy book post counts as innovative (or indeed effective) outreach. So here are five ideas for how to update your approach to stimulating word of mouth.
1. Double down on niche communities. This doesn't just mean plugging away at the same old hardcore genre fans, but finding interest groups for whom a book might have real, and even unexpected, emotional resonance. From activists of male mental health to new grandmothers to lovers of early 90s rave culture, the internet is still a brilliant place to find people who are evangelical about even the most esoteric fictional or non-fictional hook. And if they don't read very often, helping them discover a relevant story can result in a response that is more enthusiastic and influential than a jaded book vlogger's cursory review.
2. Go for authenticity, not pure reach. When trust is at a premium, the word of one true 'ordinary' fan can carry far more commercial weight than that of a huge social media 'name'. Spend time researching non-professional posters with high engagement within smaller communities. They'll be more excited to be involved in a book campaign, and the resulting buzz will have the rare ring of truth.
3. Pay attention to email newsletters and podcasts. As our social feeds get overwhelming, we're relying on more intimate, tightly-curated spaces to deliver recommendations for what we should buy and read. Influencers with popular weekly or fortnightly email newsletters are making the most of this shift, as are emerging podcasters. Look, too, to hugely influential but under-exploited social networks beyond the usual role call of Twitter, Facebook and IG, such as YouTube Gaming and Twitch.
4. If you're going for a partnership, be creative. If you're going to shell out for a big-name influencer, use them. Create something together. Get them involved in the production or distribution of the book. Tap into their insight about what makes their audience tick and brainstorm a campaign that feels meaningful to you both. Hell, invite them to feedback on R&D ideas you have for future projects. Collaborate and learn from them, don't just use them as a passive node to pass on your message.
5. Broaden your definition of influence. Shift your focus from 'influencer marketing' to genuine word of mouth. Don't just look online; find key opinion formers in local communities, university trendsetters, NCT group leaders, postmen - anyone who is regularly meeting people and passing on their latest thoughts. In an era where lucrative careers are made out of personal brands, books are much more likely to be made by everyday enthusiasts.