What I learned about digital this year: Q&A with Heather Fain, SVP Marketing Strategy, Hachette Book Group

What I learned about digital this year: Q&A with Heather Fain, SVP Marketing Strategy, Hachette Book Group

For my latest column, rather than talk about abstract things like strategy, formats and reader acquisition, I thought it’d be great to share some good old best practice.

Not the oh-great-another-consultant-telling-me-what-to-do type of best practice - more a view from the front line, from someone in the trade who’s been there, done it and come out the other side smiling.

Over the past year I’ve been fortunate enough to work closely with Hachette Book Group (HBG) in the US - in particular with Heather Fain, Hachette’s SVP, Director of Marketing Strategy (left). Heather’s just launched the new HBG website. It’s been a labour of love, so I asked her - now that it’s out in the wild - what the learnings have been, and what she sees as her next set of challenges as she looks ahead to a more digital future?

RW: Hi Heather, how’s it going? Got much sleep lately?

HF: Post-launch I have!  We’re really pleased with the site and how it has been received.

RW: As the dust settles on that project, I wanted to ask you if you feel any different about digital now? 

If you’d asked me at the turn of the decade if we as a corporation needed a fancy consumer-facing website, then I’d have said not so much. Especially given the finite resources publishers have. Today I think it’s critical. It’s our opportunity to remove the barriers between ourselves and readers, to get to know what they really want in a much more granular way and to start to re-imagine what the storytelling and reading experience can be.

RW: Broadly speaking, I think the rest of the industry would agree. But what does that really mean for a big publisher like HBG?

HF: It means that we need to provide value that differs from what, say, Amazon offers a reader. Or Google. Or Facebook. And our web presence, which we wholly control, is that opportunity.

At HBG we have a lot of imprints: Little, Brown and Company; Grand Central; Orbit; Perseus; and more. Each of these brands has and needs to maintain their own identities. But for a reader, those brands generally take a back seat to book and author.  The trick is to offer the right books and authors at the right time. 

We can be a portal into all the kinds of books they love, helping readers find their next favorite book. That’s a very different goal from saying, “This company needs a new website.” If we get it right, then we can create unique connections between readers, books and authors.

RW: That sounds like a lot of leg work! And I know you’ve spent time getting all those imprints aligned. How did you do that?

HF: We’re in an era where rapid change in digital forces the urgency. Facebook is part of the fabric of life now, and that carries a lot of consumer influence. And there’s Amazon of course, plus all the work that booksellers do online. So we’ve worked hard to show our publishers that our web presence isn’t just a catalogue: it can be an extension of the reading experience. Part of that proof came through data, which is something I’ll get to later.

I hope we’ve accomplished alignment also by demonstrating that we’re stronger together than the publishers are on their own. It doesn’t mean stifling any one group’s marketing but rather making sure that all their smart work funnels into one place we own and can all take advantage of. It is a bit of a mind-shift, but hopefully we’ve built in functionality to the site that actually makes our marketers’ jobs easier and their campaigns more effective. That’s the best way to win hearts and minds. 

RW: You mentioned customer feedback. What did you do in that regard for the new site?

HF: We had a moment of clarity during our planning process, and it was thanks to our readers. We created a survey asking them what they wanted from us, from the web. We got inundated with responses - like, thousands and thousands of responses. It was amazing.

This exercise helped us in three ways. First, our customers told us that the main thing they wanted was more access to authors and the stories behind the stories. More content! Secondly, it was life affirming. They told us they really, really cared, and that there was an untapped hunger out there for something we could supply. Suddenly our direction was validated and we could build the roadmap for future development of the site.  Thirdly, it was some proof in the pudding to help build consensus internally. 

RW: That sounds kind of important. Is there anything else that your readers helped you to figure out?

HF: It reminded us not to get too distracted by bright, shiny new things. We have a deep-felt obligation to make digital innovation core to our business, but that can be risky, and we also have a strong obligation to the book and to our authors.  But the survey reminded us not to let the ”fear of missing out” distract us from what we can deliver - and that’s more great content that enhances the reading experience.

Readers are very willing to participate, and when we let them, they keep us honest.

RW: OK, so you’ve talked about the opportunities we have with digital and the right way to approach it - but what are the challenges?

HF: Getting a reader’s attention. Everyone talks all the time about the fragmented media world of news, social, games and apps. How do we grab people’s attention and introduce them to new things? The answer, I think, lies in working really hard to create great digital experiences that deliver value around the book, around the reading experience itself. And that takes a lot of honesty and focus.

RW: I got just a couple more things I’d like to ask you. The first one is a list, because the internet loves them and they’re kind of useful. Breaking all this down, what would be your top five tips to other publishers that are looking to enhance their digital strategy?

HF: Fortunately you gave me a heads up on this one, so I actually have a list:

Number one: Try to seek harmony. You’re going to deliver far more value to readers if you take an integrated approach to the things you’re building. Whatever we build has to work in concert, focused around what readers want.  And it’s hard to do when you’re juggling different imprints, authors, and P&Ls.

Number two: Don’t reinvent the wheel. You have to take the amazing ideas and inspiration of digital and then work those ideas into the resources you have. All publishers are incredibly busy doing great work. The smartest way to do something new and valuable is to not reinvent the wheel, but to look at how you can combine what you do already into a new whole. One example is marketing across a common genre, which we’re devoting attention to doing in a more focused way. And increased collaboration across the company is also just fun. 

Number three: Ditch the mess, asap. The longer you work with a fragmented technology infrastructure, the harder it’s going to be to deliver better things for readers. And it will be even harder to find actionable insight from your data. We’re still a work in progress on this.

Number four: Measure what matters. We are also learning this every day. Our marketers sometimes feel oppressed by the hunt for Facebook Likes, which likely may not indicate real impact on sales. There are so many things we can measure, but there has to be meaning. As a business that has relied so heavily on hunch for so long, it is likely to take a long time for us to find ways to correlate sales information to the right type of online behavioural data in a meaningful way.

Number five: Feel the love. Whatever you do, find ways to get your readers involved in the planning. They’ll be the magic that validates it all. And, if nothing else, you’ll feel better for it because they’ll tell you they care.

RW: Brilliant. And, if you could boil everything down into your one top tip, what would that be?

HF: Look around you, outside of the book trade and see how people are learning, buying, and communicating about other products - and think about how that can apply to books. A good strategy is more than a good New York Times review. The world is different today, and there are many more influences on the book buying process.

RW: That’s great Heather. So here’s my final question. Do you think an AI could ever write a better novel than To Kill a Mockingbird?

HF: Ha. I think part of embracing technology is doing away with some of our ideas about ‘better.’ Publishers sometimes have a tendency to be a little snobby about what’s “good.” Maybe AI could write a novel that someone who never reads books thinks is way better than any of the novels held dear by the establishment. I say that’d be cool and there there’s a huge place for that!