I cringe a little when I hear that someone is “working on a viral campaign” for a product or service. I see viral marketing as taking a fingers crossed approach to marketing — hoping that you’ve created something cool enough that others will want to pass it on to their friends — while social networking means that you take an active role in cultivating and maintaining relationships with your friends, customers, fans, and other interested parties. To me, it’s the difference between passive and proactive action.
Social networking is not a magic new concept. If anything, it’s a return to basics: talking to your customers, reminding them that they are important to you. The only difference between then and now is that your customers are everywhere and technology gives you the power to find them, listen to them, talk to them, and build relationships that extend long beyond the boundaries of a traditional marketing campaign.
Social networking, by its very definition, is a sustained, ongoing process. If you’re a publisher, this is requires changing your thinking. You’ve traditionally maintained some distance from your ultimate customers: readers. People buy books from retailers. Retailers buy books from distributors. You might take out some ads and put dollars into promo, but you haven’t spent a lot of time talking to readers. Focus groups don’t count.
It’s time to get your hands dirty, to dig into the real-world conversation. It’s a weird thing, and sometimes awkward and uncomfortable, especially if you’re accustomed to public relations-speak and the cheerleader behavior that accompanies marketing messages. When you talk directly to real people who read and buy books, they tune you out when you try to stay on message. If they wanted to rehash cover copy, they’d read the back of the book.
What you’re going to find — if you haven’t already — is that you have absolutely no control over what is being said about your brand. While you’re busy executing marketing campaigns that are the end result of countless meetings, blanded-down and made safe enough to keep your CEO’s pulse steady, real people are out there, talking about your books. They’re reviewing on Amazon, they’re reviewing on blogs, they’re reviewing on Twitter.
It’s an amazing thing, these conversations. There is positive, negative, lukewarm, curious. It’s linear, it’s tangential. It’s of-the-moment, it’s six months later. Look at the comments related to a review of Sara Shepard’s Pretty Little Liars. The review was posted in November, 2006. The comments continued into June 2008 (and would have gone continued had the site not been put on hiatus).
Books are social. Reading, usually, is a solitary endeavor (though I still think back to dinners where my mom read stories about King Arthur to us while we ate). Books, however, invite conversation. The continued popularity of book clubs is not just about the wine; it’s the fact that people love to get together and talk about books (also, gossip about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness).
Social networking means that the book club is online — and the participants range from people who’ve read the books, people who want to read the books, people just passing through the conversation, people who sell books, people who sell books to people to sell books, and, yes, people who acquire, edit, market, and distribute books.
Think of it like a giant cocktail party. You might know one or two people very well, you’ll likely meet several interesting people, and, as you circulate around the room, you’ll dip in and out of various conversations — sometimes adding something, sometimes eavesdropping. The key here is that you’re participating on various levels, sometimes initiating the conversation, sometimes listening.
Which reminds me of something else: never underestimate the power of just listening. Don’t just listen to what is being said about you, but what is being said about your competition. Listen to what your customers want, what makes them happy, what makes them crazy. You might think you know these people very well…you might be surprised by how wrong you are.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, you’re saying. I hear you. I get it. But, man, the time, the time. This stuff takes a lot of time and energy. How am I supposed to do it all?
The good news is that you don’t have to do it all. Do one thing, two things really well. You can’t do everything, but you have to do something. Let’s face reality: print coverage is shrinking (and even at its zenith, you were fighting for space), radio is dependent upon the right listener being in the right place at the right time, television? Ditto.
Nobody can reach out and touch your customers better than you because nobody knows your books and what makes them special better than you (except, yes, your authors; they play a role in this process as well). There is no right way to do this. I’m loving what publishers like Little, Brown and Co are doing on Twitter: talking about books and engaging readers (they get bonus points for the frequent offers of review copies to people). I think it’s amazing that publishers like Unbridled Books make it a point to reach out and talk to people like me on a regular basis — even the business contacts have a personal flavor.
Pan Macmillan has a team of really smart bloggers talking about the future, as does HarperStudio, via their blog “The 26th Story”. Harlequin Twitters, blogs, and maintains a robust, interactive website, not to mention constant blogger outreach. We’re seeing publishers like Dzanc Books and booksellers like Vroman’s use tools on Facebook to connect with readers.
(In fact, we’re very encouraged by the marketing possibilities offered by Facebook, so much so that we’ve putting the finishing touches on an online workshop to teach you all about the cool ways you can use the site to build relationships.)
Yes, social networking is hard work. Yes, it requires a lot of time. Yes, it means changing your way of thinking.
But the rewards of engaging with your readers, your customers on a human level far outweigh these seemingly negative aspects. If done right, you are directly engaging in a wider community than you ever expected.