WOM’s The Word As Podcasts, Blogging, Buzz & Viral Go Mainstream
Although the book publishing industry as a whole has yet to go viral in the way of blockbusters or burgers (Have you “crashed” the Wedding Crashers trailer or Had It Your Way with Burger King‘s Subservient Chicken?), many in the industry say they’re not hooked on hype alone. Instead, they have a hankering for the new and potentially revolutionary idea that every book has a targetable market, and if it doesn’t, perhaps it shouldn’t be published.
“I get up every morning and what I think about is the reader,” said Carol Fitzgerald, co-founder and president of The Book Report Network, speaking on a panel at the recent Book Standard Summit. “How to get that book into the reader’s hand and what the reader wants to know.”
Sue Fleming, VP Marketing Director, Simon & Schuster said, “Before, most publishers felt that marketing focused on retailers — on book placement, book promotion in stores. In my experience, it’s turned into something else entirely. There are many more mediums within which to work, to use as tools, and the lines between each are grayer than they used to be.”
Behind the varied media strategies aimed at the increasingly distracted and scattered consumer, from viral, to buzz, to pyro, to word-of-mouth — see our glossary on pg.6 — lies a nouveau marketing movement hoping to discover and prime their target audiences. Finding out who and where the reader is requires research — research that has heretofore been too costly and time consuming for publishers to invest in. Now, however, with the immediacy of the internet and the regenerative word-of-mouth model, all of the steps are being sandwiched together — pre-marketing, post-marketing, market research — prompting publishers to acknowledge what marketing mavens like Bzz Agent and Seth Godin have been saying for years now: consumers are the best at selling the product they use, so get the consumers to do the marketing for you.
As Peter McCarthy, ex-VP, Executive Director of Online Marketing at Penguin put it, “There’s nothing like a rabid fan to market for you. They know the most about the product, and they’re the most likely to want to tell people about the product. It all just feeds upon itself.”
Toss in a Bikini and Watch Sales Skyrocket
A while back, Drill Team Media — a non-traditional marketing services firm — came to Farrar, Straus & Giroux to introduce themselves. When FSG was organizing the hardcover release last fall of Tom Wolfe‘s I Am Charlotte Simmons — a musing on the baser side of college life at a fictional Ivy League university — Jeff Seroy, VP & Publicity Director, remembered the encounter, and went to the company to collaborate. “The people who Tom writes about love to read about themselves,” Seroy said. “I thought that it would be an interesting opportunity to use Drill Team to reach college aged kids, since that’s what the novel is about.” Marketing measures involved a “Meet Tom Wolfe” contest, campus outreach, radio interviews, and niche advertising.
Although the book received a fairly tepid response from mainstream audiences, the collegiate market showed promise. When Picador took over for the paperback launch last month, they again hired Drill Team, but adopted a different strategy to get even closer to their college consumers. In the midst of the makeover, the title was removed completely from the cover, graphics were overhauled, and armies of frat boys and sorority girls were sent preview chapters from the book so that they could provide feedback and act as word-of-mouth promoters.
By awarding points (redeemable for prizes and rewards) to the frat boys for their feedback, they were able to generate reliable market research at a fraction of the cost.
“Each influencer has 20 plus friends,” Steve Kleinberg, CEO of Drill Team said, “So instead of spending huge amounts of time and money putting together focus groups, we can shoot out a list of questions in the morning and easily have 200 responses by the end of the day.”
Now, (influenced in part by the input of their targeted demo) the words “jocks,” “mutants,” “tailgating” and “sex” run down the left-hand side of TomWolfe.com, while “Win a Trip to Cancun” stands out in electric green on the upper right (which, when clicked, takes you to where “Bonfire of the Bathing Suits: Spring Break with Charlotte Simmons” is splayed across the screen in hot pink). After a brief nod to Wolfe’s new novel, as it relates to college in the form of “drunken hook-ups” and “going buck-wild,” they ask: “But what’s the fun in reading about the debauchery that takes place at Dupont without a little debauchery of your own?”
With the combined efforts, the book has outsold every other Tom Wolfe title at college bookstores across the country.
Although originally relegated to edgy trade paperback titles geared toward a younger, media-savvy set, new media marketing campaigns have begun to gain popularity with a more mainstream audience.
HarperCollins recently teamed up with Hype Council, an independant marketing firm similar to Drill Team, to promote Michael Crichton’s State of Fear. According to HC’s Suzie Sisoler, the pre-pub campaign included an on-line scavenger hunt, a contest, ‘forward-to-a-friend’ elements, a community message board for sharing clues, and a sweepstakes (stateoffeargame.com).
Author Patricia Cornwell worked with Penguin last month to prime audiences for the release of her latest novel Predator, by creating a blog, a video trailer, a contest, and an interactive “Forensic Challenge” on her website (patriciacornwell.com).
Farah Miller, Manager of New Media at Knopf, created JayneDennis.com, a personal website for one of the main characters in Bret Easton Ellis’s latest novel Lunar Park, along with a profile for Roby, Jayne’s son, on MySpace.com. “It took off in an alarming way,” Miller said. “The response has been terrific.”
“Web publicity is one of the most cost- effective ways of marketing books,” said Fauzia Burke, President of FSB Associates, an on-line marketer. “Our clients are thrilled to see that blogs and podcasts are now part of every publicity campaign.”
Fleming says S&S uses a variety of techniques and media: blogs, print ads, e-mail blasts, websites. “It’s hard to pinpoint one tool that we focus on more, or that is more important,” she said. “When we do it well, we’re marketing across all mediums, all working in tandem with one another, hitting the consumer from all possible angles…so that it’s impossible to ignore us.”
Just Bzzness As Usual
Perhaps the best known purveyor of word-of-mouth marketing is Bzz Agent, the agency founded by Dave Balter in 2001 that offers an array of services, all of which focus around spreading word-of-mouth (WOM) for their clients’ products. Rather than market to consumers, the genius of BzzAgent is that it facilitates conversations among consumers. “Fourteen percent of all conversations include something about a product or a service,” CEO Balter said. “We’re just harnessing an honest, naturally occurring medium.”
In the past four years, BzzAgent has come to include over 100,000 agents — all volunteers who have come to the company organically. Without ever placing a single advertisement, according to Balter, 1,000-2,000 new agents sign up each week (although a profile in the New York Times Magazine last year didn’t hurt). The process to set up an agent profile is simple, but before Bzz Agents can become involved in full scale Bzz campaigns, they are asked to build up a base number of points by filling out various quizzes focused on a variety of products from chewing gum to alcohol to books. The quizzes not only help BzzAgent to profile your likes and dislikes allowing them to forward you products that you are likely to use and enjoy, but your answers also help provide general market research. After going through the preliminary quizzes, Bzz Agents are offered the chance to participate in Bzz campaigns where they become educated about the product by sampling it ahead of time, using PDF info sheets and fast facts as guidance and selling points. The agents then buzz it to their friends, coworkers, family members, and anyone else who will listen. They finish by writing in-depth testimonials (which the client later has access to) about what their own product experience was, and the points that they tended to highlight when “buzzing” it.
In the end, the BIRDI results — Bzz Agent’s back end system that reviews and organizes the research results — are made available to the clients, in addition to the testimonials, allowing clients the opportunity to collect market research while marketing.
“That’s the great thing about BzzAgent, you can throw it over the wall and let them handle it,” McCarthy, who worked extensively with BzzAgent at Penguin, said. “To do the work that BzzAgent does internally would take months of preparation and research, and if it failed, you would’ve lost a lot. But paying BzzAgent one flat fee to give it a shot is market research while marketing, which is great.”
Since its first job ever (a campaign for Penguin), BzzAgent has worked on more than 40 books in total. According to Balter, they receive 3-5 inbound requests from publishers a week, with about 8-10 publishing campaigns, including a campaign for Lee Eisenberg‘s The Number (Free Press), and one for Subir Chowdhury’s The Ice Cream Maker (Doubleday), currently active.
“Publishers need to change marketing to fit with how consumers are talking,” Balter said. “The biggest thing that publishers need to learn is transparency. Right now they are concerned, for example, about who gets a galley, and who doesn’t — but the thing is that handing out samples for free is only fueling future purchases. Publishers are focused on a particular title, and fail to see the process and benefits as long term.
“Penguin is a great example,” Balter continued. “It’s still a very integrated process, and traditional media does still play a role, but the significant change that is occurring is the way they listen to consumers.”
Jesse Kornbluth, Head Editor and Founder of HeadButler.com — a suggestion and review site founded on the proposition that “there’s so much New Stuff you need help finding the Good Stuff” — warned however that viral marketing isn’t a cure-all. “Viral marketing is about enthusiasm, not about cynical calculation. If the book isn’t in and of itself mesmerizing, it’s not going to work,” he said. “You can’t viral boredom.”
Not Just the Pre-Game Show, but the Game Show, the Post-Game Show, and Next Season’s Coverage As Well
What’s next in the marketing world for publishers? According to some, a beta phase for books — sending a potential customer a sample of the product before it’s finished — could get big. The idea, similar to BzzAgent, is that by pre-releasing a product in development, customers not only provide feedback for improvement but generate buzz as well.
Since 2002, Carol Fitzgerald has been offering ARCs to readers of her Bookreporter.com. “We feel readers are huge, but oft overlooked, influencers,” she said. “These features offer us the opportunity to ‘tee-up’ a book and get early buzz going on it.”
In terms of the current marketing exodus from print to ether, one of the biggest benefits to marketing online is that not only is information passed along instantaneously, it remains there indefinitely. As Fitzgerald emphasized during a panel on readership, readers don’t usually find out about a book within days of its release, they may come across it 6 months or even years later — by Googling the author’s name after reading something else that they have written, or by hearing about it from a friend who read the book months before. With the internet, everything about that author and title will come up, whenever the reader calls upon the information — podcasts, videos, websites, interviews — but not the original print ads.
Chris Anderson calls this phenomenon “The Long Tail” (the seminal article first published by Wired is due out as a book in May 2006). The backlist, the B-sides, the independent films that flew under the radar before, are now not only easier to find (an Amazon recommendation might draw your attention to a book that barely made a blip 5 years ago, but that is completely relevant to your taste now) but more readily available because of digital files. Thus the future of bookselling lies in cost-effectively capturing the innumerable niche markets, rather than relying on one or two mega bestsellers.
“Beyond the targeted marketing to bloggers, and the podcasting, we’re also just trying to change our internal thinking about the online world,” said Jeff Gomez, Director of Internet Marketing at Holtzbrinck. “In the end, it’s all about getting the attention of a consumer, so that they know there’s a book that we’ve published that we know they’re going to want to read.”