Adaptation: Random House’s Lisa Charters

While the phrase 'adapt or die' has now become a cliché, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better term to describe how Lisa Charters operates. From launching one of the Canadian publishing industry's first websites in 1994 to launching multiple targeted sites for Random House of Canada this past year, Charters, VP, director, online sales and marketing, is quick to react to rapidly changing technology to avoid being rendered irrelevant.

While the phrase ‘adapt or die’ has now become a cliché, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better term to describe how Lisa Charters operates. From launching one of the Canadian publishing industry’s first websites in 1994 to launching multiple targeted sites for Random House of Canada this past year, Charters, VP, director, online sales and marketing, is quick to react to rapidly changing technology to avoid being rendered irrelevant.

‘She is a visionary within a very staid industry – what she’s doing in book publishing is so forward-thinking,’ notes Adam Froman, president of Toronto-based Delvinia, Random’s interactive agency. ‘There’s a lot of handholding we have to do with other clients. Lisa doesn’t need that. She’s very knowledgeable, so you can’t really snow her over with the dazzle.’

Froman points to the fall launch of content-rich consumer-facing websites that each cater to different targets – avid readers, mystery fans, book club members – as especially noteworthy because it recognizes that a one-size-fits-all approach just doesn’t cut it anymore. ‘We’ve created different websites for different targets,’ explains Charters, ‘instead of trying to crowd all those readers into one.’

The new sites, as well as the redesigned main sites randomhouse.ca and mcclelland.com, have all been optimized to accommodate content like podcasts, blogs, video and discussion forums. The site for avid readers, booklounge.ca, gives users a sneak peek at upcoming books, as well as author posts about the writing process and weekly author interview podcasts. ‘We wanted to give these avid readers – the word-of-mouth agents – access to books that aren’t published yet,’ explains Charters. She has also set up a BookLounge channel on YouTube to broadcast video interviews.

To add to the exclusive feel of booklounge.ca, Charters opted to make the site registration-based – an idea she took from another category, music. ‘She had a really clear vision of the experience she wanted readers to have online – she looked to other media groups to see what they were doing,’ says Froman. Charters noticed that many artists, like U2 and Sting, offer site membership benefits, and she found the concept appealing. ‘I realized that there was value behind that wall,’ she says. Such value-adds include geo-targeted invites to ‘exclusive’ book-related events, and access to videos of author interviews. ‘So far, the opt-in rate has been high,’ says Charters. ‘[The U.S. office] is watching closely. Ours is the first website that is membership registration driven.’

Brad Martin, president/COO at Random House of Canada, credits Charters with getting everyone internally revved up about the ambitious site launches. ‘I’m excited about it, and that’s probably because Lisa got me excited about it,’ he says. ‘Lisa is a great communicator and is passionate about what she does.’ Charters was Random House Canada’s first employee dedicated to online marketing when she began there in 1999; she now has a team of six.

Froman recalls being struck by Charters’ passion for technology and publishing when he first met her 12 years ago, when she was working for the Book Publishers Council. He says that even then, she was recognized as the go-to person for information about how book publishers could tap into new media. Her technology skills are largely self-taught and driven by her inquisitive nature. In the mid-’90s, she taught hands-on ‘Introduction to the Internet’ night courses applicable to the book publishing industry. In 1994, Charters launched a website for the Council, back when websites were still a novelty rather than a necessity. She felt compelled to launch the site to respond to the mid-’90s launch of amazon.com, which she felt brought books to the forefront as a product that people wanted to buy online.

And much like Amazon changed the way people shop for books, Google has changed the way they look for them. ‘Google has given us advantages that I hadn’t anticipated – we have 40,000 unique books in our database. Google searchers find those,’ explains Charters, adding that the rapid adoption of search engines has dramatically affected how her sites need to be designed. ‘With Google, users are coming through the side door – a lot of marketers focus on the front door.’ To address this, Charters has clear Random House branding on each Author Spotlight page – now the most common user entry point – as well as links to contests and rich media content to lure users further into the site.

Charters is also focusing on piggybacking on mass audience sites. One such partner is macleans.ca, which provides space for Random House authors to blog. She also regularly partners with the Globe and Mail, Chatelaine, Flare and Canadian Living sites. And to draw more members to her own site, she recently tested an e-blast with MochaSofa with messaging inviting users to be booklounge.ca members, and participate in their online focus group, the ‘Editorial Board,’ and in less than 24 hours of being sent out, it had

out-performed expectations.

Charters plans to focus more on building tools to communicate with the young adult demographic in 2007. Right now, all of Random House’s YA online efforts are targeted at parents. Talking to the kids directly will be a formidable challenge, with rapidly changing technology and fickle youth attention spans. ‘We’re looking at vehicles like Second Life and YouTube,’ says Charters, adding that engaging the younger demographic will require a different mind-set altogether. ‘The great thing about the Internet is there are endless possibilities. The biggest challenge about the Internet is that there are endless possibilities.’

FIVE QUESTIONS

Favourite book

Ask anyone who I have crossed paths with in the last year…. I’m relentless on recommending The Kite Runner to everyone I meet. It’s a story which spans decades – based in Afghanistan before and after the Taliban and then in the U.S. in recent years. With the main characters being men it also appeals to a

male audience.

Favourite current TV show

Weeds. It’s quirky, funny and often far too realistic.

Favourite website

BestBuy.ca – dreamland where I’m always looking for my next gadget.

Favourite vacation spot

Pointe au Baril, Georgian Bay – on an island, few cottages in sight, nowhere to go, only shopping is at the Marina where Wonder Bread and milk can

be bought.

Most useful business book

Seth Godin’s first book, Permission Marketing was way ahead of its time and remains relevant.