How to make friends and influence readers

Last month, strategy looked at what the big banks - which have lots of marketing dough but little 'story' - are doing in the social media space. In part two of this Media series, we're reviewing the strategies and tactics deployed by publishing companies. With less dough to work with but lots of story to share, they've found interesting ways to join the conversation.

Last month, strategy looked at what the big banks – which have lots of marketing dough but little ‘story’ – are doing in the social media space. In part two of this Media series, we’re reviewing the strategies and tactics deployed by publishing companies. With less dough to work with but lots of story to share, they’ve found interesting ways to join the conversation.

Anybody who’s picked up a book on how to get published knows that landing the book deal is only the first hurdle. The biggest challenge is generating attention for the new title. When you’re a publisher pumping out hundreds of books per year (or just 10), each one’s only getting a sliver of the marketing pie.

The solution? Web 2.0. MySpace isn’t just a pixel-based stomping ground for tomorrow’s bands – it’s a place where authors and publishers communicate with readers. Facebook isn’t just a place for posting meaningless drivel on your friends’ walls – it’s a platform that lets you keep in touch with book clubs via electronic groups and discussion boards.

Every book is targeting a fragment, so the social media space – where you can reach the sci-fi/fantasy crowd with a supernaturally compelling ROI – is a welcome plot twist.

Random House of Canada has been promoting its authors via social media for more than a year now. A strategy that began with microsites promoting individual books has quickly grown into a world of book-loving communities, social networking tactics and podcast-like short-form video content.

Of course, audio books on iPods and other mobile devices are a no-brainer when it comes to successful distribution of content. Those people on the subway sporting white earbuds might not be listening to the top 40 dance or R&B tracks. That late-20s guy in the suit could be listening to Douglas Coupland’s The Gum Thief. Maybe he bought it after a friend sent him a link to the viral clip, narrated by Coupland himself and found on YouTube.

Random House’s BookLounge channel on YouTube was created over a year ago, and its content has attracted thousands of viewers. Heading into the holiday season, the channel hosted over 40 videos, including author interviews with John Irving, Alice Munro, Bill Bryson and John Grisham. An interview with Margaret Atwood got 3,858 views in one year; John Grisham snared 4,008 in 11 months; and the video for Random House’s The Complete Trailer Park Boys book reeled in a whopping 23,474 viewers in eight months. The channel also drives people to the BookLounge.ca community, where more video content is available.

The September release of Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine had Random House driving online users to the book’s accompanying video. In three months, the clip recorded over 375,252 views and 796 comments, and was chosen as a favourite 2,041 times. That’s not counting the inevitable reposts that happen on YouTube, which racked up anywhere from 18,000 to 35,000 views over the same period. When Rick Mercer Report: The Book launched this fall, it made sense for him to plug it on MySpaceTV – and in two months it racked up 7,290 plays (his channel’s total plays is 52,938). For Coupland’s The Gum Thief, Random House launched a series of dramatic shorts at the end of September, created by Crush Toronto. By mid-December, one of the series’ nine clips had racked up 219,987 views.

‘YouTube views are only one way to measure it,’ says Lisa Charters, Random House of Canada VP director online sales and marketing. ‘The other is the amount of blog pick-up. I’m probably getting Google blog alerts to the tune of 100 a day worldwide. The amount of blog pick-up is a very good indication that people, as opposed to media outlets, are actually watching and listening and caring.’

RandomHouse.ca racked up 110,000 unique visitors in the month of October, and Charters says 60 to 70% of the site’s traffic comes from Google searches. Part of the success of Random House’s podcasts, blogs, video and discussions is due to changes Toronto-based Delvinia Interactive helped integrate into RandomHouse.ca and its corresponding niche sites BookLounge.ca, MysteryBooks.ca and BookClubs.ca. That was less than a year ago, when YouTube was already huge but Facebook hadn’t yet exploded, as it did in the latter half of 2007.

In the spring, Charters took notice of the social utility and began integrating it into many of the company’s existing digital initiatives and individual book launches to leverage word of mouth. Around that time, Delvinia helped Random House survey BookLounge.ca‘s online panel of users and found that more than 50% of Canadian readers over the age of 30 were visiting Facebook on a daily basis. It wasn’t long before Random House created Facebook groups for its niche sites and added a ‘Share on Facebook’ button to its book item pages, which lets users notify their Facebook friends about a favourite book.

Now, Random House is using Facebook as a way of engaging readers, giving them opportunities to participate in discussions with authors or interact with each other about everything from who should win the Giller Prize to the smaller details of, well, books. The publisher has also noted applications such as Books iRead, which lets 17,378 daily active users (as of November 5) share reading lists and ‘chuck books at friends.’

The Facebook group BookLounge.ca is about six months old and has more than 500 members. Random House promotes the group to general BookLounge.ca newsletter subscribers, and uses the Facebook group and the platform itself to promote contests and events. The original BookLounge.ca community hosted by Random House has grown to more than 8,000 members.

Random House has also conducted a number of campaigns using Facebook flyers – which, unlike banner ads, show up on the left hand side of the screen – to promote both books and events. For the release of Chuck Palahniuk’s novel Rant this year, Random House ran a flyer campaign that cost about $1,000. Charters says the overall reach of that flyer was 750,000 impressions for four event promos (Toronto, Quebec, Winnipeg and Victoria) over 20 days. In 570 clicks, the events sold out and, more importantly, Facebook users were made aware of the new book by an author with an enormous online fan base at ChuckPalahniuk.net and its associated community, The Cult.

‘One of the great things about Facebook is that when you use a flyer, you can target people by geographic areas or by networks,’ says Charters, adding that Random House held between 15 and 20 events this fall. ‘For marketers, Facebook is an incredibly useful place, but it’s also constantly changing, so it’s a moving target. In the past, we tended to try and build our own little one-off microsites. Rather than try to build traffic to microsites, it makes sense to go where the traffic already is, where the community is already talking. For something like a contest, collaboration can be facilitated so easily. The part that we do have to remember is that even though it’s an online initiative, offline is just as important.’

Then there’s Insight (pictured left), a widget and service by the Random House tech team that allows anyone to add material from thousands of titles to a blog, personal or retail website or social network profile with copy-and-paste functionality. The content comes from across Random House Canada and publishing divisions of Doubleday Canada, Knopf Canada, McClelland & Stewart and Tundra Books. In addition to print titles, over 2,700 new and backlist audio titles are available through Insight with the widget technology.

Random House also worked with McClelland & Stewart to launch Quest for the Ice Fox, an innovative eight-week social media campaign in mid-October promoting Helen Humphreys’ book The Frozen Thames, which consists of vignettes about events that happened when the Thames froze over. The object of the interactive mystery was to track down the exact longitude and latitude of the Ice Fox, using language, math and geography skills. The winner got a $2,000 travel voucher, and five runners-up each got $100 worth of books. Every week for eight weeks a clue – in the form of a puzzle – was delivered via the Facebook group, which drove the user to a Google Map.

The nature of Facebook encouraged users to approach the contest as a community, helping each other crack the codes and make progress. By December, the Facebook group had attracted over 160 members. The contest, executed by Hamilton, Ont.-based emerging media consultants W8NC, didn’t require a user to join the group in order to participate.

Of course, Random House isn’t the only publishing company to make friends in the cyberverse. Penguin Canada used its Penguin Canada Parties group to build buzz for the fall launch of Michael Winter’s novel The Architects are Here by having the author make weekly 300-word posts through the summer, billing it as the first ever Facebook novel serialization. Smaller publishers such as House of Anansi, Coach House Books, Insomniac Press, ECW Press and Brick Books have collected several hundred friends each.

By December, HarperCollinsCanada’s The Reading Group on Facebook had attracted 560 members. That group also drives users to the publisher’s MySpace Reading Group, which has 167 friends, and its blog, The Savvy Reader (savvyreader.typepad.com).

In promoting an event featuring Frank Warren, the creator of the popular community art blog PostSecret (and big-selling books of user-generated postcards that tell secrets), HarperCollinsCanada set up a Facebook group to promote the event. The group grew to 800 members and then split into another group of about 600. Using only Facebook to promote the Warren event in Toronto, the publisher drove users to a phone line and ultimately drew more than 1,000 people.

That was a first taste for HarperCollins Canada of the power of using social networking to build buzz for events and books at the same time – even though the publisher’s been working with social media tools for a while now.

It’s been about two years since HarperCollins Canada director of digital marketing and business development Steve Osgoode launched the publisher’s first podcast with Jay Ingram, host of Discovery Channel’s Daily Planet, to support his book Theatre of the Mind. He followed it up with a series of author interviews hosted by Cathi Bond, former host of CBC’s Definitely Not the Opera, which quickly shot onto the list of the top five iTunes arts and lit downloads, and is now going into its third Prosecast.com season.

Last spring, Osgoode partnered with social media expert Mitch Joel, president of Montreal’s Twist Image, to launch a business and personal development podcast called Foreword Thinking, which now has 264 friends on Facebook.

But while Facebook may be growing faster, MySpace is still bigger. ‘MySpace is actually a sister company of HarperCollins,’ says Osgoode. ‘We’re both owned by News Corp., so we’ve been doing things with MySpace for some time. We’ve been migrating our author sites over to MySpace, launching them as specific MySpace pages rather than building full microsites. A lot of the additional content we were creating for microsites was multimedia content, and MySpace had mechanisms to handle multimedia. It was a great substitute.

‘We still need to invest in the look and feel of these pages, but we’re tapping into that entire community, as well as aligning with other HarperCollins imprints, such as Harper Perennial, that have their own MySpace areas.’

Osgoode says HarperCollins is also working with The Reading Group and looking at what other similar groups are doing. ‘There’s an incredible level of engagement that we’re seeing from readers that want to talk about books,’ he says.

One of the models HarperCollinsCanada used when approaching Facebook came from an earlier program launched by the publisher more than two years ago – First Look, which lets readers sign up online and get their mitts on new books months in advance of their publishing dates. ‘We asked them to submit the reviews back to us, and we circulate them in-house and use them to build enthusiasm, but they also go online attached to the books,’ says Osgoode. ‘Explicitly, we’ve always asked them to submit the reviews to us. Implicitly, what we’ve always hoped, and what we have seen happen, is that consumers are then posting the reviews at the online retailers and on their own blogs and the reader community sites they go to themselves.

‘So it’s a remarkably easy program to administer and use to build word of mouth. And it’s worked for us to lay that down on the Facebook template.’

And video content is on the way, too. Osgoode says HarperCollinsCanada’s relationship with Book Television, which contributes to the multimedia content mix, has been great for ‘bolstering the sales process’ in terms of working with the publisher’s sales and publicity reps. The video clips that come out of that relationship can be pushed out through aggregators such as YouTube. ‘We’d certainly like to build on that as an established program and use it for video podcasting in the coming months,’ he says.

And then there’s the most virtual of virtual worlds – Second Life, a non-place that Harlequin Enterprises is getting to know better and better.

Harlequin held its first reading and live chat with an author in Second Life this fall. M.J. Rose’s avatar was virtually present at an Italian piazza (a location from her book The Reincarnationist) built for Harlequin by New Jersey-based Purple Stripe Productions.

In mid-September, Rose read in Second Life with live audio streaming for 15 minutes, followed by a 45-minute Q&A. The publisher made a sample chapter available in-world for one week before and three weeks after the event. Second Life residents could explore the piazza and a church (with crypt) to find clues about the title within the Second Life environment. Books weren’t for sale in-world, but the event site allowed users to buy them in print, eBook or audio form.

Harlequin is now working on a second in-world reading, scheduled for this month, that will showcase author Deanna Raybourn’s Silent in the Sanctuary – a mystery set in Victorian times and following up on her debut, Silent in the Grave. This time there will be more things to do, as Harlequin aims for a higher level of engagement with readers.

The publisher will hold a Victorian costume contest, and users will be able to show up a week or so beforehand to get advice on their avatar’s costumes. The fashion competition will follow the author’s reading and Q&A, and gives the publisher a chance to integrate prizing and other incentives.

‘For us, it’s like combining a bit of everything that works with the actual author engagement,’ says Malle Vallik, Harlequin’s director of digital content and interactivity.Vallik says the goal this time around is to open up the window of opportunity for engagement and make it less appointment-based. ‘Our readers like to connect with our authors, and Second Life really takes the whole transportation issue out of the equation,’ she says. ‘You can be anywhere in the world and actually attend the event. Web 2.0 and social media are really important ways for us to connect with our audience, so we can talk to them and they can talk to us. That’s always been a really big part of our brand.’

Promoting new initiatives like Second Life events is a lot easier now that Harlequin has built a presence in the blogosphere and its own community at Community.eHarlequin.com – which Vallik says averages about 750,000 page views per month.

With traffic like that, it’s no surprise that various book challenges are taking off in a big way. At the outset of 2007, the publisher introduced the community to the 10,000 Book Challenge. The goal was to get 100 members to read at least 100 books each by the end of the year, working in teams. Vallik says that goal was reached in March, and the 2008 challenge will up the figure to 100,000 books.

‘We’re building a new community platform that helps readers put up personal profiles and engage more, and one of the big things will be the 100,000 Book Challenge – which will ask our readers to blog about every book that they read,’ Vallik says. ‘And then we’ll contribute 100,000 books to some literacy charity.’

In addition to those hosted in eHarlequin’s community section, the publisher has also found major success with outside blogs like the new ParanormalRomanceBlog.wordpress.com and IHeartPresents.com, which debuted last February to support the worldwide best-selling romance series (set to grow from eight titles per month to 12 starting in January). The blog gives users a chance to connect with each other and maybe even try their hand at writing for the Instant Seduction writing contest. That’s right: Harlequin is also using the blog to look for new writers.

‘It’s a growing endeavour,’ says Vallik. ‘We have a solid core of people who visit all the time. Since launch, it’s grown by about 600%. One of the key measurements for us is the comments. We average about 12 comments per post, and from what I hear in the industry, three or four is pretty good.’

Rounding out the Web 2.0 mix, Harlequin also launched the twice-monthly Harlequin Author Spotlight podcast in August, with a second (Meet the Editors) in production for 2008 and being promoted across iTunes and Harlequin’s own web properties. Vallik says she’s watching competitors’ experiments on Facebook while developing Harlequin’s Spice Briefs brand (a digital-only product) on MySpace, which has attracted about 878 friends. Another eight to 10 MySpace projects are in development to support other Harlequin brands.

‘We’ve actually hired a curator to help us work in that area by reaching out to friends on MySpace,’ says Vallik. ‘Everything that we understand about MySpace indicates that people are comfortable being friends with a brand as long as you give them some benefits, such as a coupon, which we did in December. The key to social media for us, I think, is to be genuine about who we are and offer something that people will be interested in. Make them want to spend time with you.’

Shortly after Harlequin Enterprises made its complete front-list catalogue (over 140 titles) available in the eBook format this fall, the company got into the user-generated content game with the launch of HarlequinRomanceReport.com – a digital extension of its annual publication that surveys women about, well, romance. The site solicits anonymous confessions, and some of the 458 posts collected by December got pretty naughty.

‘This is why we’re in the digital space: to understand what the next thing that women want will be, and how to communicate with them,’ says Vallik. ‘Our typical woman is about 46 years old. She’s not incredibly advanced with technology, but she’s using it a lot more than she realizes. She’s on her computer, on MySpace, and has kids who show her how to use the iPod and how to download things.’

There are a lot of Fun Wall owners out there looking for content, providing publishers with a thrifty canvas to help consumers judge a book – or a brand – by much more than its cover. And make friends with benefits.