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Some people know me as OrangeBlossomer because that's me on Twitter. This blog is a random collection of daily musings about life and stuff I love, such as journalism, dog (sadly my dog died in 2010 so probably no more), women, love and lack of love, boobs (only seldom but it does get me extra online traffic), taichi (I practise) and spirituality (should practise more). I have a day job as a jetsetting publishing foreign rights manager but I am also an NCTJ-qualified journalist and a writer/columnist at heart. Writing is my opium.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

News:Rewired -- valuable digital lessons for the book trade

Since its launch in January this year, I have been a 'serial' delegate at the News Rewired events (hashtag #newsrw  on Twitter) aimed at online journalists and anyone working in the digital field. Last December I went to event no.3, which was about building a brand and digital products to support and share content.

A link-by-link coverage can be found here, including reactions from delegates, and video footage of all sessions taken by the BBC College of Journalism are now available on YouTube.

To avoid repeating what dozens of other delegates have already blogged about in the journalism context, I will focus this post on what I learned at News:Rewired form the point of view of a publishing professional.

Doherty and C Words
Anthony Thornton , group digital editor at IPC Meda, talked about building a community, although 'building' sounds like a misnomer, since he says communities do not need to be built – they are out there already on the Internet, or they are people who just need to be connected and gathered into a community.

And how?

According to Thornton, there are four Cs to be followed:
  • Connection - go out and link out to people
  • Conversation - engage in a conversation, don't just host a forum
  • Consultation - ask what people are thinking about something
  • Collaboration - get people to help you with what you have built
He illustrated with his own success story of how his 2006 book on Pete Doherty's band, The Libertines Bound Together (Little Brown), ended up in eigth place in the coveted Sunday Times' Top 10 bestsellers' list, despite his publisher's naught marketing spend.

Thornton set up a page to promote the book on MySpace [today it would probably have been on Facebook] (Connection), ran tailored competitions for the band's fans, formed and interacted with a community of 1700 followers (Conversation).

He then persuaded his editor to allow readers to decide the book's cover design (Consultation); even the book's appendix was fact-checked by a number of key fans and 'influencers', who having been involved themselves, recommended it to others (Collaboration).

Going native
Thornton's success could have been partly down to the fact that The Libertines' fans already had a strong active online presence; even so I was delighted to hear how a little creativity on a non-existent budget went such a a long way in boosting the sales of a book.

As a digital enthusiast, I am surprised we do not hear more stories like this on a daily basis. After all...

(Image borrowed from James Lowery's presentation at News:Rewired on search optimisation for B2B and specialist media.)

Whether they have even heard of e-books or not, there is no denying consumers are spending more and more time online and not only through computers. In the age of Internet and information overload, attention spans are known to be shorter, reading habits hugely fragmented. But even those who don't have time to read books or newspapers, do find time to surf the Net on the go on their smartphones and iPads.

In order to get the attention of those time-poor but digitally savvy readers, and retain their custom, publishers should be learning to speak a language they can relate to, foreign as it may seem.

Forget discussions on iPad apps versus e-readers, debates about Google, Amazon and the agency model. They make great topics for forums and conferences for publishing types, but the average reader is hardly likely to be interested in what pricing issues are making book people hot under the collar. What readers seek, what all consumers seek, is added value for money – not only BOGOFs.

Social media sells brands
A valuable message I keep hearing at News:Rewired was that whatever the product, online exposure do help sell, and with minimum to naught PR cost involved.

A recent article in The Economist about public relations explained that, as mainstream media start to play less of a central role as the traditional gatekeepers of news, the value of their advertising slots also decrease for the PR man.

It is interesting that Nike, which, like Apple, is known as a brand so strong that it came to represent a certain type of lifestyle, uses both paid ads in mainstream media as well as Facebook, where, when I last looked, 3.5 million people had "liked" its page.

Anne Gregory, professor of public relations at Leeds Metropolitan University, however, explains that few PR firms run social-media-only campaigns. She told the Economist:

"All that is happening is that social-media elements are being added to traditional marketing plans."
So, a bit of the old, a bit of the new.

Nothing prevents publishers from taking a leaf out of Nike's book and maximising returns through free PR on social media outlets, building and managing an online community of 'likers' and 'followers'. There is of course the good old blogosphere, micro-blogging sites such as Twitter, plus a myriad of other social networking sites, but every publisher also has a website that serves as a portal to its products.

The questions that remain are: is that portal open wide enough and how many visitors are actually coming back?

Retention vs. acquisition
There are far worse things than paywalls to stop people from wanting to access what you have to show them, and that is a site which is closed to the outside world, a site that does not engage, invite participation or acknowledge users as a member of the community.

Joanna Geary, keynote speaker at News:Rewired, was inspirational in confirming the old sales motto that "the customer is king". Geary is communities editor at The Times, which is currently under a paid-for subscription model. From her days as a business journalist at The Birmingham Post, she was uncomfortable with the fact that an article's only measure of success was whether your editor was pleased with it. There was something missing: the reader.

Her new business strategy at The Times was based on engaging and building 'relationships' with the reader, something journalists are not accustomed to. Amassing numbers of what she calls 'eyeballs', or unique visitors to the site, for the sake of the advertisers, is less important than identifying and retaining those repeat customers/readers with a tribal sense of loyalty, she says.

The Times Online may have gone behind a paywall but Geary says there is now stronger loyalty among their regular readers, who keep traffic to the site stable. They feel they own and belong to the site they have to paid to get into, so they keep coming back. The site has become a place where community members meet to have grown-up conversations with each other. That makes sense.

You can see the video footage of Jo Geary' talk below, courtesy of the BBC College of Journalism.

Enhanced interacti..on
If building and servicing your community can keep readers loyal to a newspaper, why should it not be equally effective in the publishing industry? Imagine a book club type of space, where fans of an author could feed back impressions, write their own reviews, exchange recommendations on what to read next.

What if every book you bought came with a unique code that allowed you entry into such literary chat rooms? Similar fan sites may already exist for certain authors or product lines, but what about transforming entire pages within publishers' websites into community pages, where a staff member(s) in a sales/marketing+creative/editorial combination role could regularly talk with, not 'at', its public? Would it not make commissioning jobs easier, sell more books, create more buzz, keep readers feeling they are part of the tribe, and ultimately, loyal to the publisher's brand?

The really good news for cash-strapped publishing houses is that none of these possibilities require more than a good web developer and a personable community manager.

  • Passive content creation and static, one-way PR are a thing of the past. Publishers of content, be it facts or fiction, ought to take heed and start re-evaluating their roles. Why shouldn't curated information be part of the creative process? 
  • While UK publishers are obsessing about the future of digital books en masse, not enough are actively seeking to understand the 'lingo' the future consumers of digital products speak. What better way of doing that than reaching out for your own niche community in the online world?
  • It is not what you sell but 'how' you sell it that will give you an edge in the future.
The News Rewired event may have been about digital tools and processes, but, as Neil Perkin, founder of digital and media consultancy Only Dead Fish, wisely said, we should not forget that ultimately...
 "It's not about the technology; it's about the people." 
A good place to start.

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