A New Metaphor for Better Marketing

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July 2015
by Joseph Esposito

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To be a good marketer in the current environment is not easy, in part because the number of options is so vast that no one can take advantage of them all, and in part because some of the new venues are hard to understand and integrate into an overall marketing plan.

One reason for that may be that the words online and cyberspace no longer seem entirely obvious. We know what it means to go online, but are you still “online” when you read a book on a Kindle reader? Is an iPhone app “online” or something else? And as for “cyberspace,” where exactly is that when you load an Android app or read a collection of PDFs on an iPad?

It’s probably worth noting that the novel where the term cyberspace first appeared, William Gibson’s Neuromancer, was published in 1984. To put that into perspective, the commercial World Wide Web was still a decade away; Google and Facebook did not yet exist; and the launch of the iPhone would have to wait 23 years.

It does not seem a stretch to say that book marketing, indeed all marketing, has to keep up with the times. But to be more effective marketers, we need a new paradigm, a new metaphor.

Up until this point, from William Gibson to date, we have been using geographical metaphors (think about the implications of “cyberspace”) to define how we interact with digital media. The geographical metaphor dominates: We “go” to a website—and it is a “site,” a place located in metaphoric space. Whether we do this on foot (metaphorically and virtually) or by car or by spaceship is not the important aspect; what is important is that we travel, we are seekers. Relevant information is somewhere “out there” if only we can find it.

But social media changes that. The metaphor for social media is the stream: We stand in the middle of it and it flows by. In effect, we are stationary, but the world around us is moving. We are the constant point of reference. This is true whether you use Mendeley or Facebook or are simply sorting through the flood of e-mail that comes from joining a virtual community.

Stream Strategies

We all complain about being inundated by the flood; we are standing in the middle of the river and the water rushes by. We have moved from cyberspace to the stream. The question for publishers is not only how to get people to come to your site (valuable though that still may be) but how to place commercial and monetizable messages into the stream so that users, who are positioned as the point of reference for their personal flows, can be persuaded to make a purchase or to take some action that can lead to a purchase.

Some publishers have taken social media marketing as far as it can go without switching completely to the “stream” metaphor. A while ago, I saw an excellent presentation by someone responsible for social media marketing at a large not-for-profit STM publisher. This scientific publisher had devoted money to social media, had hired an expert, and now had a network of venues, all of which were designed to lead participants back to its publications.

The activity was grounded in analytics (how many users are active on each venue, how often do they click on links, and so on). It was, overall, one of the most striking presentations on social media for STM publishers that I have yet seen.

Without faulting that program, however, it is worth noting two inherent limitations to it.

The first is that it requires a user to leave the social media platform to return to old-fashioned cyberspace in order to interact with the publisher’s primary content—or to make a purchase. In other words, the user is asked to switch metaphors, from the stream to cyberspace. This is probably the best that can be expected with most current platforms, but it is an inelegant and inefficient way to keep users fully engaged.

If the user has to leave the publisher’s Pinterest display (of insects or descriptions of molecules or illustrations of concepts in physics) to get to the underlying research content, which is found in books that appear on a website, what gets the user back to the publisher’s program on Pinterest?

Addressing this issue, the San Francisco start-up company Aerbook has come up with a virtual bookstore that sits within the stream, enabling what it calls “native commerce,” the ability to display and monetize content from within a social media platform without leaving that platform. Click on a link and you can learn more about a book, read an excerpt, or make a purchase, without leaving Aerbook or the social media platform that is wrapped around it.

If someone shares the link, the social media metadata goes with it, essentially making all your online friends and followers into the hosts of a book kiosk right in their own streams of content, visible in turn to their friends and followers.

Aerbook may be the first company to enable this kind of commerce for publishers, but it will not be the last. Other companies will develop this deeper level of integration of content, commerce, and social media, all of which point to the implications of the switch of metaphors. Now all that useless and noisy buzz of social media, which can sometimes seem like an adolescent timewaster, can be brought within the marketing purview of a publisher. Shrewd publishers will be moving into this area, the better to enhance discovery, usage, and purchase.

Social Media Math

I said that there were two inherent limitations to the presentation I witnessed, and the other one is that a publisher has to get people to participate in its social media activity in the first place.

Why would anyone “friend” you on Facebook if all you do is send out advertisements?

Users and customers have to be brought along slowly, and that requires creating an environment where the engagement is with the publisher’s stream first and foremost. The embedded links come later and can be used only sparingly or they will alienate the user.

This means that publishers operating in social media have to create a second category of content, using content marketing such as newsfeeds in a particular topic area to attract friends and followers. There is a cost to this, and it must be conducted with a high level of editorial intelligence.

The cost may be prohibitive for a press that publishes a list of discrete books, for which the marketing synergy is small, but “niche” (aka “vertical”) publishers may be able to draw up and implement business plans for social media marketing. Social media then goes from being a trendy expense with uncertain significance to a central and quantifiable part of a company’s business activity. That is a big step.

This is what gets in the way of the adoption of new technology: not a lack of curiosity or an unwillingness to make investments but the need for a clear business case. A presence on Instagram is just an expense, but when it is paired with a strategy for monetization, it becomes an investment with a forecast payoff. Marketing in the stream will become a bigger and bigger part of publishers’ direct-to-consumer activity as the return on investment becomes quantifiable.

An Advantage Over Amazon?

A common objection to D2C programs stems from the belief that most users will prefer to purchase books from Amazon rather than directly from a publisher. If publishers adopt a strategy to challenge Amazon head-to-head, failure is probable. We should never forget that Amazon is very, very good at what it does.

But one way to think of this is that Amazon is the king of the geographical—cyberspace—metaphor: it is a site that you go to. With contextual marketing, Amazon’s obvious advantages are not quite as sharply defined, since publishers can develop and control contexts where they are the obvious supplier for a book—as, for example, when a book is recommended by a friend on Facebook, with a convenient link for ordering attached to the recommendation.


About the Author:

Joseph J. Esposito is president of Processed Media, an independent management consultancy providing strategic advice, operating analysis, and interim management in the area of digital media to publishing and software companies in the for-profit and not-for-profit sectors. He writes extensively on digital media. This article is derived from Direct-to-Consumer Marketing to Augment the Distribution of University Press Books, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

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