Marketing Whatever You Have to Market: Promotion Opportunities and Issues, Part 1

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July 2015
by Linda Carlson

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Product, price, place (sales channels), and promotion are the “four Ps” that business school professors introduced as the “marketing mix” almost a century ago; they provide a means of structuring the way we think about developing products, announcing a product or service to appropriate prospects, and making a sale.

How the first three Ps apply in book publishing today is covered in Independent articles focusing on product (March 2015), price (April 2015), and place (June 2015), all available at ibpa-online.org/resources/independent-articles.

What follows is the first of two articles tackling “promotion,” which is probably the most misunderstood of the four. As you’ll see, it covers crowdfunding as a promotional tool, and it deals with the importance of in-house databases and social media followers. The next and final installment of this series will focus on public relations, media relations, bookseller relations (including in-store displays and contests), author appearances, giveaways, exhibits, and other direct-sales efforts.

All About Information

Say “book promotion” and most people think of the press releases and review copies that are designed to generate feature stories, author interviews, and reviews. Or they think of catalogs, websites, author appearances, social media, and advertising. What many people in business—any business—overlook is that a more accurate term for this fourth “p” is “information.” (Admittedly, “three Ps and an I” isn’t as catchy as “four Ps.”)

This is the category of marketing that is responsible for communicating about the product in every way. Many businesses rely primarily on salespeople, whether commissioned reps, outside reps the company hires, or in-house staff members who do outbound calling and handle orders and requests for information and catalogs.

The term “promotion” in this context also pertains to racks, dump bins, posters, and other in-store displays; book festival and conference exhibits, event sponsorship, and special events; database acquisition and maintenance; and marketing research including customer satisfaction studies. And, yes, it includes every aspect of media relations, public relations, and advertising, whether print, broadcast, direct mail, outdoor, electronic, or word-of-mouth.

No publisher is likely to take advantage of all the possibilities. Book promotion budgets have never been that generous, and today, with hundreds of thousands of titles published each year, publishers have to deploy their dollars as well as their time more effectively than ever before to create awareness of titles and authors in our cluttered marketplace.

That’s only part of the challenge for book marketers, who also have to keep up with an increasing number of ways to get book information to prospects. And because so many new promotional options require technical skills, publishers often must decide whether to tackle promotions in-house or outsource them.

This review of promotional strategies and techniques focuses on what indie publishers have done very recently, and on whether they recommend doing what they’ve done. I encourage you to check other approaches and findings in the Independent articles available at ibpa-online.org (see “For More Information and Advice” below for some specifics).

I also encourage you to use every marketing communications experience you have each day—in both your personal life and your professional life—as inspiration for book promotion. Observe what appeals to you in the ads you see, the websites you visit, and the salespeople who help you, and then determine how what you observed is—or could be—used in your own marketing.

Unpleasant or frustrating experiences can be valuable, too; for example, they might prompt you to assess the courtesy of your telephone staff or the accuracy of your website.

Hiring Outside Help

If you decide to consider buying marketing communications services, take the advice of dozens of indie publishers who commented for this story: Evaluate vendors and their offers carefully. Many vendors talk about “likes” or “rankings” rather than profitable sales. (“Build your brand and the sales will eventually follow,” is a common sales pitch from those selling services whose results cannot be quantified in dollars.)

And note that promotions that use sharply discounted prices to inflate “likes” or “rankings” can be effectively created in-house, according to several well-established publishers, even when the house has no staff or just a student intern.

Another warning: Many vendors talk in terms of the materials they create rather than the sales that can be expected to result. For example, publicity services commonly describe how many press releases will be disseminated without specifying whether editors will be contacted by name, and without documenting how many releases typically result in media publicity, not to mention whether clients report that the publicity led to sales.

As you may have noticed, press releases don’t usually lead to media coverage unless they go to tightly targeted media, and even then coverage is iffy, and the coverage you get may not spur sales.

Types One and Two

The long list of activities subsumed under “promotion” is divisible into two broad categories.

The first category covers promotions designed to build awareness or create visibility, which in our business would be awareness of or visibility for a book, an author, or a publisher. Often referred to as institutional advertising, such promotions do not include an explicit sales message.

Examples in publishing are hosting a booksellers’ convention coffee break and sponsoring a local literacy event. Outside publishing, the most common examples of institutional advertising are spots on public radio and television stations.

You’re almost guaranteed to drive more sales with the second kind of promotion, known as direct response, which means any message with a “call to action.” Examples in this category include the catalog or postcard offering a holiday discount, the conference booth where educators can get a free teacher guide with every purchase of a children’s book, and the Twitter post advertising scuffed copies for a dollar each.

Direct response communications include contact information, and often promote a single title, or a group of titles (think gluten-free cookbooks, SAT prep guides, board books, earlier editions). They also usually include prices, and sometimes a price incentive.

Direct response promotion is often confused with direct mail since a direct mail piece almost always includes a direct response message, but every other kind of marketing communication also can also include a direct response message (that “call to action”).

Evaluating Effects

Several independent publishers recently shared experiences with promotions they tried in the past few months, along with assessments of how successful the promotions were.

Some of those publishers used crowdfunding. If you’re considering Kickstarter, Indiegogo, or Pubslush to finance and also promote your book, Matt N. Tabrizi of Dream Books has two pieces of advice for you. A consultant based in the Washington, DC, area, Tabrizi met his target for funding the spring 2015 title Yield for Oncoming Greatness.

Facebook Photo“Build your traffic on Facebook, LinkedIn, and your own website ahead of time,” is his first piece of advice. “My experience with Kickstarter was nothing close to what I had hoped for,” he explains. “My campaign got funded by close friends and colleagues without a single buyer coming as the result of other traffic. In fact, by the end of the first day, my book could only be found under the publishing category. By the second day, my book was listed pages and pages after other projects. The lesson here: Kickstarter rewards those who already have a following by boosting their traffic.”

Tabrizi’s second point: “Campaigns are short, so there is no time for trial and error.” When he realized that Kickstarter would not drive new prospects to his project, he bought ads on Facebook.

“This was a much better use of my funding than buying through the outside vendor that pitched me,” he reports. “However, it is impossible to promote a Kickstarter campaign on the Facebook news feed, because Facebook recognizes the Kickstarter campaign link as a video link. This means that the ads run in the right column, making them much less effective.”

Overall, Tabrizi is positive about crowdfunding as a marketing tool. “It can determine if there are enough customers willing to pay for the product, and it does this not through expensive market research, but by allowing actual paying customers to reach into their pockets,” he notes, citing Kickstarter’s statistics—in 2014 3.3 million people backed Kickstarter projects—and pointing out that “these are not just site visitors, but buyers who actively support what they like.”

Depending on Databases

As Tabrizi’s experience shows, a huge following on social media is a significant asset. Even more valuable to a publisher is a database that includes information about customers, and one of the greatest challenges every organization faces is keeping that database accurate.

The all-volunteer International Space Business Council in Bethesda, MD, recently spent almost $1,000 on postcards sent to 3,500 current and lapsed subscribers to its 64-page peer-reviewed quarterly, Quest: The History of Spaceflight. Designed as a promotion for the next issue of the publication, the mailing was primarily intended to verify contact information, some of it 20 years old.

The bonus benefit: Dozens of subscribers returned, paying a minimum of $29.95 each. “The orders are still coming in, but we’ve already received nearly double what the mailing cost,” volunteer Scott Sacknoff reports.

Given postage and printing costs, most publishers today use their databases for e-mail blasts rather than physical mailings whenever possible. To launch Curious Critters Marine this April, Dave FitzSimmons of Wild Iris Publishing in Butler, OH, contacted about 2,500 people with a link to the two-minute YouTube video for this new children’s book.

Within three hours, it had been viewed 110 times. Although that pace didn’t continue (after three weeks, there had been only about 500 more viewings, with no direct sales), FitzSimmons made other launch efforts and bookstores sold 325 copies of the book that month, according to BookScan.

Propriometrics Press, based in Sequim, WA, uses a database and social media activity to promote titles by Katy Bowman, including the new Whole Body Barefoot: Transitioning Well to Minimal Footwear. Built over the past eight years with data about people who have participated in her workshops or requested information, that database now has approximately 17,000 entries.

Bowman’s Facebook page, which she created in 2009, has 24,000 followers at this point, and the author/publisher reports that she posts to it two or three times a day. She believes that each post reaches between 3,000 and 20,000 readers. Her Twitter account, also launched in 2009, has more than 6,000 followers.

When she’s ready to launch a new title, Bowman uses both social media and e-blasts to her database for alerting people to a two-week prepublication promotion of the print edition. A couple of weeks later, before the launch of the e-book, she sends out a similar promotion about it. Theresa Perales, Propriometrics operations director, says that price incentives usually include a discount on shipping and a free download of an educational video (a $5 value). Noting that there’s no discount on the book price, Perales calls the cost of the promotions “fairly negligible.” And they’re effective, with the most recent resulting in 700 sales at $12.95 per copy.

Chart 1Bowman’s success in developing a following stems partly from the in-person workshops she did regularly until 2012 and the online and in-person appearances she continues to make. Publisher John Brooks of I Heart Casey Books in Fairfax, CA, has also done some events to promote his 2014 memoir, The Girl Behind the Door, which he sells only online. But with little media publicity and limited sales to libraries, Brooks concentrates on blogging about his topics, adoption, and attachment, and he has started a Facebook page, Parenting and Attachment. At this point, the blog and Facebook page together have fewer than 1,000 followers.

Neither Bowman nor Brooks buys lists, but startup businesses often consider paying for mailings to relevant databases, which can be ineffective if a database owner doesn’t do frequent updates, and if the people on a list lack a strong interest in a book’s genre or topic.

“If you want to make big sales, you have to build the lists from scratch,” says Tom Morkes, CEO of Insurgent Publishing and a consultant in Castle Pines, CO. “Directories are a waste of either time or money (usually both).”

From scratch is the usual approach at Judson Press in King of Prussia, PA. With titles such as The Work of the Parish Church Nurse, The Pastoral Caregiver’s Casebook, and Signs of Love: A Guide for Deaf Ministry, marketing director Linda Johnson-LeBlanc acknowledges, “I do have the challenge of trying to reach specialized markets.”

Upping the Odds in Your Favor

The starting point for this publisher is a book’s author. Johnson-LeBlanc says she “leans” on each author to identify the professional organizations, conferences, and periodicals that interest prospective readers. “I follow those leads to learn what else interests the members of a particular organization. For instance, what other conferences might a member attend?”

Besides targeting the market for a title, Johnson-LeBlanc targets the market’s key influencers: “For example, in addition to marketing to the pastor who is my primary audience, I may market to the church administrative assistant.” Assistants are highly influential with pastors, she notes, “and can further improve the chances that my marketing/promotional message gets delivered.”

“Improve the chances”—but no guarantees. Maybe that’s the best way to summarize what these publishers have said. Using resources such as crowdfunding websites for marketing research and promotion is an example of how publishers of any size might get customer feedback at absolutely no up-front cost. But, as Matt N. Tabrizi emphasizes, without a vast database or social media following, you may hear only from existing fans and not from new prospects. And it takes a lot of fans to generate the most immediate and profitable sales, those made directly by a publisher.

In short, promotion for a book is most effective when it’s tailored to the prospective audience, when that audience is large and easy to reach, and when the book’s publisher is creative about pursuing ways to pitch the title.


About the Author:

Photo of Linda CarlsonLinda Carlson (lindacarlson.com) writes for the Independent from Seattle, where she is promoting Advertising with Small Budgets for Big Results.

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