Website Essentials for Direct Sales

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September 2015
by Joseph J. Esposito
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Traffic is the currency of the Internet. The challenge for a publisher is how to bring enough traffic to its site to make a direct sales operation successful.

To be a successful web seller, it’s not enough to be on the web; you have to be of the web, with an active program for getting people to your site and directing their activity to desired outcomes. This is not simply a matter of rhetoric. Publishers not created in the Internet Age don’t naturally look out onto the web as their native medium. Historically, almost all book publishers have dealt with physical sales channels or institutions and have taken their form from that mode of distribution.

This is not to say that the web medium is somehow superior; it is simply different, and publishers that want to use it effectively must work with its own properties. The web faces outward, to the world of consumers and individual purchases, not toward the world of bookstores and libraries.

A good website is not all a publisher needs, of course. It’s necessary to attend to the basics: the ability to post book metadata; e-commerce capability (usually summed up in the phrase “shopping cart”); the ability to fulfill sales, preferably for both print and electronic titles; a database for customer information; and, not inconsequentially, personnel whose job it is to analyze and improve the overall process day after day.

All these things are now widely available (except perhaps the personnel), whereas 10 years ago it was hard to find a commercially available shopping cart or DAD (digital asset distributor such as BiblioVault or CoreSource), and only a few years ago solutions for secure credit card transactions were not widespread.

Web Presence Particulars

To sell more books D2C, a publisher has to think harder about the potential connections between the publishing enterprise and the roiling communications of the open web and social media.

One can debate what a fully optimized web presence for a publisher would look like, but it is likely to include some or all of the following.

A person in charge. This, strange as it sounds, is the most important thing. Someone has to be tasked with developing and augmenting the web strategy, and rewarded when successful. That strategy should include fostering growth in unique users month by month and constantly improving the conversion rate (i.e., the percentage of people who come to a website and then go on to complete a transaction). It’s easier to increase the number of web visitors than to improve conversions.

Of course, the person in charge also has to have some money to invest in programs, including R&D.

Strong SEO and SEM. Search engine optimization is a subset of search engine marketing. It is important to improve results from organic search. Ultimately every publisher’s goal is to create websites that can be a source of discovery for people who may not yet know that they want a book. This means creating strong, accurate content that describes the contents of a book with great specificity.

Tactics from outside the book industry. If you want to sell books directly from your website, start with a clean home page that has the bookstore front and center.

It is interesting to compare the home page of virtually any publisher with that of an airline.

Airlines have a very strong need to sell tickets, and for the most part they are competing with other airlines that can sell almost the very same thing. So when you go to an airline site (e.g., united.com), the first thing you see is the tool for buying tickets. Airlines have tabs for any number of things on their sites (e.g., frequent flyer programs, airport security protocols), but they know full well that some things—commerce—are more important than others.

Multiple paths to the site bookstore. Search engines atomize websites. While a publisher likes to think that everybody will come in through the front door to the home page, web search drills into a site—it comes in through the windows. This means that the listing for every single book has to be optimized for discovery.

Google’s search engine will notice and bring users to a site with a more complete description of the book. And surrounding the listing for each book by buttons for social media (Facebook, say, or Google+, Twitter, and Pinterest) can facilitate highly targeted communications to specialist readers.

For a good model, check NYTimes.com, which publishes 300 URLs (that is, web pages) every day; every single story is surrounded by buttons for all the major social media. The lesson here is clear: Every page, every book listing, should be outward-looking, attempting to draw new users in. It is much easier to imagine a user stumbling upon the listing for an individual book than to imagine the user discovering the home page of the press as a whole.

A mobile strategy. Most publishers sit at desks all day before a desktop or laptop computer. That is not representative of the Internet any more, as we know from our personal use of smartphones and tablets.

A website has to be optimized for mobile devices. The technical term for making web pages fit the screen of any device is responsive design, and if you sample a dozen publishers’ websites on a smartphone or tablet, you are likely to see evidence that this is no easy trick. But then go to Amazon, where you can easily download pages that fit your screen size. It is arrogant to act as if your readers will access your online store only while they’re sitting at desks.

Content marketing. The term content marketing refers to the creation of content as a means to acquire new users or customers. While there clearly is a cost to creating content of any kind, content marketing is an essential tool for bringing people to a website.

The most obvious example of content marketing is blogging, which, when done on a regular basis, attracts users—and search engines, which bring more users. A Twitter feed that consists entirely of plugs for books will attract few followers, but one that tweets several times a day about news in a particular field could attract an audience. Every 10th tweet could then include a link to the web page to purchase a book.

Iteration. One of the difficult aspects of print publishing is the need to get it right the first time. Rectifying a mistake in a text will be costly. With digital media, however, things can be done once and then done over. While this can invite a less than earnest effort the first time around, it also allows a publisher to test things and to learn from these tests. A website that is being developed for D2C sales must be continually reviewed and altered.

This is part of the reason that there has to be someone in charge. Too often a web page is simply left in its earliest form, without anyone monitoring the traffic and where it flows.

To build and manage a superior website for D2C marketing, testing and iteration have to be built into the plan. A promotion, for example, that does not work when done one way may be shown to work when done another way. Good web marketers are experimenters above all.

This list by no means covers all the attributes a successful D2C site can and should have (I have not said a word about the editorial quality of the books), but a publisher that begins with these precepts in mind is on the way to becoming an effective direct marketer.


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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