Word of mouth, the princess of informal promotional media, receives commendations for being the wings under every successful book that takes off. These accolades are well deserved. Word of mouth is the most compelling form of promotion in every culture.
Publishers and their authors who successfully tap into this, the book world’s best advertising, find opinion leaders to brag about their books. Also, they identify ways to inspire loyal readers to brag more.
Reaching Opinion Leaders & Readers
The challenge to the publisher is to span the gulf separating it from those opinion leaders and book readers who would recommend the book to others. A similar canyon exists between the author and these groups. How do you bridge the chasm? How do you form that priceless union with the people who will spread word of mouth? Traditionally book signings, direct mail, seminars, and fan clubs were among the ways that the gorge could be crossed. In the last few years, a new medium has emerged that provides this necessary link. Enter the prince of the electronic media: the Internet website.
The website has the power to link all the other, traditional bridge-building methods plus provide its own direct link with loyal supporters. The end result: more word-of-mouth bragging.
The Book Promotion Website
A website promoting a book can be as simple as a single page of text that lists the book’s title, publisher, and author. It can promote the benefits of the book like traditional advertising might do, or it can become a fully interactive, consumer-involvement site with several nooks and crannies for the book aficionado to explore before surfing on to brag about the book to others. How your website is structured and the information it contains is a function of your imagination and the content of the book itself.
Websites hosted by publishers come in a couple of varieties. Some are a simple roster of front-list and back-list titles with information on how to order a book directly from the publisher. These sites often feature a search engine powered by Excite or some other popular indexing-searching tool. Other sites include information about the publisher’s subsidiary companies, biographical sketches of best-selling authors of fiction, a photo of the celebrity author, and links to author’s pages. The more titles you have available, the more involved website development potentially becomes even for sites with a simple design. The more elaborate the site, the higher the costs of installation and maintenance.
In contrast with this publisher version, the author-hosted website can be developed and maintained at a relatively low cost. Authors can typically obtain free server space in a cyber community such as geocities.com. These community servers assist their “occupants” with instructions on how to use the HTML coding or they provide ready-made templates for quick start-up while allowing for more advanced development at your discretion.
Design for Word-of-Mouth Effectiveness
Whether you or someone you appoint is the webmaster for a site promoting a particular book, I recommend that you design the site for maximum word-of-mouth effectiveness. Keep the following points in mind in terms of the design.
- Stand out. The sheer number of websites available to consumers is staggering. The site that stands out from the crowd in a meaningful way to consumers will get talked about (through e-mail, chat rooms, forums, etc.) to others. Think about the unique selling advantage of your site contrasting it with other sites.
- Feature viewer-involvement. Those sites that pull readers in and provide them with social interaction and other involvement opportunities will extend the word-of-mouth advertising power much more than a billboard-on-screen approach. The more involved the consumer gets, the more likely he or she will use the information learned to spread word of mouth.
- Be interesting. Features of a website that promote word of mouth are typically more interesting to consumers. They present things that are inspiring, thought provoking, and innovative.
The Thirty+ Things That Build Word of Mouth
Collaborate with your author as you develop your own site. No matter which approach you take, a check list like the one below is helpful during your planning. While no formula exists that guarantees website word-of-mouth success, websites that promote a book or an author have several elements in common. When planning the start-up of your site consider the following elements:
- Highlight endorsements for the book and endorsements for seminars. Whether they are published on the book jacket or on a website, endorsements have the same power. The benefit of a website is its flexibility: You can update the endorsements daily, you can recycle endorsements at will, and you can change their sequence. Make endorsements a prominent feature.
- Exhibit excerpts of book reviews or entire reviews. Next to endorsements, book reviews spread word of mouth faster than almost any other method. Select specific quotes or run the whole review. You can scan the actual book reviews from the publications in which they appear, then upload them to your website. Check to see if permission is required to run the entire text, and obtain it if necessary.
- Present news. Offer news to viewers regarding the latest developments regarding the book, customers of the book, seminars, speeches, book signings, tours, etc. Opinion leaders enjoy knowing these types of details that they can tell others. It gives them behind-the-scenes information that establishes them as an authority on the subject.
- Solicit new endorsements by creating a form for such feedback from readers. Endorsements from consumers are, for some books, as powerful as those from book review editors. I recommend setting up a defined region in the website for consumer endorsements. After several dozen have been collected, sort them into categories of response then place them under headings for quick searching. Responses from this form should be screened before they are published on the site. Screening responses will protect you from some embarrassment of having a less-than-desirable response published. Provide clear directions with your form stating that use of the form is giving you permission to publish the comments in your promotional material. Part of the form can actually be a place where the visitor clicks on the permission box.
- Feature excerpts from the book. Opinion leaders like to test-drive a product before they purchase it. Those who have already read the book can recommend to others how they can get an excerpt of the book on your website. This word-of-mouth recommendation is very powerful since it is a good-faith attempt to protect the potential buyer from a negative purchase experience. Excerpts give them valuable information to share with others even before they make their own purchase. Excerpts build trust through demonstrating credibility and mutual interest. Work with your author when determining which sections of the book to offer as well as how much to offer. When trying to offer a test-drive, you don’t want to cannibalize sales of the book by giving too much away. But more important, you want the selection that will drive the consumers to purchase the rest of the book.
- Sprinkle in quotations from the book, from author speeches, and from interviews with the author used in magazine articles. Opinion leaders enjoy quoting other opinion leaders. Why not give them some of the best author statements possible via the website?
- Mention and give written descriptions of the writers who have influenced the author’s work. Opinion leaders are interested in this type of information. They are curious. It helps them make sense out of the author’s world. This also provides appreciation to others for which they will be thankful. Remember the old maxim: givers gain.
- Utilize links to other sites. Links are an expected part of Internet word of mouth. They are a form of word of mouth in themselves. Plus they are considered a valuable service to product aficionados (opinion leaders) who are searching for related information.Consider the following examples of links appropriate for a book site: Link with your author’s site, a fan club’s site for popular fiction writers, consumer websites that promote the work of your celebrity author, online booksellers, and websites promoting other books that typical buyers are interested in.
- Express appreciation to consumers and fan club directors. Consumers who take the time and energy to construct a website about an author should receive at minimum a written acknowledgment from the publisher’s or author’s site. In addition, a thank-you letter to the site coordinator from the author will go a long way to build goodwill. Such a personal connection will also more likely result in the consumer enhancing the site and talking about the book to others. If the letter is of a nature that can be published on the consumer’s website, all the better. You can also reprint the thank-you letter on your site in an area providing a link to their site.
- Offer printable desktop items. Here are some suggestions:o small posterso doorknob hangerso the author’s photoo foldable paper “toys” that carry a message about the book and that can be “played with” in an office (paper airplanes, frogs, swans, etc.)o book markerso table tents (a paper product that contains information relevant to the book and that when folded is placed on a desktop or table for displaying promotional information)o print-your-own postcards (where the consumer prints the postcard cover which is glued or taped to the back of a 4 x 6 card and then mailed to someone else in recommendation for the book).Not only are you providing a valuable tool for consumers to use in recommending the book when they print it out and give it to someone else, you are also increasing the consumer’s involvement with your site. For examples of some of these items, see the website created to promote the book, Let Your Customers Do The Talking at the URL: http://www.geocities.com/WallStreet/6246.
- Display the author’s photo. This may be scanned and saved as a graphic .gif file then uploaded to your website. Place the photo on the front page of your site, then place it again in the context of a poster, book marker, or other printable item.
- Add a reference list of the author’s favorite writers. As with other information that opinion leaders like, this adds a window of understanding into the author’s life that is valued by people who brag about the book.
- Note the author’s other works in progress or other published writings. Opinion leaders may have read only one of the author’s works. If you list other books (even if they are published by other companies) and magazine articles, you are providing a valuable service to the serious reader who wants to read everything written by your author. The more they read, the more opinion leaders can talk about the book. Remember that opinion leaders are voracious readers; they are sponges ready to soak up new information at a horrendous speed.
- Develop some trivia questions and answers regarding the author’s leisure pursuits. If the author is a chess master, a boat builder, a painter, a world traveler, or engaged in some other interesting avocation, let readers know. A variation on this is to have a knowledge quiz focusing on the author, his or her life, the characters in the book, the plot, etc. Have the answers displayed in another section of the website so that visitors can check their answers. A more sophisticated (and expensive) approach is to offer a fully interactive quiz that reports to the visitor the result of each question and then provides a total score at the end of the quiz.
- Reveal the notes that your author used in developing the book. This can be done whether the book is a work of fiction or nonfiction. Raving fans will brag to others about this for days.
- Produce a Q & A interview with the author, the editor, or the author’s agent (or all three). Here is another great opportunity to give more insight into the author’s life. You can use a verbatim interview from a real media event, or create your own interview. In either case, opinion leaders appreciate the opportunity to hear in the author’s own words why he or she wrote the book, what the author likes best about it, and what the author is working on next. Periodically update your interview section.
- Provide access by allowing viewers to input their questions into a form. When consumers interact with the publisher and, better yet the author, the bond with the author and the work increases in strength. The challenge for books written by celebrity authors is the high volume of responses that are obtained and the expectation on the part of the consumer that you will provide a response. Consider this item carefully given the resources you have available.
- Insert an auto-responder that acknowledges and builds on consumer involvement. This is one way to handle a high volume of consumer responses. Its advantage is in the efficiency with which it helps you manage consumer response. Its obvious disadvantage is its impersonal nature. Opinion leaders can stand only a few impersonal responses. They much prefer a personal communication.
- Put your book cover to work in various ways. As with a photo, you can have the book cover scanned and saved in a .gif file for uploading to the website. .gif files are useful for other situations too, such as incorporating a miniature book cover into a personal letter (printed on a color printer) as part of your author’s letterhead. It can also be incorporated into a print-your-own postcard for consumers to use in recommending the book to others. Offering the book cover provides a visual cue for the website visitor that they have found the right book/author. It also gives them information to pass on to others when giving instructions of how to purchase the book.
- Utilize an electronic ordering system. This not only assists the publisher in capturing the transaction, it also gives the consumer something to talk about. Before deciding to establish a point of sale at your website, consider your existing distributor and bookseller relationships.
- Design an e-mail form or simply provide your e-mail return address. Opinion leaders like to interact. However, if this is a celebrity author or you have limited response capabilities, implement this with care since the volume of response can easily overwhelm you.
- Add a biographical sketch of the author. Opinion leaders want more information than they can get by reading the book. Reading the story of an author’s life is often more enjoyable for a website visitor than merely reading the author’s resume. Reading the story helps the reader “connect” with the author, allowing them to leave your site feeling like they really know him or her as a person. This is a pleasant surprise since many believe that authors are unapproachable.
- Don’t forget the basics. Be sure to include your company’s name, “snail-mail” (mailing) address, fax number, and your toll-free telephone number for orders.
- Consider having a special section on the site that is password protected and available only to booksellers and distributors. Such a section can contain dozens of information pieces of interest to the official marketing channels: publisher’s price sheets, return policy statements, merchandising tips, information on how to build word of mouth within the industry, a hand-selling guide, etc.
- Be certain that your instructions on how to order the book are specific. Don’t assume that consumers know how this can be accomplished. Toll-free numbers help here.
- Include the ISBN number: The ISBN is useful in ordering the book, and is often used as shorthand to distinguish the book from others in a long list.
- Post information about the book’s availability. Post on a weekly basis the number of copies available through distributors, wholesalers, or in your warehouse. An interesting bit of trivia, this information may be used by opinion leaders during conversations with potential book buyers, e.g., “The publisher has only 900 copies left so you better get yours soon. . . .”
- Encourage feedback by presenting a book evaluation questionnaire on your site, asking readers to give you specific feedback about the book including ways to improve it for the next edition. Use a convenient form that assists the visitor in selecting a chapter or section for comments.
- Add a suggestion box. This should be a form to capture any idea that visitors have as a result of visiting your website or reading the book. An auto responder can manage this part of your site for you by saying, “Thank you for your suggestion!”
- Include author reviews or endorsements of related books. Loyal readers will be interested in what the author thinks of other books. This type of information adds another reason for them to brag about the book and the author. Authors of these other books will be grateful for the recommendations.
- Build networking into your site. Offer a networking list of individuals who want to contact others by e-mail to share their interest in the book. For an example, see the website URL: http://www.geocities.com/WallStreet/6246.
- Gather stories. Create a form to capture stories of people who read the book and felt it changed their life. Stories are one of the most powerful ways that word of mouth travels from person to person. If a customer tells a story in his or her own words, the impact will be much greater than if the author tries to write it up. Visitors to the site will read the stories and pass them on to others. Screen all the stories that you collect and present them on screen for others to see.
- Supplement what’s in the book. Place on your site more information on the same topic that is not found in the book. This collateral material will draw new buyers into the topic giving them a test-drive of the types of things they will find in the book. This is one way to keep your website up-to-date and fresh for regular visitors.
After a publisher-author-agent discussion about this list of ideas for your website, identify opportunities for collaboration. Then select and develop the items on the list that you can best accomplish with the resources available. You can also use the list to spark your own creative ideas for how to build word of mouth. Remember to plan sections of your website that can be easily updated with new information. Then flag those sections that have been updated so that frequent visitors can quickly check to see whether they should stay and browse or move on to another website for browsing.
Thoughts on Website Maintenance
Loyal website visitors come to depend upon site webmasters for new material. Routine maintenance is one of the best ways to promote word of mouth for your site, and indirectly, for the book. New material provides loyal supporters constant reminders of the reasons that they brag about the book and the author.
As you plan your site, be realistic about the amount of time you will spend on a weekly or bi-weekly basis updating the material or adding new material. For example, you can put new information about the speeches the author is giving, book signings he or she attends, or magazine articles the author has published. Also, you can publish new endorsements for the book or for your website. Reprint the book’s latest reviews. If you have a “famous quotations” section, add new quotations periodically. Then, on the first page of your site, flag those sections that have been recently updated so that regular visitors can see at a glance whether or not they should browse.
Another idea when building a new section is to build it gradually week by week alerting visitors that the section is “under construction” and to watch for more information every few days. This builds repeat visiting from loyal supporters.
An internationally recognized authority on word-of-mouth marketing and a volunteer counselor for SCORE, Michael E. Cafferky is the author of Let Your Customers Do the Talking: 301+ Word-of-Mouth Marketing Tactics Guaranteed to Boost Profits (Upstart, 1996). This article is an excerpt from a new book he is writing on the topic of word-of-mouth book marketing. Cafferty is also the creator of a website devoted exclusively to the topic of word of mouth and his book. You can visit the site at the URL: http://www.geocities.com/WallStreet/6246. You can contact Cafferky at 2052 Gemstone Dr., Walla Walla, WA 99362-8206
|This article is from thePMA Newsletterfor December, 1997, and is reprinted with permission of Publishers Marketing Association.