How Open Road Uses Agile Marketing to Power Growth
When Open Road Integrated Media was founded by former HarperCollins CEO Jane Friedman in 2009, the industry as a whole was still fumbling over ebooks and the uncertain financial impact of digital publishing. Indeed, it was the rare publishing house that demanded digital rights in its contracts, and that was precisely why Open Road’s business model seemed so revelatory. The company acquired digital rights to other publishers’ backlist titles and released them as ebooks, often for the first time.
Not long after the company launched, Friedman declared in a New York Times profile that “electronic is going to be the center of universe.” And for quite some time, that seemed to be the case. “When Jane founded the company, we had hockey stick-style growth for two years,” says Mary McAveney, Open Road’s senior vice president of marketing. But that story, as anyone involved with digital publishing is now sorely aware, has begun to stall. According to the Association of American Publishers, ebook sales for trade publishers fell 11.3% from 2014 to 2015.
Instead of rolling over and playing dead, however, Open Road took a two-pronged approach to what many in the industry are referring to as “digital fatigue”: an impressive level of product diversification, and a data-led approach to marketing and promotions known as “agile marketing.” Since 2014, Open Road Media has launched websites like The Lineup, a content driven site for fans of horror and true-crime, newsletters like Early Bird Books, which sends daily ebook discounts to subscribers, and as of July 2016 a branded ecommerce app. Because Open Road’s team is much smaller than the big trade publishers, the company can closely track these properties and nimbly adjust their marketing based on consumer and market data. Since implementing its agile marketing strategy in early 2016, Open Road has seen 40% year-over-year increase in revenue and significant growth in ebook sales, says McAveney.
Book Business recently spoke with McAveney as well as Open Road’s VP of strategic operations, Julie Blattberg, about the combination of data crunching and 360-degree marketing that has led to the publisher’s continued growth and success.
A good bit of Open Road’s recent success has come from new direct-to-consumer products and an all-hands-on-deck approach to marketing. Can you talk about this?
Mary McAveney: Well, I was with Open Road for five years on a consulting basis, and I came on board this January as VP of marketing. At that point, we actually restructured and revamped how we were approaching our promotions and our marketing in general. And we adopted what we’re calling the Agile Marketing Cycle. By that, what I mean is that we’re using data to monitor what’s happening to our titles. And just to back up a step, Open Road is obviously very much a backlist publisher. So with the exception of a very small handful of titles, all of our titles have been published before, and very often we’re publishing them for the first time in “e.” And that comes with some challenges and some opportunities in terms of marketing, because very often, media wants to hear about what is new, and not necessarily what is old. So the media is not always a strong lever for us to pull when we’re publishing backlist books.
The upside of that situation is that we have a wealth of data behind the titles. And because our editorial group has been phenomenal in bringing in some of the absolute best titles they can, we often have great metadata, great reviews, great word of mouth. And sometimes it’s really just a matter of connecting with the media that are already out there about these titles, rather than creating new media.
What exactly does that entail?
McAveney: Well, that’s sort of where agile marketing comes in. It’s really interesting: It’s a cycle of listening, programming, updating, measuring, and then it starts all over again. And by listening, it’s really a process of tracking what’s happening with the titles either on our website, in Google, on a product detail page, or at a retailer, and observing what’s happening in the market. And we’ve been able to really embrace a whole new set of tools that allow us to track what’s being said about our titles out there. So whether it’s Emma Watson asking her fans to read The Color Purple in February as part of her book club, or it’s Lena Dunham endorsing a Stephen Birmingham book that’s her favorite, or it’s Warren Buffet who’s praising a business book that we have, all of those things are keeping our books sort of bubbling up. And what we do then is we actually program our marketing around those opportunities.
Do you keep track of all those discussions via social media?
McAveney: Through social media, and a number of marketing tracking tools we’ve employed in the past eight months. And then what we do is we amplify that, and we employ a full compliment of marketing activities in order to reach buyers specifically around those opportunities. Then we measure what’s happened since we’ve done that. And one of the great things about marketing these days is that you can measure pretty accurately what impact your marketing is having. So that’s how we approach what you might call “opportunity marketing.” Of course, in terms of creating our own opportunities, we still have to do a fair amount of that as well. And that’s where we rely heavily on search engine optimization, and on creating funnels to pull consumers into our marketing arena.
Can you explain what you mean by “funnels”?
McAveney: The idea of a marketing funnel is, at the very top, to sort of pull in as many consumers as you can around a specific topic. So we’ll look at Google Trends, for instance, along with a number of tools we’re using to track what people are searching for around a specific author or a specific topic, and we’ll create content pieces that actually address those specific searches so that we can pull people in to a landing page that features our books.
Julie Blattberg: You know, it’s one thing when you have a product to market, and you just want to sell it to anyone who has money. But it’s another thing to market ebooks and content to people who we know are interested. It’s a much more authentic experience when you’re connecting with someone who you know is interested in a specific book or a specific topic. It just works so much better.
McAveney: To give you an example, we created a content piece around Game of Thrones that was essentially a roundup of books for fans of Game of Thrones. That sounds obvious, but that’s exactly what people were searching for online. So we created this list, and it’s now consistently the first search result you get when you type in “books for Game of Thrones fans.” When we end up reaching that very specific audience, we have a good sense of who they are and what they’re looking for. And then we serve them not just our selection of ebooks, but also an opportunity to sign up for one of our newsletters. At the end of the day, what we really want to do is bring customers into a cycle of programs that Open Road offers. So regardless of whether it’s our Early Bird Books newsletter; or The Lineup, our site with horror content; or a new developing sci-fi/fantasy website we’re about to launch, we really just want to bring that consumer into our ecosystem.
And you’ve got quite a lot in that ecosystem. For instance, The Lineup, your horror and mystery site — is that essentially a straight marketing move?
McAveney: No, it’s actually an independent editorial content site. You could look at it as another type of funnel for us in terms of bringing another type of consumer into our ecosystem. But it is very authentic editorial content, and there is a separation between how the editorial is produced and how we market it.
Does it make money in and of itself, though?
Blattberg: Yes, it absolutely does. One thing that’s important to us here is that every product we launch and foster can stand on its own as an independent business. However, the way we look at it, the independent channels are greater than the sum of their parts. The Lineup, for example, provides excellent exposure for authors and books published by Open Road Media. It’s also a way for us to monetize the content that’s developed for it in terms of direct ad sales and sponsorship opportunities. The Lineup isn’t only a website, it’s also a newsletter, and that’s another source of revenue for us. And it allows us to speak to a specific reader. It’s not for every consumer in the United States; it’s specifically for fans of particular genres, and because of our very persistent data analysis, and tagging, and coding, we’re able to learn quite a bit about that specific audience.
The hope is that by providing an authentic experience to that audience, they’ll keep coming back. And when they’re on one of our portfolio sites, they may be interested in buying other Open Road books, or in signing up for the Early Bird Books newsletter, or they may be interested in content on other sites that we’ll be launching in the next few months. So it’s all part of this circle we’re building of different digital products and experiences. If you’re a person who is interested in apps, we’ve got an app for you. And if you’re an avid newsletter reader and you’re looking for interesting content, we can serve you there. Basically, we can touch consumers in all digital platforms, and learn from them wherever they are online.
Why did Open Road decide to launch an ecommerce app?
Blattberg: Well, any time you have an app out in the universe and consumers are engaging with it, it’s an opportunity to get to know your customers and their behaviors: What are they clicking on? What are they purchasing? What are they sharing? What are they commenting on? And with all of our D2C marketing and outreach, the underlying factor for us is the data. Everything we do and everything we talk about is based on data. Data allows Mary and her marketing team to market in an agile fashion, and on the publishing side, what we acquire will be based on analytics and data.
One thing that’s really cool about Open Road is its culture of data and making data-driven decisions, no matter which department you’re in. When we’re launching a new product, we’re having conversations about what data we’ll be able to collect, about our data needs, and about how this’ll help us drive revenue. We’re always keen on what the analytics will tell us, and if they’re going to be actionable or not. There are a million different data points, and at Open Road there is full transparency at every level of the organization. We all have access to the same information, so everyone in the company can make informed decisions in their day-to-day. And I think that that’s pretty cool.
What’s your biggest challenge at Open Road?
McAveney: There is currently a challenge we all have our eyes on, and that’s this: We have 2 million visitors every month to The Lineup. How do we convert them into consumers that we own? We have 400,000 names on our Early Bird Books newsletter list. How do we convert them to other products we’d like to introduce? Or how do we get them flowing back into the areas of content that we want them to see? In other words, we have X number of books that we sell every month. How are we turning those readers into consumers that we own for Open Road? That’s really what we all have our eyes on right now.
Related story: 7 Ways Book Publishers Can Establish D2C Marketing & Sales
Dan Eldridge is a journalist and guidebook author based in Philadelphia's historic Old City district, where he and his partner own and operate Kaya Aerial Yoga, the city's only aerial yoga studio. A longtime cultural reporter, Eldridge also writes about small business and entrepreneurship, travel, and the publishing industry. Follow him on Twitter at @YoungPioneers.