E-marketing Strategy: Does Your Brand Mean Anything to Anyone?
Publishers have been blessed with the gift of invisibility. For the last several decades of modern book publishing, the industry's "top-down" distribution model has allowed publishers to stand behind the scenes—working tirelessly, but not publicly—to make sure high-quality and important content found its way to the world's stage. This shroud of invisibility has long protected publishers from suffering the worst effects of their worst failures, and it has granted them certain freedoms to take the risks required of a publisher—on new authors, on new topics, on new ideas, etc. Colossal failures during these years may have tarnished the author in the readers' minds, and the booksellers who recommended their steaming pile of a book, but not the largely invisible publisher—who lived to publish another day.
It was a great model—and, many would argue, necessary for many years and in many cases. But it's over. The piercing gaze of the Internet has removed invisibility from the world of information. Search engines outed the publishers, and now we're all coming online in droves.
However, all is not well. The decades of invisibility have left publishers at a real and distinct disadvantage in the modern landscape. Nearly every other company—in every other industry—has spent those same decades working tirelessly to make sure every person on Earth was aware of their name, logo and products. The Nike swoosh "means" something: quality, fitness, health. The Apple logo "means" something: quality, beauty, power. The New York Times logo "means" something: quality, investigation, information. All of these companies have fought to make sure their brand was synonymous with quality… and a few other things.
To date, very few publishers have been able to successfully create a brand that "means" anything to readers. Most publishers have never spent much time on brand-building beyond stamping their logo on a book's spine, and therefore their names and logos connote nothing to their products' end users other than, perhaps, "book." Right now—during this digital avalanche of self-published content that's falling on our heads—is when readers most need to see established symbols of expert, edited, quality content. Readers are looking for clues that will help them to separate wheat from chaff—both online and on the shelves. Publishers have an opportunity, now, to build brands that fill that need.
Brands and Niches
The path publishers must take from invisibility to ubiquity will be easier for some publishing houses than others. The Internet defined the new content distribution model—and the question each publisher will need to answer is, "How do we fit into the structure of the Internet?"
The Internet has organized itself by niche—or topic area. Today's most successful blogs, for example, have a specific topic and sitck with it: food blogs, progressive blogs, conservative blogs, technology blogs, gardening blogs, cartoon blogs, etc. This selection of a narrow topic area makes it easy for readers to find the information they want. (For example: Blog A had great food information. Blog B had all the cartoons I wanted. Blog C is where I read about sports.) Larger blogs and sites—those with a wider focus—continue the trend by breaking down their content into subsections based on topic areas. (Think Huffington Post.) Even the crowds on the world-enveloping social media sites are broken down into tiny topic areas using the mechanisms of groups or hashtags.
This micro-organization of the web has made it far easier for niche publishers to fit into the Internet's structure and begin building a brand than it has been for general trade publishers. Niche publishers have the luxury of being able to focus their attention (and marketing dollars) on a clearly defined—and clearly targeted—audience. General trade publishers have books that fit easily into 20 different topic areas with 20 different audiences and 2,000 different blogs, sites and social groups. Focus is valuable—especially for cash-strapped publishers with already-overworked staffs.
Niche publishers—or general publishers that have chosen a niche on which to focus—should begin the brand-building adventure at home, with their own web site. This site—whether it is the company's own homepage, or a new site dedicated to the venture—should become one of the leading sources for quality content within the niche.
This site needs to (and can) stand with the best in the niche in terms of publishing interesting, quality, expert and edited information. (I've covered the strategy behind publishing book content to a blog in earlier articles, so I won't reiterate everything here.) Once this site is loaded with your quality content—and is proudly displaying your name and logo—your brand-building has begun. In time, Google will begin (slowly) pointing visitors your way and new readers will discover your content.
Push your content—with an obvious source link and a logo, if possible—out to the major credible sites in your niche. This will expose your quality and content to thousands (or millions) of new people within your ideal audience. Every time a person reads your content on someone else's site or social network, they should see your logo and company name. After several sightings on pages with quality content, your logo will provide a reader will the indicator of quality he or she so sorely needs when deciding what information to trust. Your logo and company name will "mean" something: edited, expert, information for the [insert your niche] community.
As any marketer will tell you, brand-building is a slow process. Luckily for us, focusing on a particular niche with a particular audience makes the task a bit less gargantuan. But, several years down the road, when you've successfully built your brand into something meaningful to the readers within your niche, you will enjoy several valuable benefits: quality author acquisition will be easier when you're viewed as "the publisher of the [insert your niche] experts"; web marketing within your niche will be easier once blog and site editors have come to rely on your quality content; word-of-mouth referrals will be easier to come by—both in cyberspace and the "meat-space"—once readers feel comfortable that they're recommending trustworthy content; and focusing your attention on one niche means you can throw your weight around as the big fish in a small pond.
The disadvantage, of course, of building a successful brand is that you are adding your name to the list in your readers' minds of those accountable for mediocrity. Your failures will tarnish your shine. Brand-building puts your company and reputation at the front of the stage. Should you take a risk that ends in disappointment, be prepared to duck the whizzing tomatoes. BB
J.S. McDougall cofounded and recently sold Catalyst Webworks, a web design and marketing firm specializing in the book industry. He is the author of six books about conducting business online, including "#tweetsmart," "Start Your Own Blogging Business" and "Content Marketing." He lives in Vermont.