Cover Story: 41 Tips for Building Online Communities
Traditional marketing has taken a beating in the distressed economy, but many book publishers are relying on social media efforts to reach new, targeted audiences. While some publishers are unsure about the impact of social networking on book sales—and whether any time or monetary investment is worthwhile—other publishers who are actively engaging in social networking and building online communities around content and authors believe its impact is significant.
There may be nearly as many solutions for managing online social networks as there are publishers trying them, but a few major themes are apparent: Successful online efforts require facilitation, engaging tools and, above all, knowing your audience.
Here are 41 tips from those who have built online communities, and seen results.
Tips from … Tina McIntyre, director of marketing, Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Little Brown, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, manages its online social networking base, keeping under its umbrella a large portion of the Internet fan activity surrounding Stephenie Meyer’s blockbuster “Twilight” series.
1. Be exclusive.
“With various social networking sites online, it is important to create one exclusive destination for an author or book/series,” she says. “Having an exclusive site will give your community credibility and make it a destination site for fans.”
2. Reward your members.
“It is easy to reward members in a virtual world by creating various cost-effective online applications [such as avatars, wallpapers, badges, etc.], which fans can use to enhance their online profile. Sweepstakes and contests are also great ways to drive traffic (and require minimal staff and resources),” says McIntyre.
3. Know your audience and who you are reaching.
There are a lot of good studies being done on different social networking sites, McIntyre notes. “Research each network’s main demographic to make sure it matches the audience you are hoping to reach,” she says.
4. Remember that teens and tweens are different (for now).
“Teens and tweens tend to get lumped together, but their online patterns are very different,” she says. “In our experience, we have found that the tween market is still fairly innocent in their use of online communities. They tend to prefer that their social interactions revolve around online gaming and simple message boards rather than having full-on profiles and member pages. High-score boards still rule!”
Tips from … Karen Moehr, author and marketing consultant, Moehr and Associates
Moehr works with writers and self-publishers to build “brand credibility” within existing online communities.
5. Find groups that would be a good fit for your book and offer free content.
Moehr recommends offering to do teleseminars and blog articles for groups interested in a particular title. “For example, if you write about holistic pet care, find groups that would be a good fit, and offer your book and services,” she says. “The visitors of these types of sites would be interested in your products, services and, ultimately, your books. Give good information or advice, write columns, etc., and your online presence will grow and be strengthened.”
Tips from … Jennifer Webb, senior marketing manager, John Wiley & Sons Inc.
Webb handles Wiley’s efforts to increase the presence of the “For Dummies” books in the social media space.
6. Maintain—and link—multiple social networking pages.
The book series has two main social networking pages, on Twitter and Facebook, in addition to a “Dummies Man” profile page on Facebook. “The status posts feed directly from the Twitter updates, so it seems like we are active, but it is from a single source,” Webb says. “We are able to engage directly with our “Dummies” customers, and provide them with a place to reach us.”
7. Track click-throughs.
Webb’s team tracks click-throughs to Dummies.com and analyzes traffic response on posts/topics. “The main incentive is obviously brand exposure and keeping up with social media trends. Interactions are easy to track, and we can see traffic coming to Dummies.com from the social media sites,” she says.
8. Have an ongoing plan.
“We have monthly meetings with our content managers at Dummies.com to plan posts and topics to cover,” Webb says. “This also helps the Dummies.com team focus on acquiring new content that is useful to our visitors.”
9. Focus on the brand and the book/author.
The “Dummies” marketing team is focused on the brand, Webb says, but also wants to support and build communities around books and authors. “We have several authors, including ‘eBay For Dummies’ author Marsha Collier, who have their own fan pages, and heavily promote themselves and their books on these pages,” she says. “We 100-percent encourage authors to do this!”
Tips from … Lisa Earle McLeod, author (Penguin/Putnam) and business consultant
McLeod’s area of expertise is in building online communities around authors, which she believes is the primary responsibility of the author. “The author’s job is to create the platform and provide the content,” she says. “The publisher can then apply their resources to the PR machine, which will drive traffic.”
10. Start early.
“You need to build your community before you launch,” she says.
11. Focus on content, not ego.
For how-to titles and business books like hers, “You’re not creating a fan site,” McLeod says. “You’re creating a place where … people can learn, and share ideas.”
12. Don’t whine.
“It’s supposed to be hard,” she says of setting up and managing communities. “If it were easy, every wanna-be in America would already have done it.”
Tips from … Stacy Lellos, director of brand management and strategic planning at Scholastic Trade
Lellos oversees Scholastic’s “39 Clues” book series Web site for young readers, ages 8-12.
13. Fully integrate online and offline products.
The “39 Clues” site allows kids to do activities online that mirror the actions of characters in the books, as well as create their own content (playing cards), which adds to the offline reading and interactive experience. “We wanted to enable kids to feel like they are having a true interaction with the property,” Lellos says. “We want [kids] to really feel part of the experience, and get to put their own personal spin
14. Don’t shy away from multimedia.
Scholastic “enlists all the various mediums to their full potential and really thinks about them in tandem,” Lellos says. This includes, in addition to a Facebook page and the series’ main Web site, webcasts and video blogs allowing fans to follow series authors on book tours.
15. Connect with all stakeholders.
Scholastic is conscious of the need to communicate with kids, teachers and parents about the “39 Clues” series. Capitalizing on what she calls the “subversively educational” nature of the books—they teach history and geography along the way—Scholastic is working with teachers to foster the integration of the books into classroom curricula, and encourages networking among educators surrounding the books. Librarians and teachers who have their own blogs have also been instrumental in organically promoting the series, Lellos says, and a Scholastic-
sponsored teacher hub is planned to help further facilitate teacher conversations.
16. Don’t be a control freak.
Central to the online buzz surrounding “39 Clues” is an “organic” outgrowth of sites related to the series, but not created by Scholastic. Often created by fans, these include an independently created Wikipedia page and a wiki set up by a school in San Diego on which students talk to each other about the books, playing cards and characters in the books, as well as theorize about what will happen in the series.
17. Keep experimenting and learning.
“We are constantly learning,” Lellos says. “Given the groundbreaking nature of ‘39 Clues,’ there’s no model to follow, so we are creating a model and learning from that all the time. We’re using all the things we are learning, and can react most quickly in the online space to create a richer and better experience with each book, with each site feature, with each communication.”
Tips from … Jeff Loper, director of marketing for non-fiction, Thomas Nelson Publishers
Thomas Nelson has been a leader in engaging communities around particular authors. “Those authors who we have involved in the space are, in most cases, outperforming those that aren’t,” Loper says. Key to success is seizing opportunities in an evolving online marketplace. “What doesn’t work,” he notes, “is doing nothing.”
18. Build communities around authors.
“We’ve found that building Web sites or communities around a book isn’t successful,” Loper says. “People ultimately want to be closer to the author, and their books are an extension of them. The closer we can get them to the author, the more effective and engaged the community will be.”
(Editor’s note: This tip contradicts Scholastic’s experience with “39 Clues” and tip no. 35. Both were included to suggest that deciding on whether or not to build a community around an author or a book depends largely on the title and/or author. For example, in the case of “39 Clues,” is the author really what you would want to promote to the book’s audience, or the book/brand itself?)
19. Cultivate audiences across platforms.
Community building has, to this point, largely been done through Facebook, Twitter and blogging, Loper says, though the company also has built communities on Ning, an individualized social network built around interests and passions.
20. Remember, each audience is different.
To customize approaches, Loper will use the same media in different ways to match a particular author, topic or audience. “Social media has allowed us to really fine-tune the markets we reach out to, ” he says. “You can now market your authors and books to the niches most interested as opposed to a mass-marketing approach, which casts a wide net in hopes of reaching those niches.”
21. Monitor responses.
“Otherwise,” Loper says, “you don’t have any idea how or if the community is interacting with the book or author.” His team monitors conversations taking place on Facebook fan pages, blogs and Twitter accounts for those authors who have them. “Using any of these resources, you can monitor conversation about an author or their book, good or bad, and suggest ways in which the author can respond, if they haven’t already done so on their own,” he says.
22. Don’t wait around for a set path to develop.
“So many people are sitting back to wait and see how this is going to play out in hopes that there will be a clearly defined method for marketing using online communities and social networks,” Loper notes. “The truth of the matter is that there won’t be one for the foreseeable future, and there will likely never be one. From here on out, we are in permanent beta because of technology and how rapidly it is advancing. We’ll always be modifying and trying new things to figure out what is going to work best for that particular moment in time.”
23. Have a destination site.
Loper recommends having a destination Web site where you can direct people from social networks. “This is where the author’s Web site comes in,” he says. “The publisher’s Web site can work on occasion, too, but if you’re constantly thinking about how the consumer wants to be closer to the author, the publisher’s Web site isn’t that place most of the time. Think about it: If you’re a fan of U2, do you look at their CD to see who their label is and subscribe to [the label’s] e-mail list? No, you … discover their Web site is U2.com and go there. Why? Because it’s a direct connection.”
Tips from … Maureen Naff, senior global marketing manager at Springer Science + Business Media
Springer provides an example of how academic publishers are reaching communities online, facilitating dialog by treading lightly when necessary, and adjusting to the needs of various audiences.
24. Know your audience.
Research how and when your audiences interact.
25. Know your competition.
“The last thing I want to do at Springer is create something that is already out there,” Naff says. “It doesn’t help anyone. I’d rather our resources and energies go into [meeting a demand] that needs to be filled. We’ve had a couple of successes lately because there was a need [that] we saw, and we jumped on it rather than competing for the same space.”
26. Know what audiences hope to find.
Ask or make some guesses about what you should offer, Naff advises. “The beauty of it is [that] it is quickly changed. There is always the opportunity to improve, reshape and refocus,” she says.
27. Provide continuous opportunities for feedback.
28. Where appropriate, let the community take the lead.
Springer has allowed a couple of sites launched in the last six months to essentially shape themselves. “As a large commercial publisher, we do not always want [our brand] to be inserted aggressively,” Naff says. “We want to let the community cultivate its own innovations and ideas.” The company has kept its presence low-key with the recent launch of TheNeuroNetwork.com, maintaining a small Springer logo on the page while allowing users to shape the tone. “They know we’re there,” Naff says, “but it’s more important in this case to just facilitate it.”
29. Adjust models to match needs.
Because something works on one site does not necessarily mean it’s best for all communities or publications. Springer’s StemCellGateway.net, for instance, functions as much as an information resource as it does a dialogue facilitator. “The look and feel is quite different [from TheNeuroNetwork.com],” Naff says, “but both are trying to fill a need that we saw.”
30. Monitor with an eye to improvement.
While a hands-off approach has been good for some of Springer’s sites, the company is always looking for ways to improve the experience. “If there are parts that are not useful, get rid of them, or if something [new] might be great, add it,” says Naff.
Tips from … Gypsy Lovett, associate director of publicity, John Wiley & Sons Inc.
In an innovative move designed to capitalize on an already strong online following, Wiley worked with fans of Rose Levy Beranbaum and her RealBakingWithRose.com Web site to do some online community building for Beranbaum’s latest release, “Rose’s Heavenly Cakes.” The idea was to facilitate a blog-based online bake-off. Wiley offered free books to the first 10 bloggers to sign up, and the post became the most successful (in terms of number of visitors) to date on the author’s Web site. There are now 25 bloggers baking and interacting with their own communities on their blogs about the book.
31. Find and work with fans already active online.
Lovett and her team found a blogger who had previously baked and blogged her way through one of Beranbaum’s books, and launched a new site, HeavenlyCakePlace.blogspot.com, to seed interest in advance of the new book. “We were thrilled that a fan of our author’s was excited to launch this community blog bake-through, with some technical assistance from us such as building a badge,” she says. “Having the blog up and running several months ahead of publication certainly helped to build excitement, and ultimately helped lead to a great launch, because people were hungry for the information before the book was even out.”
32. Tap independent voices to create authenticity.
It is important that the fan tapped to launch the online bake-off was already an independent blogger writing about Beranbaum’s books, Lovett says. “The opinions and experiences voiced there are those of the community that has formed through a common interest. As a rule of thumb, people are most apt to listen to their peers than [if they] feel they are being preached to,” she says. The blogs contain unsolicited, unbiased opinions, rather than those of a publisher telling an audience about a product. “It is consumers talking to other like-minded interested consumers,” says Lovett.
33. Center a blog network around an author platform.
“It is critical that the author have a platform already, preferably online,” Lovett says. “In this instance, our author … has a very active site of her own. It certainly helped support and build awareness that she was willing to let her community know about the bake-along.”
34. Measure success by the interest and enthusiasm of the audience.
“We are thrilled at the number of bloggers sharing their personal experiences. Individuals are owning, defining and ultimately evolving these blogs,” she says. “By documenting their experiences baking, cooking or sewing through a book, interested consumers are spreading the word and bringing these texts to life.”
Tips from … Scott Spiewak, president/CEO, Fresh Impact Public Relations Group LLC
Spiewak works with authors and publishers to build micro-sites and online community platforms for authors.
35. Create a book Web site.
Launching a “micro-site” around a book is one way Spiewak advises to build a strong online presence. “We recommend launching your site either around your overall brand or, even more specifically, to the title of your book,” he says. “We use these micro-sites to help build not only a presence online, but to create a ‘hub’ for readers to come to … for your book and discussions.”
36. Launch the site six to eight months before a book’s release.
An early launch is key, Spiewak says—and this means more than a superficial, static Web presence. “Most of the micro-sites we launch consist of a blog, presale links to bookstore chains and distributors, event listings, guest appearances, even testimonials from readers,” he says.
37. Encourage authors to participate frequently.
“Readers these days want to know authors are accessible,” Spiewak says. “We strongly encourage authors to be a part of the site as much as possible [by] responding to queries and feedback.” Make sure authors understand the time commitment—for blogs to be effective, for instance, they must have at least three new posts a week. “The worst thing you can do,” he says, “is launch a blog and then never make a post.”
38. Mix traditional and social media for maximum ROI.
“We tell authors that the biggest return on investment with social media is when you mix traditional with the power of social media,” he says. Spiewak often recommends his clients utilize Facebook fan pages, LinkedIn groups, YouTube and Shelfari along with the traditional bookstore appearances, interviews and lectures. Such efforts, he says, are mutually reinforcing. “If you do interviews before the book is in stores, send media outlets to your blog or Facebook fan page. … In many cases, we have seen author interviews bump up their fan pages by several hundred,” he says. Sometimes the results are even more tangible: One particular author Web site yielded close to 14,000 books presold before the release date, he says.
39. Track results.
Use Google analytics or software attached to the social networking site to track the growth of online readers.
40. Tap blogs to yield evangelists.
Blogs are great for building relationships with readers, he says. “It helps readers get to know you personally, which establishes ‘brand evangelists’ to continue to tell your story without you having to tell it,” Spiewak says. Use blogs to make connections with other high-profile sites through links and guest posts (offering other bloggers the chance to post on your blog and contributing your feedback to other blogs pertaining to your genre or area of expertise). This can bring more readers to your blog and get other bloggers talking about your book with their communities.
41. Don’t let interest fade between launches.
To maintain an author, title or series’ strength as a brand, it’s important not to neglect social networking sites just because another book launch is not around the corner. “Keeping the buzz alive online between books or book releases can be an uphill battle,” he says. “You have to know that going into it, and build a strategy around release dates.”