Best Practices in Online Selling
As the founder of Internet service provider Juno, Charles Ardai knows a thing or two about making a big splash on the Web. When Ardai sold his company in 2001, the entrepreneur and writer, then all of 32 years old, decided to pursue his dream of reviving the pulp-fiction genre by starting his own publishing company, Hard Case Crime. He knew from the beginning that success would require good online-selling tools.
“It’s a pretty popular genre,” Ardai notes, “but it is a genre, and there is a certain fan base that loves this stuff. If you can find one of those fans, the goal is to hook that person, to get them coming back month after month.”
The Hard Case Web site (HardCaseCrime.com) is all about dangling that hook—from prominently displayed cover art to snappy descriptions and reviews. The publisher also posts one chapter from each book in its online catalog for free.
“It’s the drug-dealer model,” Ardai jokes. “Give them a taste for free and then they have to see how the story ends.”
Once readers are drawn in, the site seeks to make it as easy as possible for them to buy a book—or two, or a bunch.
“What we did was create a variety of different avenues into the online ordering and fulfillment system,” Ardai says. Hard Case books are published in collaboration with Dorchester Publishing, whose Web site handles all online purchases. “On our home page, we have several different links that go to the Dorchester back end,” he says, “[such as] the book club, a ‘find out about’ link, [and] a link on the home page to invite people to fill in their name and e-mail, where the lure is [that] we’ll enter you in a free drawing for books each month.”
Hard Case also formed a partnership with Barnes & Noble.com, which hosts online book clubs for fans of various genres. The publisher worked with the retailer to create a club for crime fiction, cross-promoted through the Hard Case Web site, where readers have the opportunity to interact directly with Ardai and his authors.
“When we published ‘Money Shot,’ author Christa Faust was not extremely well-known, and based on name alone the book would not have gotten much attention,” Ardai says. “But she came on the board, interacted with readers, showed herself to be witty and personable, and she brought a lot of people on board.”
The discussion sites within the online book club feature copious links to a Barnes & Noble purchasing page, ensuring that visitors are never more than one click away from buying a book.
Ardai says building in numerous purchasing opportunities is the most important element in online selling.
“In terms of best practices, that’s just a squandered opportunity,” Ardai says of not doing so. “Adding that one line of text [enabling direct purchase of the book] takes it out of the realm of mere publicity and into the realm of selling. The goal is to get the book into people’s hands.”
Creating Purchasing Opportunities Everywhere
The same principle is at work in online marketing done by scientific, technical, medical (STM) publisher Elsevier. Interactive catalogs feature embedded links that lead directly to where each book is available for purchase, and the company’s Focal Press imprint has been aggressive in creating purchasing opportunities on
-networking sites, according to Kristine Anderson, global vice president of marketing at Elsevier’s science and technology division.
Aimed at the photography, video and broadcast community, Focal Press has built pages on MySpace, Facebook and YouTube. “We add additional content from authors [through] podcasts, tutorials and instructional videos showing how to do something in Photoshop, for example,” Anderson says. “The pages have links directing [users] to where they can buy the book.”
On the Focal Press home page (FocalPress.com), tabs direct visitors to pages dedicated to specific areas of interest, where there are sample chapters to read, tutorials with clear tie-ins to instructional book series, and “sneak peeks” of multimedia packages offered for sale. Bestsellers and new releases are prominently featured, as are author profiles.
Elsewhere at Elsevier, e-books have come to dominate the online purchasing market. On the company’s Science Direct platform (ScienceDirect.com), designed primarily for academic and corporate libraries, and other institutions, subscribers receive frequent alerts to new releases (by e-mail or RSS feeds) and benefit from sophisticated search tools that Anderson says are built around the workflow needs of users.
Getting Creative With Custom Content and Purchase Options
“We’ve been doing a great number of customer advisory boards, and a lot of research with focus groups to really find out what the most useful formats are for people in the [scientific] community,” Anderson says, citing as an example options available to libraries specializing in certain subject areas.
“We offer packages—we call them collections—based on subject areas,” Anderson explains. “Institutions big on some subject areas can pick collections most suitable to their organizations, or can pick and choose, and get one or two that fall outside of that collection. Pricing is based on institutional size and the number of users they will have.”
At McGraw-Hill Education’s award-winning AccessPharmacy site (AccessPharmacy.com), which provides curricular-based access to dozens of textbooks and reference works, purchases are also based on a subscription model—and, as with Science Direct, extensive market research.
“We always work with an advisory board in developing a product,” says Helen Parr, executive editor of medical online at McGraw-Hill. The company also pays attention to visitor habits, recently adding a “pay-per-view” option after noticing many visitors were finding the site through Google.
“Say you are a consumer of casual interest, or a pharmacist who has a distinct need, but is not operating in the academic universe. We now offer 24- and 48-hour subscriptions [for them], along with our 12-month subscriptions,” Parr says.
What’s important, Anderson says, is to customize purchase options to the needs of your audience. Science Direct launched 4,000 e-books last year, but still makes print copies available for certain disciplines. Online tools augment graphical elements in books, and the company is considering selling e-books by the chapter later this year.
While Hard Case has enjoyed marketing success with community boards, and Focal Press through social-networking sites, Indiana University Press (IUP; IUPress.Indiana.edu) has focused much effort on its blog, which features original content (author interviews, excerpts from upcoming books, etc.) and book-purchase opportunities. A bar down one side of the blog highlights book sales and titles with seasonal interest, as does the press’ home page, which is updated at least once a month.
A recent Web-site redesign made facilitating online purchasing a top priority, according to IUP’s electronic marketing manager, Laura Baich.
“[The creative-service office] did a lot of usability studies,” she says. “They called for volunteers—students and other people—to look at the site. That’s how they came up with the site design to make it more user friendly.”
Improvements include a “bread-crumb trail” at the top of each page, so users always know how to navigate links and get back to where they were. Important features have also been added to the shopping cart.
“They tried to lay everything out very clearly—the shipping address, where you are in the order [process], payment information and delivery information,” Baich says. “They put big, orange buttons on things like ‘change address,’ or to direct people to ‘continue.’ Important things have been highlighted because I think before, people were complaining that [the process] wasn’t as easy as it could be.”
From Search to Sales
The IUP blog is hosted by Typepad, which Baich says has done an excellent job with search engine optimization. The sales department also works with Amazon and other online vendors, making titles available on Amazon’s Search Inside! and Google Book Search. (Google is “usually one of the top 10 referring sites to our Web site,” Baich reports.) The press will also soon have titles available on Microsoft’s Live Search Books.
Turning a successful book search into a book purchase involves presentation tactics not unfamiliar to the brick-and-mortar book world, says Richard Davies, publicity manager at AbeBooks, which provides an online-selling platform for thousands of independent booksellers.
“The key things for us are obviously price, as always,” he says. “[Also,] when you put a book online, a picture with the book makes it three times as likely to sell as an identical book without a picture. This is important, because what happens now is we have 110 million books listed [on AbeBooks] … so for your books to stand out in a crowd, price is important, description is important.”
Davies also notes, “We try to market to different customers differently. You almost have completely different terminology as well [for different audiences]. Collectors care about condition. For new books, content matters. Textbooks are all about price.”
At Hard Case, one of the big selling points is the book covers, rendered in classic pulp style by well-known artists. Ardai notes that promotional e-mails do not include these covers, however—only links to the Web site where the cover images are featured.
“That’s a deliberate attempt to get them closer to the point of sale,” Ardai says. Once on the site, links direct them to other books by the same author, or invite them to join a discount book-of-the-month club.
“It’s in some ways very similar to a brick-and-mortar store,” Davies says. “If the customer walks in for the first time, and has a good experience and walks out happy, you will be successful. It’s the same with online retailing. If they have a good experience, can sign on easily and pay without hassle, they will come back to you.”
He notes, “We do a lot of marketing to drive customers to the site, and at that point, you can’t just rest up, because then you have to make sure everything runs smoothly if you want a repeat customer. Otherwise, you waste all those marketing dollars.”