Have You Earned Your Media Today?

“All the new thinking is about loss.
In this it resembles all the old thinking.”
–Robert Hass, “Meditation at Lagunas”

For marketing departments, all the new thinking is about “earned media,” which means social networks like Facebook and Twitter. For publishers this resembles all the old thinking about “earned media,” meaning book reviews. The old saw is ads don’t sell books, reviews do. Of course, ads and reviews in fact support each other—they’re not mutually exclusive—but that idea never gained much traction in traditional publishing circles. (Even though the most commercially successful books tend to be those with bigger ad budgets and no review coverage; but I digress…)

However you stand on ads versus reviews, the old saw doesn’t cut it anymore because major book review pages are declining precipitously. Publishers Lunch reports that review coverage from 1st quarter 2008 to 1st quarter 2009 fell 14%. Further, 2009 review coverage is down 18% compared to 2005, and 24% compared to 2004. At the same time that books are losing exposure in major print media, ad budgets are naturally getting slashed. In this environment, online advertising makes a lot of sense. You can target customers in new ways, and even build new audiences by targeting vertically by interest. Ad networks like the Verso Reader Channels make this easy to do for a small investment.

Social media is a crucial piece of any online marketing plan. It is beyond its “inflection point;” sites like Facebook are now part of the fabric of our daily interactions. Facebook already has 55 million active users in the U.S. alone, and more every day. Most importantly to book publishers, the fastest growing FB demographic is age 30+. In just the last two months, the largest demographic over all has become 35+, taking over from 18-34. So it’s very important that authors and titles have presence on some kind of social media –especially Facebook and/or Twitter. Similarly important for selling books, the highest indexing group on Twitter is now the 45-54 demographic—that’s the demo we need to sell $35 hardcovers.

So we agree with the talk at last week’s Ad Age conference about the importance of social media. But we disagree about the terms. Since when is this new “earned” media free? The salaries and benefits paid to employees who put a lot of time and energy into creating fan pages for Facebook and the lightning quick responsiveness of Twitter, may seem cheap compared to hundred million dollar ad budgets for P&G. But compared to the four and five figure ad budgets we work with in publishing? Not so much.

At the conference, Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures cited the success of the Burger King “kill your friends” promotion on Facebook. But that “free” campaign did not occur in a vacuum. It relied on the multi-million dollar budget that had created the creepy “King” character and a whole new attitude of the brand. Without the advertising campaign set-up of the new brand personality, the “kill your friend” campaign would not have had enough of a platform to launch.

How does this apply to book publishing? Too often books (and their book trailers, however cool they may be) are left isolated in a no man’s land online, waiting for the right reader to find them. That’s free. But to reach a huge number of people at one time to let them know about your book (much less the cool trailer!), paid media is still the most efficient tool available. Viral media does spread one-to-one, but it can’t start if you aren’t reaching enough people in the first place.

To take true advantage of social media requires serious ad budgets, which in turn requires real courage in a down market. Yes, you can run an ad for next to nothing on Facebook and target a more or less relevant group of 10,000 people. But when you get a decent .10% CTR, that’s ten people clicking on the ad. That $50 would be better spent buying a couple drinks for your favorite blogger. An ad budget of $7500, however, could deliver over a million and a half impressions on Facebook or on Verso Reader Channels. That’s what we mean by attaining scale.

As hard as it is to spend when you’re down, studies show that advertising in a downturn helps. Businesses that maintained or increased their ad spend during the 1981-82 recession averaged higher sales growth during the recession and in the following 3 years. With our own current slump giving that one a run for its money, now’s not the time to quit—it’s the time to differentiate your book and build its audience.

Reaching each book’s potential readers directly has never been easier or less expensive. But it’s still not free. If we truly want to build book audiences in our new era, we need to invest in paid media for the immediate scale it delivers and—also—embrace the viral power and low cost of “earned” media.

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