It's a typical weekday after school. Do you know where more than 21 million teenagers are? Online, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project. If you want to reach those teens, that's the place to go. It's "wkewl" in text-message argot, and publishers know it.
Whether it's re-energizing a Web site (or developing a new one) or ramping up tech knowledge to create campaigns utilizing blogs, podcasts, instant messaging, viral marketing campaigns, video sharing, ads on third-party URLs, video book trailers and social networking sites like MySpace (a regular destination for 55% of teens, according to a recent Pew survey), publishers are stepping up to the plate—er, the monitor—making themselves part of young people's increasingly digital lifestyle. (See our sidebar for some successful and forthcoming campaigns.)
Though it's difficult to nail down when online efforts first became a legitimate line item in book marketing budgets, the majority of publishers can point to a noticeable increase over the past year. "I can tell it has substantially grown over the past 12—18 months," said Diane Naughton, v-p of marketing for HarperCollins Children's Books. "We've made a significant shift to online marketing, because we know that the online world is where kids are and we know that kids are comfortable with online platforms."
The amount of money spent on online marketing is equally difficult to quantify. "These days we can't really think of online marketing as separate from marketing in general," said Linda Magram, v-p and marketing director of Houghton Mifflin Children's Book Group. "Ideally, almost every title should have an online marketing/publicity component." But at some houses, a scenario might go something like this. "A lead title with a $75,000—$100,000 ad budget could have $15,000—$20,000 allotted to online marketing," said Emily Romero, v-p of marketing for Penguin Young Readers. Jason Wells, publicity and marketing director at Abrams Books for Young Readers and Amulet Books, has seen growth book-over-book for one particular author, Lauren Myracle, whose novels are, fittingly, set in an IM culture. "The percentage was small for the first book in 2004 [ttyl] but has risen to 20% of the campaign for the third one [l8r g8r] this spring," he explained.
It helps to have the suits on one's side on this score. "We have strong corporate support," said Naughton. "Part of the mission of the company moving forward is to fully embrace the digital landscape. It's helpful to have that, and when the direction is clear, you can make more informed decisions." Other publishers are reaching deep into corporate pockets for online strategies as well. "DK has made a significant investment in time and resources to develop our digital marketing efforts," according to Rachel Kempster, publicity manager at DK Publishing. "We have an online marketing component for all of our titles with marketing plans. It can be up to 70% of the title budget."
Regardless of the dollar figure shelled out for online efforts, publishers believe, for a variety of reasons, that it is money well spent. "For the same money we'd pay for a print ad, we can reach millions of eyeballs—and super-targeted eyeballs," Kempster noted. For Romero at Penguin, running a sweepstakes or a galley giveaway on the home page of a teen site "can cost a fraction of what a print ad would cost." And she also considers Google search button ads and targeted blog ads real bargains as alternatives to print at the moment.
The bull's-eye effect—or hitting a target market—is paramount in publishers' justification of online marketing spending. This approach can be "extremely cost-effective when trying to position a niche book to the right audience," said Tina McIntyre, director of marketing at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. Publishers may design a minisite or a newsletter to appeal to a certain group, create a MySpace page, send a book to a blogger with a specific interest and audience (in hopes they'll recommend the book to thousands of like-minded "friends") or produce a podcast that appeals to a particular market segment. These are among the many ways that publishers are more sharply focusing their online reach.
One of the most ballyhooed advantages of online marketing is flexibility. "We can update our Web site in real time as necessary," Kempster said. "If we get a major media hit, we can splash it on the home page. If a book wins an award, we can send an e-mail blast out in under an hour. That was absolutely not possible in a paper-based marketing world."
The online world has become theplace to build book buzz and have it reach fever pitch more quickly than ever. "Direct communication with our consumers is more immediate," said Romero. "We've built a substantial database of teen readers whom we can reach cheaply and frequently." For the novel The Looking Glass Warsby Frank Beddor, Romero noted, "we started seeding the market six months before publication with a series of trailers, sweepstakes and sneak previews to build the fan base right out of the gate." And once initial interest was piqued, the goal was to feed "intriguing content on a monthly, sometimes weekly, basis," she added. "Online marketing can definitely help build anticipation and sustain momentum after the book goes on sale."
This kind of buzz is the essential fuel behind viral marketing, which has largely become an online phenomenon—it's word-of-mouth in the digital age. As more young people choose the online world as their realm for communication and, to an extent, socialization, they want to share—via e-mail and instant message, MySpace, text messaging, etc.—with their friends the things they find interesting. Publishers want their books and authors to be among those online interests. "Our marketing efforts need to be as compelling and fun as any video game they're playing or any TV show they're watching," Kempster said.
In what can only be considered a win-win-win situation, publishers can often count on pro-active authors to help build a better online presence for themselves and their books, an undertaking that usually delights fans. Stephenie Meyer felt compelled to jump into the online fray shortly after the publication of her first YA book, Twilight, in 2005. "I got started in all this when Little, Brown put together a Web site for Twilight," she recalled. "It was beautiful—very dark, romantic, gothic—but not me at all. I worried that readers would think I dressed all in black and wore blood-red lipstick. But I'm this big geeky person. My brother put together a rather meandering Web site that was a better representation."
Not long after that, friends started asking if Meyer was behind all the Bella and Edward pages (homages to the book's main characters) that had cropped up on MySpace. She wasn't, but was so intrigued by the site that she created her own page. "It's an informal and relaxed way to get out information, which I like." As a result, Meyer has devoted fans who regularly communicate with her and have traveled hundreds of miles to her events. She believes that her online exposure lets fans "feel connected and involved" something that helps them "become readers for life."
Author Barry Lyga (The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl) has a similar philosophy. "The Web site helps to cement the relationship you have with the reader," he said. In his case, fanboyandgothgirl.com features a series of blogs written from the point of view of his book's characters. Contests, giveaways and an e-mail contact help him be very "open and available to fans." More than marketing that seeks new audiences, Lyga sees the site more as brand-building. "No one's going to stumble onto my Web site. Ninety percent are readers who are interested in learning more about me or the book." And he has experienced a boost from the viral effect first hand. "Based on the number of unique visitors to the site each day, I can gauge what people respond to. When Neil Gaiman blogged about my book in November, my traffic went up by 3000% in a day and an inflation has remained—it never went back to what it was pre-Gaiman."
The fact that most publishers are now in the online marketing groove indicates this strategy has reached something akin to a tipping point. But does online marketing pay off in the form of book sales? The answer is a resounding—but, again, hard to quantify—yes. Naughton believes, based largely on her company's successful campaigns, that online marketing is definitely the way to go, as it is "targeted and measurable. We can measure effectiveness based on response," she said. "From that, we can see exactly where to focus our time, attention and money."
Publishers can measure how many people visit their sites and what they look at, how many people sign up for newsletters, contests or other targeted features and even how many people click on any third-party links, like those to online booksellers. But, after that, it's a guessing game. "The financial payoff is not direct," said Naughton. "We have partnerships with online retailers, but we don't know if a person actually purchases a book when they click on those links on our site. They may go back to the site another time, or purchase the book at a bricks-and-mortar store, remembering the information they saw online."
Kempster believes the waters are muddied further by the blending of various promotional elements. "It's hard to determine how much of a book's success can be chalked up to an online effort when there are so many other marketing and publicity components in the mix," she said. Indeed, all houses can agree that traditional marketing is far from dead, and is still predominant in many campaigns. In fact, the new wave frequently benefits from the old guard. "Digital marketing works best when it's executed hand in hand with offline efforts and traditional marketing," said Linda Leonard, director of New Media Marketing at Random House Children's Books. But at the end of the day, most publishers concur that the broad exposure online marketing is bringing to books and authors is invaluable, and that more often than not, there is a strong correlation between the sales of books and the online exposure those titles receive.
Such blips in sales are what keep publishers motivated to stay on top of the latest online marketing trends and technologies. Even those companies who don't yet have a significant online presence are not standing idle. They are at least investigating ways to get involved, or, like S&S, are readying their first ventures. "We actually have a task force made up of all different departments and staff levels," said McIntyre at Little, Brown. "They meet regularly to discuss what's going on in the digital world and keep us in the loop." Naughton added, "We keep an eye on what teen and kids' consumer products are doing and take a page from that. We read trades and attend conferences and watch what's happening in film, music, community spaces where users share content. No one is not focusing on the digital world; it's trickling down to every media constituency."