As online marketing has developed from an untested innovation to a core marketing tool for entertainment properties, publishers have been looking beyond title or series marketing, and exploring ways to sustain momentum for entire genres and specific imprints.
Unlike traditional marketing, which is generally developed around a specific product or franchise, new online strategies aim to forge a relationship between the consumer and a company's brand. Disney has been doing this offline for decades, but other entertainment companies have struggled to copy its success. That's partly because it's difficult to put a wide variety of products under one rubric. But clever online marketing sidesteps that problem by allowing consumers to digest marketing material about products that interest them at their own pace (e.g., by visiting specific Web sites or opting-in to e-mail newsletters), while ignoring the rest.
Beyond customization, online marketing's breakthrough is that it's available to customers when they want it, in a context that offers them a large degree of control. That tends to build loyalty in a more profound way than print ads or TV spots aimed at a general audience, which interrupts what the viewer chooses to read or watch. While publishers have only just begun to scratch the surface of what is possible online, here's a look at some intriguing efforts that are underway.
Connecting to the Source
Perhaps the most familiar use of online marketing is to brand an author. When Tor decided it would be better for fantasy author Robert Jordan to work on the next installment of his Wheel of Time series than to hit the road to promote the prequel to the series, New Spring (Jan.), the house set up a site to market Jordan, his new novel and previous books. Working with fan sites, the publisher collected questions about his novels from around the world and then posted answers once a week on www.tor.com/jordan. "Who better to answer them than Robert Jordan?" noted Elena Stokes, Tor's associate director of publicity.
The house also hired Bookstream Inc.com to produce streaming video clips of Jordan addressing his fans' most popular questions, which can be viewed on the Web site. "By establishing direct contact with our readers, we can tailor our marketing to their needs," explained Stokes. Opening a dialogue with fans has also helped the house create regularly updated content that keeps them coming back to the site.
At Dark Horse Comics, Web marketing efforts since 1996 have focused on the company brand, using author interviews, games and original comics to draw fans to www.darkhorse.com. "Most sites went for the hard sell, but we started out trying to make our site a fun place to go," said publisher Mike Richardson. In addition to stoking interest in its properties, the site has allowed Dark Horse to maintain more control over information about them. "Our site is the official source," explained Richardson. "We can kill rumors, introduce new creators and showcase upcoming books." The site also gives Dark Horse an inexpensive PR organ, he added. "The Hellboy movie buzz was building on the Internet months before the general public knew about it."
Giving Them a Taste
The Internet makes the age-old practice of enticing consumers with free samples less expensive and more targeted. IDW Publishing recently signed on with America Online's "AOL Red" teen-centric content area, producing an online version of the graphic novel CVO: Covert Vampiric Operations (June 2003) that fans can find in weekly installments only on the network. That puts CVO in front of "five million people who have already expressed an interest in comics," said IDW editor-in-chief Jeff Mariotte, observing that it takes just a few more clicks to buy the paperback edition directly from IDW. The venture is only weeks old, so the jury is still out, but IDW is enthusiastic about the frictionless link between promotion and direct sales.
Even giants like LucasFilm's StarWars.com, a truly massive source of official information about the Star Wars franchise, embrace the connection between online goodies and sales. To promote Tatooine Ghost (Del Rey, Mar.), LucasFilm released a Valentine's Day e-book by author Troy Denning, featuring romantic intrigue between Han Solo and Princess Leia. With more than 7,000 Web pages, StarWars.com reaches "a lot of people we know are interested in Star Wars because they have voluntarily come to us," explained Howard Roffman, president, Lucas Licensing.
Web sites also allow publishers to offer sneak peeks at a wide variety of related products. "We're using the Internet as a sampling tool," said E-Scholastic president Donna Iucolano. "We try to promote genres to kids, so if they like one product, they might enjoy others that are similar." StarWars.com has a "Cargo Bay" section that lists products from a variety of lines, and allows visitors to register their collections and create wish lists that can be posted and e-mailed to friends and parents. The multimedia nature of the Internet also allows companies to market books, video games and films together.
E-mail also makes it easier to raise general awareness about a product as well as to sell it. Web site visitors who "click here to e-mail this to a friend" become sales agents, pushing products to a targeted audience of like-minded fans at little or no cost to the company. With that in mind, many sites offer easy-to-download materials to support their products, such as screen savers and desktop themes. "A publisher can only go so far with the book itself," explained Dark Horse v-p of information technology Dale LaFountain. "We try to go further, to create a brand affinity and keep them coming back, as well as give them something to take and spread to their friends."
Building a Community
Beyond giveaways, successful online marketers are also helping develop fan communities whose appeal transcends a given product. "Part of our job is to make sure that we offer the reward of belonging to a group with a common interest," explained Lucas Licensing's Roffman. "We engage them in a sense of community, and that energizes the fan base."
That sense of larger purpose is crucial for driving traffic to a major site. IDW makes extensive use of online message boards to put fans directly in touch with company executives and artists. "When fans have a dialogue with the company, they feel more of a connection to the product," explained Mariotte. Dark Horse recently went one step further, holding an online "strip search" where comics fans were invited to submit their drawings for consideration. Suddenly, fans went from being admirers to creators—and potential partners in the enterprise.
The goal is to promote brand loyalty that's sustainable over time because the fans relate to something larger than an individual book or video game. "The Web lets us build loyalty in a way that is nearly impossible to do with more traditional models," said Mariotte. Because they can interact with fans directly, companies also develop a relationship with their customers. "Years ago, if you had a problem with a product, you wrote a letter and maybe you got a response, but for the most part it was 'buy it or not,' " explained Mariotte. "Now fans can talk to the horse's mouth and get an answer."
Not only does this invite consumer participation, it offers companies a good opportunity for market research through a regular stream of feedback, polls and surveys—none of which costs more than the labor involved. Each new release lights up the message boards. Fans can also talk to each other through unofficial fan sites that offer executives even more anecdotal feedback. After the Star Wars Clone Wars animated series debuted on Cartoon Network, Roffman headed for the chat rooms: "You see the response instantly."
Integrating into Consumers' Lives
Community building is only the first step in occupying a central role in the lives of customers. Scholastic has been a fixture in schools for decades, but the Internet has allowed the company to interact with consumers more fully and immediately. It has helped teachers set up "classroom homepages" that allow parents to see homework assignments, fill out permission slips and keep track of what their kids are reading.
Scholastic also connects schools to each other around the country and around the world through an opt-in peer-to-peer network. "It tends to be especially popular during a trying event like the space shuttle explosion or an election," explained Iucolano. The publisher also runs a news division that provides both adult and kid reporters to "explain the world to young people," said Iucolano. That content is available on the Scholastic site and is also licensed to MSNBC and Yahoo.
These efforts are just the tip of the iceberg in a wide-ranging strategy that positions Scholastic as a vital player in the lives of its customers. Admittedly, the company has a special opportunity, given the nature of the educational publishing business, but it has cleverly leveraged its role into something much more profound.
Tor's Jordan site, meanwhile, features a rotating "Real-life WoT Romances" section devoted to couples who met via their love of the author's books, then found love with each other.
Wading into E-Commerce
While boldly charging ahead with online marketing, publishers are more cautious about establishing their own e-commerce sites, with the obvious exception of Scholastic, and now Penguin USA, which recently became the first major U.S. trade publisher to sell directly to consumers. Tor's Stokes deadpanned, "I'm sure we'll all be watching to see what will happen with that."
E-tailing lets companies enjoy the benefits of direct selling while avoiding the enormous capital costs of bricks-and-mortar stores. With Warner Brothers closing its flagship store and Disney putting its store up for sale, companies like LucasFilm see online stores as an attractive alternative. The company recently launched a full-featured e-commerce site of its own (StarWarsShop.com) on April 14. Roffman stresses that the site was designed to complement those of other retailers, and offers a limited selection that may include specialty items for collectors. IDW also indicated that direct online orders are a tiny percentage of sales, though growth is strong. And, of course, "all the money comes to us," added Mariotte.
Perhaps the greatest advantage of online marketing is the way it allows companies to use community-building and interactive aspects to sustain interest in a property. "We don't have to start at the beginning every time," explained Stokes. Of course, like any relationship, it takes constant work to maintain. "We continually create new content to keep them coming back," said Richardson. "It wouldn't take long to lose everyone if the site got stale."
But compared to traditional approaches, online marketing is a bargain. "You can't beat the bang for the buck in terms of marketing dollars," said Dark Horse's LaFountain, while Scholastic's Iucolano pointed to the additional savings that come with processing book orders online. The low cost of entry also means that companies can experiment more freely with new techniques.
What's next? "We see online as a big part of our future," said Richardson. "But it's the old Marshall McLuhan situation of charging ahead while we watch where we've just been in the rear view mirror. It's hard to look ahead."
Maas runs the communications company Darby Films (www.darbyfilms.com).