Covid-19 has greatly affected the publishing industry across all divisions and markets, and the marketing and publicity divisions of trade publishers have required particularly swift and frequent changes to their ways of doing business. In the opening panel of PubTech Connect 2020, which was copresented by PW and NYU School of Professional Studies Center for Publishing and was held virtually this year through Zoom on November 17, the topic of the hour was new marketing strategies.

The panel, "The New Marketing Toolkit," was moderated by Kristin Fassler, senior v-p and director of integrated marketing strategy at the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, and panelists included Ebony LaDelle, director of teen marketing at HarperCollins Children’s Books; Rudy Martinez, director of marketing for Soho Press; Erika Seyfried, v-p and director of digital strategy and consumer engagement at Penguin Random House; and Virginia Stanley, director of library marketing for HarperCollins. The panel focused on how to capture consumer interest in a marketplace that has shifted to digital sales, the benefits of virtual events, the importance of fleshing out direct-to-consumer marketing, and how libraries are adapting to an emphasis on digital resources.

The word of the day was “nimble,” and Fassler opened the discussion with an emphasis on adaptation in the marketplace. "We’ve learned a lot this year during a time of distraction and disruption," she said. "I think one of the biggest challenges has been how to conduct effective outreach when we’re hampered by the way we used to do things, like galley mailings. I used to do a lot of creative partnership work at conferences, pitching our books and explaining how our products are aligned. It’s been necessary to be creative even earlier."

LaDelle was quick to point out that "consumers are holding publishers more accountable" for their marketing plans and execution. It is no longer enough to share pull quotes or cover reveals, she said: “There’s a need to be present and intentional with our marketing content.”

Martinez stressed the importance of direct-to-consumer interactions. “Now is a great time to build a great consumer list. People are hungry to feel connected to the book community, especially at a time when they can’t go to book events or book clubs.” This is even more the case, Martinez said, for independent presses like Soho, adding that developing a vast and effective email campaign is imperative in making sure a book is successful.

“We really have to be nimble and flexible,” Seyfried said, pointing to the shrinking holiday shopping window as a direct example of the sorts of marketing and publicity tools Covid-19 has affected. Penguin Random House’s internal insights team, she added, conducted a marketing study that revealed that 25% or more of book consumers are doing their Christmas shopping early this year due to Covid-related worries like shipping delays. "We pivoted to launching our gift-giving messaging in mid-October," she said. "Usually we’re still in planning phase in October, but we’ve had to rush it and be more adaptive."

Panelists agreed that the decline in prepublication campaigns is also a challenge. "We can no longer plan as far in advance," Fassler said, and the panelists noted that on-the-fly creativity goes a long way in helping them reimagine both their front and backlist titles. "With a smaller staff, it’s never a lack of ideas," Soho's Martinez mused, "it’s more about deciding which one is best. We’re making sure that our content can live across multiple lists, how to be creative across one-offs, and more."

Setting clear metrics and goals for marketing campaigns, the panelists noted, provides a useful way for book publicists and marketers to remain realistic yet adaptive. "So many brands are starting book clubs," LaDelle said, noting how brands are, like readers, hungry for content. "We’ve been partnering with brands like Urban Outfitters to help capture readers."

In terms of events, Stanley shared enthusiasm for the popular adoption of digital events: "Digital is the one and only way to go," she said. "They seem so much more personal to me, more intimate. It feels one-on-one. You almost get to know that author even better.”

According to Deloitte’s 2020 CMO Survey on Covid-19 and the state of marketing, 51% of consumers have no intention of returning to pre-Covid shopping habits. Fassler notes that for publishers, creating "a virtual shopping environment" and building their own recognizable branding around it is now a necessity—even more so than before.

In response to this, panelists brainstormed possibilities, from using 3D cover art instead of the standard 2D thumbnail to offering digital excerpts that mimic the look and feel of flipping through a book to the possibility of animated book covers. "It really is about making sure we are taking the time to make our content resonate with consumers," Seyfried said, "so they stick with us."