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Online marketing harnesses word of mouth

26 March 2007

Word of mouth is the most powerful way to sell books. This old adage of the publishing world has been given new impetus by the vast opportunities presented by the web. Now you can reach a global market from the computer in your living-room. Consumers have achieved a new power, because viral marketing and other web opportunities offer the means to launch your product to the world.

Publishers have been slow to realise the possibilities this represents, since their focus has been on promoting their books to the book trade. Amazon and its competitors are making a major difference in this, but publishers are still inclined to see Amazon as just another bookseller. They are only now beginning to see the possibilities of the web in providing a market direct to book-buyers, and are still finding it difficult to figure out how they can do this themselves. Publisher brands mean nothing and books constitute a vast range of different products, so how are they to find a market online?

Book-buyers are a sceptical lot. Although they are influenced by promotions, discounts and bestseller lists, they know they are being promoted to. A friend's recommendation counts for a lot more. But if consumers in general are a savvy breed, the online variety are positively suspicious. For this reason the heavy-handed publishers' approach does not work well on the net. The challenge is to deal with online buyers on their own terms.

At a recent seminar on online marketing organised in London by the Bookseller, Peter Collingridge of Apt Studio warned against 'astorturfing' - where companies pose as fans and post fake praise online. 'If it's faked, it may work in the short term but the negative impact is potentially much bigger.' Publishers should be aiming for: 'great quality execution of a well thought-through strategy that gets your products in the minds of your consumers without compromising the ideals behind them.'

Shiona McDougall of HarperCollins UK showed how the company had used clever video clips to kick-start viral campaigns. But many of the publishers present at the seminar seemed to be too small to afford this and in the foothills as regards the uphill task of developing a good web strategy.

What this highlights is that on the web everyone is equal. A self-publisher has just as much chance of achieving a powerful viral campaign by coming up with a clever way of marketing their book as a big publisher does. The medium is inherently democratic. The astounding growth of YouTube and its competitors has shown that there is a huge thirst for user-generated content which is transforming the way everything is bought and sold on the web.

And writers should note that self-publishing is rapidly becoming a more realistic alternative for those who can harness the power of the web to sell their own writing.