Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Word of Mouth

The e-mail in box is now under 700! Progress! I've also finished reading all my books for Rita judging. I'm now reading Life of Pi. My city is doing that "One City, One Book" thing, and that's the book. I wasn't high on participating, but then I was at the library and they had a copy on the shelf, so I decided I might as well give it a shot. Now I'm worried about how successful (or not) it will be, considering the book wasn't checked out or on reserve. I've only read the author's note at the beginning so far, but I think I like the author based on the note.

Most of what I'm doing these days is publicity work. Last year I was down on myself for not getting another book proposal together for a book outside my series, but now I'm kind of glad that instead I focused my efforts on publicity. Unless you've got the money to hire people, PR takes a lot of time (and even if you hire people, there's still a lot of work to be done). There's a lot of discussion in the industry about the best way to sell books -- do ads work, do reviews really accomplish anything, are bookmarks a waste of time and money, etc.

I've been doing a lot of reading about how trends spread, how word of mouth works and how people make buying decisions, and I've come to the conclusion that it's really a mix of things. In advertising, they generally say people need three exposures to retain any awareness of something from an ad. I've also heard other figures, like that people need to hear about something at least seven times before they retain awareness, and they need to hear about something twenty-five times before they make a decision to purchase. I think it all depends on when and where you hear about something. If you're in a bookstore and your best friend or a very knowledgeable bookseller puts a book in your hand and says you have to read it, you may buy it on just that one exposure. I've read reviews of books and made a decision to buy them just because the ideas appealed to me. I've bought books in bookstores with no prior knowledge of the author or the book, simply because the cover, title, or story line caught my attention.

But it is probably safe to say that more exposure equals more awareness, and awareness plus interest increase the odds of a purchase. That's why I decided to go through with having bookmarks printed. I don't expect too many people to pick up a bookmark from a conference goody bag and immediately decide to purchase my books. However, anything that's familiar tends to stand out against the unfamiliar. If you're browsing a bookstore, you're more likely to notice the books you've had some exposure to in any way, whether it's from seeing an ad, reading a review or even just looking at a bookmark. Word of mouth is effective, but someone has to be aware of it in the first place to be able to spread word of mouth, and the word of mouth may need reenforcement. You may hear about a book from reading someone's blog, which makes you more likely to notice a review, so that you take a second look at a bookmark, and then when you see the book in the store you pick it up to take a look and maybe buy it.

Now that big business is becoming more aware of the importance of word of mouth, they're trying to manipulate it or encourage it, and I'm not sure how effective that's going to be. In some cases, I don't think they get how it works. Case in point: Universal's dependence on word of mouth to promote the film Serenity. They did a lot of advance screenings of the film and promoted them to Firefly fans so these fans could then go tell lots of people about the movie. The problem there was that by targeting the already devoted fans, they were preaching to the choir. These fans were already telling everyone they knew about it. With the DVD set of the TV series, they already had something to talk about and something to show people. While we certainly enjoyed getting an early peek at the movie, I don't think it changed how much fans were able to spread word of mouth. The way to broaden that audience would be to show the film to non-fans, people who weren't already talking about it. To bust something out of an established fan base, you have to reach the people who are least like the existing fans but who are still likely to be interested.

And now there are companies trying to fake word of mouth. In one case (that I think involved the agency I used to work for), they had a pair of actors playing the role of tourists in New York. They went around to all the big tourist sites, then would ask people to take their picture in front of various Big Apple views, using their nifty digital camera. They'd give a brief demo while explaining how to use it to take their picture, then if the people were interested or commented on how cool the camera was, they'd give a fuller demo. There was some outcry about that, how it was dishonest because these tourists were really paid actors. I think it was a pretty clever idea, and since these people were total strangers whether or not they were paid, and since people did get a real demo of the camera, it wasn't like there was much trust being violated. On the other hand, there's now an agency that specializes in building buzz. They have a huge database of "agents" who can be selected for various demographic criteria. These agents are then sent product samples and asked to try them out and then talk about them and provide reports on their efforts. They earn points toward prizes for participating. That kind of bugs me because it seems like the people doing the real work of the campaign aren't being paid in anything other than prizes (while the agency charges hundreds of thousands of dollars for a campaign), but at the same time, these agents are using their relationships with the people around them to earn points by telling people about stuff. That messes with the key reason word of mouth is effective: you trust the word of the people you know over the word of some critic you've never met. But can you still trust your friends' advice and opinions if your friends are earning points toward a free iPod, or whatever, for telling you how awesome some product is?

It's a really fuzzy area, ethically. There's no problem with providing samples and hoping people will talk about things they liked, but attaching strings to the talk is where I have issues. It's one of many reasons I'm no longer working for a PR agency (well, aside from the fact that they laid me off, but I didn't want another agency job).

Anyway, to those of you who've helped spread the word about my book by talking about it to friends, e-mailing people, blogging about it, or whatever else, I'm truly grateful. You've done so much to help make books three and four happen. My editor remains astonished and pleased by the enthusiasm of my fans. We're gearing up for another push as the next book approaches, and I will be doing some things in the near future to show my gratitude. Sorry, no points toward a free iPod (I don't even own one), but I will be doing some drawings for books and other prizes from my mailing list or in other ways, so stay tuned (and sign up for the list -- I really won't spam you).

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