Monday, January 05, 2009

Becoming Cyber-Effective

It's been said that 50% of all advertising is effective, and the other 50% isn't. But the problem is that no one can guess which 50% is which.

While it's a tidy little axiom that makes excuses for why ad campaigns fail to generate expected results, it's still a little off.

In my last post, I talked about things that writers have no control over, and a few things they do.

One of the things you do have a measure of control over is your Internet presence.

Brand-building and name-recognition are important for authors. Once we sell a novel to a publisher, we have to sell it to readers. If they like the book, they become brand-loyal, and we become an automatic purchase.

For that to happen, readers first have to know a book exists, then they have to read it, and finally, they have to like it enough to buy the next one.

Publishing, as a model, functions very much like an all-you-can-eat buffet restaurant. There are a certain number of items for consumption, and personal taste and quality dictate which items move the fastest.

Of course the most important aspect--getting on the table in the first place--plays the biggest role. The bigger the quantity, the more restaurants a food appears in, the more it will be consumed.

We writers don't have much control over how big our print runs are, or how wide our distribution is. That wonderful food that buffet-goers might love to devour must be available first. Sadly, most books don't get big print runs and distribution, which limits the amount of people they can reach.

Writers have some control over a book's quality, but who likes the book and wants to keep reading the author is largely subjective, and also beyond a writer's control.

So how can a writer brand themselves when distribution and quality are crapshoots?

They can follow advertising's lead, and discover on their own what people want and what works by conducting studies, comparison, and analyzing data.

Here are some tools and I use and ways I measure my cyber-effectiveness.

What I Want to Know - Do people like my writing?

Tools Used- Email, personal appearances, message boards, blog comments, reviews.

How I Know How I'm Doing - Fan email can be an indicator of how well people are responding to your book. In this day and age, if someone emails you about your writing, this is a huge coup. It isn't like a reader can press a button embedded in a book and immediately contact an author. So those who do this have a compulsion to do so, which implies passion. To read a book and like it so much that one logs onto the Internet, Googles an author, and writes them a personal message, is a powerful indicator of how much that book affected them.

Frequency of email depends on distribution/print run, naturally, but it also can measure a book's effectiveness. Divide your print run by the number of people who contact you.

You can also browse Amazon.com, GoodReads.com, Shelfari.com, and many other sites where readers post reviews. Got a lot of reviews that you didn't directly solicit? Then your book is striking a chord.

If you have any sort of crowd at a signing or appearance, your writing is important to people.

If people are discussing your books in a forum, listserv, Yahoo Group, or message board, that indicates passion, and passion in one person often means passion in many, which indicates you're doing something right.

If I divide my sales by the number of people who somehow reach me or talk about me, I get around ten to fifteen percent feedback.

This is high. But the number is skewed. Much of the feedback comes from people who have read several of my titles, and may contact me/review me after each title. But if you know you've sold ten thousand books, and you've only gotten two hundred people offering feedback, you should know that your writing isn't as effective as it could be.

Remember that being contacted is it's own form of distribution. The more places/easier it is to contact/review you, the more you're going to be contacted/reviewed.

Beside email and this blog, I make it easy for people to find me using the many billboards and social networking sites I've listed in the sidebar. I have a forum, and use polls on my website, and maintain Facebook and MySpace pages, doing all I can to facilitate feedback.

If people aren't contacting you, make it easier for them to do so, and make sure both your writing and persona encourages it.

What I Want to Know - Are people finding me on the net?

Tools Used - Hit counters, download trackers, social networking.

How I Know How I'm Doing - First of all, content is king. People on the Internet are looking for two things, information and entertainment. As a writer, you're uniquely suited to provide both.

The more you provide, the more Googleable you become. The words I'm writing right now will be searchable a decade from now, still drawing people to this post. Some drawn here will read, some readers will seek out my books, some of those people will become fans, and some of those fans will become buyers. It's a trickle down effect, but it works.

You control your content. If you're a blogger, are you blogging about something people are interested in? Timely topics may get hits in the short run, but universal topics tend to keep finding viewers long after they've been posted.

This blog has its share of both timely and universal posts. Newbie writers come here from around the world, as evidenced by my Feedjit Live Traffic Map widget in the sidebar. This widget shows me, at a glance, how universal my posts are.

For a more specific demographic breakdown, I use Statcounter.com, which lets me know who is visiting and how long they stay, among other valuable info. I can see what topics generate the most hits.

My website has many free downloads. By offering books (entertainment) for free, I'm basically like a buffet restaurant that offers free samples--a certain percentage will like the sample, then come in and eat.

I use bfnsoftware.com to track my downloads. People have downloaded about twenty thousand copies of my ebooks since I began tracking. A huge number? No. But these books keep attracting new visitors, and creating new fans, with no real ongoing effort on my part.

Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter, among many other social networking sites, allow you to reach out to people, and vice versa. The reason I have a lot of online "friends" on these sites is because I put in the time to find them. The higher your friend count, the more people you can potentially reach with announcements.

But like your website and blog, this is all about content. What you have to offer dictates how many people on these sites will care when you do have an announcement like a signing, new book release, or contest.

If they really like you, you become prominently displayed on their social networking page. This is free advertising, leading others to you.

What I Want to Know - Are people linking to me on the net?

Tools Used - Other blogs and websites, search engine rankings, Google Alerts, link exchanges.

How I Know How I'm Doing - When writers ask me about blogs, or MySpace, or websites, they think these are magic bullets and all they must do is open an account for the traffic to come pouring in and name-recognition to blossom.

Well, no. As I've mentioned many times, you have to give people what they want if you want them to visit, and they want information and entertainment. You also have to make an effort trying to find these people.

If you're just starting out, one thing to do is visit popular sites, contribute information and entertainment, and offer a link back to your site. Say something smart or funny on another person's blog or message board, and people will check your profile, and your site, and if they like what they see they'll bookmark you or link to you.

If you're already established, offer content to other sites for free. Guest blogging, doing interviews, and providing short stories are all ways to spread name-recognition.

One of the ways to judge if people are talking about you (rather than to you) is by using marketleap.com. This free site allows you to check your search engine saturation, and how many other sites link to you.

Technorati.com, Digg.com, Delicious, and other social bookmarking sites allow people to point you out to even more people. Making it easy for folks to bookmark you, link to you, subscribe to your feed, or tell others about you, means more people will find you. Hence the two new widgets you see on the bottom of this post.

I've set up Google Alerts for JA Konrath and Jack Kilborn. This isn't out of vanity. It's so I can see what I'm doing that is important enough for people to mention. If you Google Alert yourself and you don't get any hits for several days, you aren't doing enough online. I average 4 to 10 alerts a day. That's more than many authors, not nearly as many as some. How do I know? You can set up Google Alerts to search for any term, including your peers' names. Marketleap.com allows the same thing.

You should NEVER compare yourself to other authors when it comes to things out of your control: advances, print runs, publicity, awards, reviews, etc. But you can and should see how effective your branding and name-recognition techniques are compared to theirs. Not for bragging rights, but as a learning tool.

I know I've written an effective blog post if a lot of people link to it and comment. The more people who link to you, the more traffic you get. It isn't by chance that both my blog and website have lots of links.

Links not only bring in traffic, they also raise your search engine ranking. Remember that your ultimate goal is to become known to complete strangers. The more places you appear, in person and in cyberspace, the better your chances at being discovered, read, and bought.

Sales are not the only indicator of how well we're doing as writers. They're just one statistic. While sales may be the ultimate goal, and that goal may be influenced by factors beyond your control (like print run, distribution, and publisher marketing dollars), you can and should be influencing the other statistics I mentioned here.

You can write a book, cross your fingers, and hope your publisher pushes it.

You can write a book, cross your fingers, and hope it magically catches on with the public.

Or you can write a book and put in the time to make people aware of your book, which will perhaps influence how well it catches on with the public, and maybe even prompt your publisher into pushing it.

Landing a book deal is luck. Becoming a bestseller is luck. Getting 50,000 hits on Google when someone searches for your name is hard work.

Becoming cyber-effective is within your control. All it takes is time, savvy, and attention to content. And as writers, you should be paying attention to content in the first place.