Most publishers dream about seeing their book promotion efforts "go viral" by catching a wave on the social networks. That happened unexpectedly for me last week, serendipitously following my blog post about building a slow-and-steady website for book promotion. The top line numbers were impressive, as the FonerBooks website received approximately 90,000 extra visitors for the week, who downloaded some 14 GB worth of material. Our $10/month hosting service stood firm under the load and continued to perform amongst the top 10% of web servers, and I haven't been contacted about any overage charges on bandwidth yet. Viral week also provided some amusing and not-so-amusing surprises, including a stomach bug that had me serving up cookies in the bathroom (no illustrations necessary). But first, some Analytics referrals data for the three peak days:
A little quick math will tell you that the ten main referring sites above don’t add up to 90,000 visitors, but the main reason is that around 25,000 visitors were directed to a PDF file which doesn’t include the Google Analytics code. The #4 spot is people using the Google services to read blog feeds, not search. But the sites that are missing are almost as interesting as the sites that are listed. Twitter didn’t finish in the top 10, despite several hundred tweets about the "discovery." Most of the people tweeting the news either tweeted the PDF file, or they sent their followers to the social networking site where they had discovered the story, as opposed to the site (ahem) that the story was about. Given the link shortening services used on Twitter, tracking is tricky.
In addition to the main referrers above, there were hundreds of modest new referring links to FonerBooks from blogs, forums and other social networking sites. Yet, a little research on Google suggests that most people passing the story along did so by linking to the sites where they read about it, rather than linking to FonerBooks. How that will all sort out in the search engine rankings may not be apparent for some weeks or months to come. This approach of reporting the news about the story rather than the story itself seems to be common in the world of social networking. But what exactly is the story they were all reporting?
The main attraction for the buzz was the PDF file I keep mentioning, a large poster I created from some of the flowcharts used in one of my computer books. I created it specifically as a viral book promotion, thinking it would be popular with techies and students, especially if they printed copies for schools or dorm rooms. The funny thing is that I launched my viral book promotion blitz SIX YEARS AGO, in 2003! And over the last six years, around 200,000 people downloaded that poster, and I don’t know how many printed it. But it didn’t become “news” until September 1st, 2009, when Steve Leckart included a miniature image of the poster in a BoingBoing post about the collection of flowcharts on my website. And ironically, Steve’s original source for the story wasn’t my website at all, but another blog that had made pretty free with the graphics, though I can’t get too angry with them after the unexpected publicity. It's also the first time in my memory that an anonymous individual e-mailed to warn me that a site (the story source) was making free with my content. The same individual (I assume) took it upon himself to comment in my name on the Steve’s post, which he fixed after I told it wasn’t me:
To show how powerful a couple viral mentions can be for a website that doesn’t already have an established search presence, the graph below generated on Alexa shows how that site where Steve first spotted the flowcharts benefited from the exposure. I erased their site name from the graph, but note how their traffic rank which normally fails to register actually peaks above FonerBooks on the hottest day of the story:
Some of the comments people made in reposting links to the work were pretty funny. To paraphrase a couple:
"Some guy made these charts"
"He’s sure giving away a bunch for a dude trying to sell a book!"
Which brings us to books sales resulting from the publicity surge. While it’s impossible to associate each sale with the source, I would estimate that the 90,000 extra visitors, plus the much a higher number of people who saw the flowcharts on other sites along with the book title or even a link to Amazon, may have doubled sales of that book for the week. I saw a minor knock-on effect for my related titles through Amazon Associates, but overall, the impact to the bottom line of my self publishing business is well down in the fraction of one percent area.
So how can publishers get their own viral marketing campaign going, and perhaps see a bigger impact on their overall sales? Clearly, it starts with having some content that people can get excited about, and visual content, whether graphics or videos, is pretty much a must. Remember, it’s not so much about providing a solution or information, it’s about wowing visitors, providing some eye candy that makes somebody want to tell a million friends "Hey, you gotta look at this!" For book publishers, this generally means coming up with something in addition to your book, as opposed to simply using material from the book itself. If you have the time on your hands and like coming up with neat graphics or making publishing videos with a clear focus on the entertainment value, it can’t hurt to try. But as with any other type of book marketing, if you don’t have an existing platform in place to launch your campaign, it’s a long shot.
Generating higher sales if your plague ship comes in is another issue. Most marketing consultants and promotional experts aren’t focused on bottom line sales because they can’t deliver them. They’ll expect you to celebrate the number of websites quoting your story, the number of visitors to your site, the number of links that show up on unrelated sites around the world. I think my site might have converted a few more of these viral voyeurs into customers if I had an eBook version for sale, but this is the title that I kept out of the eBook market as a control group of one. The abridged eBook version that I give away received 10,000 hits over the week, accounting for 5 GB of bandwidth, and maybe a few of them will become customers by-and-by.
There are plenty of risks in viral transmission, and they aren’t limited to links and credit going the wrong places. You could also end up with a massive number of links with silly anchor text from strange contexts that could hurt your search visibility with your proper audience, the collateral damage version of Google Bombing. There's also the loss of control that comes when your material is excerpted from its own context, which may lead some people to use it improperly and then react negatively. If your books are fairly specialized, only a tiny portion of the people responding to the eye candy are potential customers. A "success" could end up straining your resources which would be better used in serving your natural customer base. This type of book promotion will work much better for titles aimed at a general audience, such as mainstream fiction.
Should publishers put any effort into viral marketing? My short answer is "No" and the long answer is, "Maybe, if you can resist paying for help." I’ve seen quite a few publicists trumpeting their ability to create viral results, but I wouldn’t recommend shaking hands with one and then rubbing your eyes.