Strategies for Social Engagement: Takeaways from the Digital Book World Conference

Finding a book online should be as obvious as finding one in the library. But the space has become crowded: 1,500 new eBooks are published every day.  At the Digital Book World Conference in New York, publishing experts weighed in on how authors can use social media to engage their fans and draw in new readers. But the takeaways are valuable for any business.

Panelists included Scholastic’s Morgan Baden, FSB Associates’ Fauzia Burke, and Book Country’s Colleen Lindsay.  Each brought fresh perspective on how to engage an audience.

Picking a Platform

With so many available platforms, it’s difficult for many companies to decide where to focus their efforts.

Said Lindsay, “Pick one thing you’re comfortable with. Do it and do it well.”  Before she was a community manager, Lindsay was a literary agent. One of her authors, a single mother, didn’t have a lot of time to spend on the computer. Lindsay advised her to start a blog and write one post a week, alternating between news about her book, like “what it’s like going through copyediting,” and posts about things in her own life that she was interested in.

For Baden, who deals with the young adult and juvenile markets, her company goes where the kids are, which right now is Facebook. “I would rather have a thriving account on one platform than four or five non-thriving accounts.”

Burke disagreed. As publishers, “We have an obligation to check out everything,” she said. “Even if you don’t engage [with all of the different platforms] at the same level, some attention to very opportunity is important, because you never know what’s going to take off.”

Choosing a Handle

One of the biggest debates at the conference was whether or not employees should use their own handles when they engage with the public. What happens when they leave the company?

“This is your resume,” Burke tells her staff. When her employees move on to their next job, all of their activities for the previous company can serve as a record of a job well done.

At Book Country, Lindsay is one person in a two-person team, but she came into the in-house publishing position with with about 73,000 Twitter followers from her days as an agent. This, she said, was one of the reasons she was hired. Lindsay only lost 2,500 in the move [corrected via reader comment]. She is comfortable with her public persona, and talks freely about publishing and her cats.

Building a Community

The panelists agreed that it takes time and research to figure out who your customers are and how to address them.

Because Baden deals with the YA and juvenile markets, her audience is ultimately the parents of the readers.  There are laws that govern marketing to children, and it’s important to follow the rules. “Don’t market,” she said, “communicate. Engage. Build community.”

BookCountry is a community for writers of genre fiction to share their manuscripts for review by their peers. “We leave the writers to their own devices,” said Lindsay. But they encourage their writers to be respectful of each other while they interact, using the “thumbs down” button on the critiques if they aren’t helpful or are rude. The team also tries to reward its star users, either with a public acknowledgement on Facebook or Twitter, or some swag, like a t-shirt. They also ask the readers for feedback, like whether they would prefer to be “critiqued” or “reviewed,” and which authors they think define a certain genre.

A proud moment for Burke was when two of Facebook’s top 20 most-shared articles came from her firm. One of them came from an educator who advised parents on how to speak to their children’s teachers. It was a controversial subject, which let to a lot of lively debates on Facebook. The key was to “be controversial, but not snarky,” said Burke. “Say something people are thinking, but no one is saying.”

Managing Your Reputation

When the Scholastic team noticed that people were airing their customer service grievances on Facebook and Twitter, they developed a plan, said Baden. After signing up for some monitoring services, the company set up guidelines for answering questions, like when to respond on a person’s wall versus a private message. There are always multiple people monitoring each account, which helps the team provide a two-hour turnaround on complaints.

Reputation management is also an important issue for Burke, who monitors all mentions of her brands on Hootesuite and Google Alerts.

Because it may take up to 24 hours for a Google alert to pop up, Lindsay recommends multiple methods of checking for complaints.  She monitors her site even after hours from her laptop at home.

Contests and Giveaways

The panelists pointed out that there are legal hoops to jump through before you can have a sweepstakes, contest or giveaway on a site like Facebook or Twitter. It’s important to look up the rules, which are usually available on the site.

Baden noted that Facebook usually requires a certain number of ads per month before a merchant can host a giveaway on their platform.  To get around this, her team will use Facebook to announce that the giveaway is happening, but provide a link back to their own blog for the actual contest.

The panelists seemed to agree that television networks were great at sponsoring giveaways. Lindsay cited a contest sponsored by TNT to promote their new sci-fi series, “Falling Skies.” The network partnered with social media ranking site Klout on a leader board where fans could earn points and move up the ranks by promoting the show using social media. All throughout the contest, they would also send fans “weird stuff” in the mail, said Lindsay, like an alien claw. The grand prize was a trip to the set and a walk-on role. The response was very enthusiastic.

Hiring a Social Media Specialist

When it comes to hiring a social media specialist for your staff, look for someone who is charming, a good speller, and interested in social media.  “If they don’t use it in their personal life, they’re probably not the right person,” said Lindsay.

But Lindsay also had a word of caution: too often, the social media campaign “gets turned over to the least experienced person on the staff,” she said. “This is a really important piece of your marketing and branding.”

Baden recommends what is called “reverse mentoring,” where a younger employee with excellent technical skills teaches an executive with more real-world experience how to engage the community online.

Photo of Scholastic’s Morgan Baden by Devon Glenn