As I am writing this (22nd June 2013) my latest book: Google Semantic Search is riding high on the Amazon best-selling charts (updated on an hourly basis) on both sides of the Atlantic and we are a couple of weeks still, away from its release date.
This is not my first best-selling book (and hopefully it won’t be my last) but it is the first book I have written that has gone straight to the best-selling charts before it has been released by the publisher. A book that hits the best-seller lists after publication is always great to have but it’s not a surprise. After all those who read it and find it useful usually tell their friends or leave reviews (or both) and that builds up a good head of steam in its marketing that translates into sales.
But here we have an anomaly. People are buying it (and emailing me about how anxious they are to read it) before it has come out, putting their faith (and money), in effect, in an untried product. As an author I find that totally gratifying, as a marketer I found it perplexing enough to take it apart and think about what made it happen and what marketing lessons can be learnt from it.
What I came up with can be applied to any product or service and it shows that the way the market works and the way we make our purchasing decisions is governed by the same dynamic in every market:
1. Timing – Timing is crucial. Google’s switch to semantic search and the advent of the semantic web started at the beginning of 2013. It took me ten months to research some of the aspects of the book regarding the semantic web and write it. This is the first practical book of its kind on semantic search engine optimization (SEO) and it details how webmasters, marketers, brands and entrepreneurs can take advantage of the unique features of the semantic web to better promote their websites, services and products.
The subject is so new that I had to spend weeks and several meetings to even convince my publisher that my instinct was right and that the semantic web was about to impact marketing much sooner than anyone expected. Annoying, from my perspective as a writer who felt that I was right, totally correct in terms of business and marketing. If I had been unable to make a convincing enough business case for the book then, perhaps, it was not the kind of book the market needed. Arguably, I could have written the same book in 2011 but semantic search was nothing more than a theory back then and without it having a real impact on marketing which is making itself felt in the shifting results marketers and brands get from traditional SEO techniques, the book would have nowhere near the applied, practical impact it now has.
Lesson learnt: Be aware of trends. Try to be the first but time it so that your product or service coincides with a real market need rather than something which may be nice to be able to address, but not necessary.
2. Branding – Brand power is important. Hardly anyone will buy a book from an author who no one has ever heard of and who has no track record. I know it sounds unfair, particularly if you are a writer just starting out but it is the way we all operate when it comes to making purchasing decisions. It is why brands continue to command the lion’s share of our spending money. Branding activity provides semiotically condensed information with a high semantic content. When we look at a brand and what it does we form an idea of what it is, how it does business and from that we extrapolate, internally, a calculation of trust based on our direct experience of it and its reputation. That’s why branding is crucial.
As an author, I am always aware that I am the brand. What I say, how I say it and to whom, becomes part of the information space potential readers use to help them decide whether I know enough of what I am talking about to be trusted to guide their semantic search and semantic web marketing activities. Semantic search is sufficiently different for me to have had the opportunity to spend time explaining it. I have taken part in numerous online discussions, interviews, panels, and Hangouts-On-Air (HOAs). I have written articles, talked to newspaper reporters, contacted magazine editors and been invited on radio shows.
All of this has been part of the brand-building activity that an author needs to do (and the pressure on that front never lets off) in order to promote themselves, first, and their books and expertise second. ) This is, of course, marketing 101, so it's hardly new. What is new and has to be stressed is that in the social media age all this happens faster, in greater breadth and with greater directness. It cannot be canned. If you do not inject your personality in your brand, if you try to be “corporate” projecting a preconceived image and message, it will backfire. Branding is necessary in order for your target audience to ‘get’ who you are. I know from my own behavior as a consumer that unless I agree with what a brand does and what values it stands for I do not give them my money. Branding therefore is much-needed information the end-user needs and the brand must provide in order for the two to connect.
While I know I have to do many of the things I detailed above, I also love the contact. I love the fact that I can have this direct connection with my audience. I take the risk and open up myself and show who I am as a person, explaining what drives me and although that is a totally scary thing to do and I would much rather not have to do it, I also know that it is the very least I can do. When people trust me enough to buy a book I have written before it even comes out, I owe them as clear a picture of who I am and what I do, as I can possibly provide.
Lesson learnt: Brand building is an important activity because brand equity translates directly into sales. Consumers use their understanding of brand values to make purchasing decisions. Beware however that traditional branding with sleek advertising and at-arm’s-length marketing no longer works. Project your personality into what you do. Help those you do business with understand who you are. Do not be afraid to make mistakes and be prepared to take risks that leave you feeling vulnerable. Make your branding a real conversation rather than an advert.
3. Marketing – Marketing is critical in the success of any book, never mind a product or a service. Although the semantic web is not new in concept (it was first articulated as a vision by the inventor of the web, Tim-Berners Lee, over ten years ago) it is new in its emergence and the practicalities that business and individuals face online. Many of those I talk to are already facing its impact, through a problem, that they have to deal with without really being able to understand why it’s happening. In marketing Google Semantic Search: Search Engine Optimization (SEO) Techniques That Get Your Company More Traffic, Increase Brand Impact, and Amplify Your Online Presence I created a conversation in every social media platform I am active on (mostly on Google+ but also a little on Twitter and a tiny, tiny bit on Facebook) which asked real questions regarding identity, trust and reputation, the elements of semantic search that have now become critically important.
I approached the subject both as an expert with a real point of view to express but also as a lay-person interested in understanding the dynamics of modern online behaviour. By stating what I knew on how specific aspects of the semantic web work and really listening to the conversation that developed I did not just create an awareness of the book I was writing and the need for it, I also market-tested some of the concepts and ideas I was putting in the book, I got, first-hand, a sense of the frustration traditional SEOs felt with semantic search and got a clear idea of the kind of guidance webmasters and entrepreneurs needed in order to enable them to work more confidently in the semantic web.
By being challenged (as I was at time) about some of the statements I posted online regarding semantic search I was forced to think critically on why they were correct and how to best explain their importance. Al of this made the writing process for the book a co-creative one, that helped me, the writer, closely align what I was putting together with the needs of its target audience. Admittedly there were times when a section I had written which I particularly loved, had to go and then I felt the pain of writing this way. I love search, I love the dynamics that govern our digital behaviour. I totally love how, now, we are just beginning to get a handle on the methodology that goes into the creation of such ethereal concepts as “trust”, “reputation” and “identity” that we thought we understood but have always struggled to explain.
Left to my own devices entirely my love of these and the cutting-edge research that goes into studying them would feature more prominently in the book making it, possibly, less valuable as a practical guide. By closely listening to the problems faced by my potential readers I ditched sections of the book I would have very much liked to include and wrote, in their place, very practical, much more action-orientated ones. The finished product is all the better because of it. Those who pick it up first need to know what to do in order to enhance their marketing in the semantic web and then, if time allows, tackle the research behind it all.
Lesson learnt: Test-market your product. Use focus groups, friends, relatives and willing unknowns. Find out if it really meets their needs and don’t be afraid to ditch aspects of it you love, for your own reasons, in order to meet the very specific requirements of your target audience.
In retrospect it seems like I managed to hit all the right notes seemingly without effort. Hindsight does make things appear that way. The truth is a little more prosaic. I spend a lot of time interacting online because writing is a lonely profession and a lonely writer goes kinda crazy pretty quickly. I provide links, information and insights to members of my social network because I value their own interaction with me and their selflessness when I need help and this is my way of giving back.
Had I sat down and actually planned to operate this way I might not have pulled it off. While I understand marketing and help corporate multi-nationals get it right I also abhor the glitz and fakery that goes with it. It reeks of manipulation and, at its worst excesses, is responsible for at least some of the ills we perceive today in the way our world is run.
This is probably the best lesson of all and it’s not even a lesson: Be yourself. Try to align what you do with the need of others to gain from it and, in the process, make work and life balance nicely by becoming a seamless whole. There are downsides to this for sure (I am writing this on a Saturday and I will be online at least sometime tomorrow) but there are also huge rewards: you stop ‘projecting’ an image and you just let the world know who you are, you discover exactly how useful is what you do and you get to have a blast. I’ve lost count of the times I have seen a staggeringly accurate insight appear as a casual comment in a conversation thread I have started (or participated in) on Google+. These, to me, are the real wins.