Thursday, 30 January 2020 10:37

How to develop reader communities

Conventional processes in publishing tend to be linear. They start with an idea and follow a process of refining it to create a product. The focus is on readers who are interested enough in the idea to purchase a book about it. 

One valuable thing digital brings is that it increases publishers’ ability to access their readers. And also to connect readers with other readers, who will tell each other what they think and like. This is the digital equivalent of ‘word-of-mouth’ recommendations. 

Social media expand the potential of word-of-mouth hugely. Social reinforcement is a powerful factor in all decisions so the one-to-many opportunities provided by social media, such as re-tweeting, forwarding, liking, are able to extend social reinforcement globally.

Shared interests

Publishing is a natural way to share interests widely. Traditionally this is just what books do. But the interest shared really lies in what the book contains: the story, the information, the images. Books are beautiful products, but they’re not the only medium. So as new media emerge it’s better to think about the content rather than the container, the substance more than the product. Or at least to distinguish between them.

Anyone who buys a particular book shares interests with other readers of it. They belong to a virtual community with shared interests, which the book represents.

Individuals and communities

But historically it has always been hard to find out who these people are, as individuals. We know who they are in general terms: they’re travellers, or children, or cooks, or mostly women, or mostly men, or mostly young or old. But beyond this, we don’t know much. Something we do know, however, is that they are all part of a notional ‘community’ of people who have at least one thing in common: they like the book. What else can we know or find out? And, when we know, what else can we do with that knowledge? 

The internet and the social world that spins around it enables us to get to know our readers, customers, consumers, users better than ever before. Everyone who ‘likes’ a book can be told about another one they may like too. And they’ll be more likely to believe what they hear if they hear it from a friend or someone they respect. This can be regarded as a kind of selling, although not as we used to know it ... rather, it’s word-of-mouth recommendation spread more widely than ever before. And it comes without pressure or obligation, as the best recommendations do.

This is reinforced in communities that are based around shared interests. In such communities, comments, reactions and feedback become shared wisdom. The feedback changes from “I think this” to “We think this”. Then it evolves in the way that all social behaviour works. 

In practice

I came across an example of this with a small publisher specialising in books for amateur enthusiasts. The books were detailed and thorough and written in a comfortably readable style. 

A small group of regular readers found a topic not covered in the series and so asked the publisher to produce a new book on it. The publisher was reluctant, doubting it would sell enough to repay the investment in producing it. But the readers weren’t satisfied. So some of them, experts themselves, offered to write the book. They and their friends went further and said they would buy enough copies to pay for a small print run. So the publisher’s risk was reduced and the group got the book they wanted. 

This was helped because digital media – email and websites initially, social media later – saved time and cost in planning. It would have taken more time and effort than made it worthwhile if communications had depended on letters and phone calls. But with social media it happened easily. And it happened at a speed that made the long-distance creativity exciting, too. 

Loyalty and trust

If a publisher can respond to an individual or a community in a constructive way, a positive feedback loop is built, encouraging trust and loyalty.

Consumers will always feel more trust and loyalty if they know their interests are being listened to. If they feel supported, they may also be willing to pay more. Even if collaborative participants actually feel their efforts should be rewarded, and therefore pay less, the fact of collaboration will enhance the long-term relationship between the publisher and the consumer, to the benefit of both.

Publishing’s linear process is challenged when readers get actively involved. But so long as this involvement focuses on feedback and new product suggestions, the disruption is slight. The benefits are also clear. 

The next blog looks at what happens when ‘consumer activism’ risks disrupting the normal publishing process as a whole.