[Background: I’m taking part in a panel on social media at the SIBA trade show next weekend. So this post is what I’d like to say about social media there and know I won’t (because I tend to ramble -- stop laughing at the back -- and panel discussions aren't the place to give speeches, anyway). So here’s what I think about social media and the indie bookstore (at least this week).]

[Edit: There have been two follow-up posts with more social media musing. The first, about why social media should be personal is here, and the second, about the role of reputation in social media, is here.]

pdQ: Why do we need social media?
A: Our customer’s buy most of their books elsewhere!

Have you seen Paperback Dreams? (If not, I urge you to watch it!) When Kepler’s Books in San Francisco was in trouble, they discovered that their “best customers” only bought 25% of their books from them. Before you sneer and think reflexively that your store is doing so much better, consider that the average for indie bookstores is 40%. So even if your store is capturing the nationwide average, there’s still a lot of room for improvement. Imagine the difference an extra 5 or 10 percentage would make to your bottom line.

My own realization that loyal customers were shopping online more than I thought came in 2005, on the Sunday after Harry Potter & the Half Blood Prince came out. After church that morning dozens of people, teenagers and their moms, were holding, reading, caressing their brand-new copies. The main topic of conversation was not, however, the contents of the book, it was where they ordered it and how much they saved. People were bonding over their thriftiness. Now these were people I saw in the bookstore every week. Many were regular buyers. If they were seduced away by the savings on the biggest book of the year, I wondered, how many other times were they buying books elsewhere?

You don’t have to lose 50% of your business to be put at risk, you only have to lose 10% – 15% of your business to be put at risk.
— Michael Powell (in Paperback Dreams)

So there are your customers, browsing in your store, purchasing occasionally, and buying most of their books elsewhere (and increasingly online). How do you strengthen your bond with those customers and even bring new customers in? For me, the answer seems to be you need to go where your customers are and engage them, and that means online. The fact is customers are coming into our stores less often than before. They’re getting their book fix online: reading about books, talking about books and buying books. This is where social media can help booksellers.

How do we utilize social media?
crush itThere are many experts offering rules and guidelines for successful use of social media. My gurus are Chris Brogan and Gary Vaynerchuk; however, there’s no way I can copy them or follow their guidelines fully — but go read their blogs & watch their vlogs, they will really help you understand the world of social media. The thing to consider it this: Chris Brogan and GaryVee are building multiple brands, launching companies, writing books, etc. Social media is their work! I have two book industry jobs and do a bit of freelance graphic design on the side; for people like me (and you) social media is a set of tools to help me get my work done.

Here’s what works for me:

Blogs
A year ago I thought a good blog should be updated daily (more than once a day for a really good blog — boingboing was my ideal). Since then I’ve begun a regular blog, joined Twitter, Facebook, Indiebound and several other online social networks (most using Ning), and I’ve learned something: social media is about being part of the conversation, not simply broadcasting your POV. If you participate daily, you can help shape the conversation and move it in directions that interest (and potentially benefit) you. If not, well it’ll move on just fine without you. To participate you don’t actually need your own blog — I think it’s better if you have a homepage, blog or store website to link back to because it’s a place for the conversation to continue and grow – but it’s not essential in order to get involved in the conversations you want to be involved in. The conversation (or uber-conversation if you prefer) takes place all over the world: in blogs, publisher websites, on twitter, at trade shows and any time two book-people get together.

There is not one central conversation to get involved with, so trick number one is to create a common identity across the platforms,  so that your persona, your online personality, is consistent and easily identifiable across the web. At a simple level, this can be achieved by using the same userID and avatar across platforms. At a more advanced level, there are two really interesting services/apps that facilitate this: Disqus & Glue.

dc-inlineDisqus aggregates your comments across blogs, and can be used to moderate comments on your own blog, essentially collecting all your blog conversations in one spot, and under one ID. Glue is a pop-up menu that tracks the books you view online and any ratings you give them (ditto for movies, music, and other things, but I’m talking about bookselling). It then shares your opinions with your friends when they in turn encounter these same books, and shows you what they thought of the same books and suggests other titles that they liked. Glue is brand new, and has real potential to  inform buying decisions on participating websites (including Indiebound) in real time. (I’ll try to go into more detail about these in a follow-up post.) Sign up now and you’ll have a chance to really understand how itGetGlueLogo can be used to help your business by the time it becomes the next Twitter or Digg.

Rich’s rule: Participate in the conversation everyday.

In business, you shouldn’t go to a meeting if you’ve got nothing to say. In school, you shouldn’t go to class if you aren’t ready to participate. In sports, you shouldn’t get on the pitch unless you’re prepared to play. Social media is no different. Don’t set your store up on Twitter, Facebook or with a blog if all you’re going to do is push info at people — just like on a date, nobody likes a guy who only talks about himself. You must be prepared to converse with your customers. Aim to have one conversation about books with at least one person online everyday. That’s through blog comments (on your own or someone else’s blog), via tweets, or wall-to-wall on Facebook.

Twitter/Facebook
I may not have the time to write a blog post daily, but I can tweet practically everyday — and do: 2800 tweets as of last Wednesday. That’s about 390,000 characters, or 40,000 words (40% of a novel or a complete screenplay, for comparison purposes). I’m a light Facebook user: I tend to only ‘friend’ family or real-world friends. I add a few books to my Indiebound wish-list during the course of the week (which are also effortlessly added to my Glue profile as I browse), comment on a few blogs as the inspiration arises (and as workload allows), and return innumerable emails daily. Even though everything isn’t book-focused (I chat with a large group of neighbors–mainly about a bear that’s been raiding our birdfeeders; parents at my kids’ school; and eclectic local twitterers) it is all participating in the realm of social media.

jetsThe point I’m trying to make here is that you can’t be afraid to be personal, to show some heart and share your individual interests and point of view: that’s what makes social media compelling. Gary Vaynerchuk nails this point in his book Crush It!; his success selling wine online isn’t something he’s achieved despite the fact he’s an opinionated guy from New Jersey who loves the New York Jets, he succeeds precisely because he’s an opinionated guy from New Jersey who loves the New York Jets! People can relate to him because he’s real, not some scrubbed and scripted spokesmodel. We’re done with the age of slick scripted drama; reality sells.

Twitter isn’t the be-all and end-all

I like Twitter. I tweet a lot. Twitter is probably the best medium for me because it forces me to be succinct and focus my message in 140 characters or fewer. But just because it works for me, doesn’t mean it’ll work for you. Gary Vaynerchuk’s medium is the vlog, the video blog. The thought of watching myself review books in a video makes my skin crawl — but I’m sure there are booksellers out there who could excel. It works for GaryVee (he built his family’s wine store into a $50million business!), but wouldn’t work for me. Other people love Facebook’s combination of status updates, games and lots of photos. Musicians bond and network through MySpace. Different mediums suit different personalities; play around with what’s out there before you reject social media as not for you.

Communal Communication

I had begun to notice that some of the things that used to be communicated over email are now being communicated through Facebook wall posts or tweets, when I came across a study that recently confirmed this. These previously private conversations are becoming  public, and this often increases the number of people involved and the impact of the conversations. (Compare the results if you were to send an email to your best friend from high school to ask if she is going to the reunion next month, versus if you left her a message on her Facebook wall. Chances are some of your (and her) listening earFacebook friends also went to your high school, and are interested in the reunion.) I think of this as akin to the way you handsell a book to one customer in the store, but several others are usually listening and sometimes buy the book, too. Some people seem to judge these overheard conversations as more trustworthy than if they asked you outright “What’s good right now?” (I suspect this may be a reaction to the way some booksellers (and not just at the chains) automatically respond with something that’s just out in hardcover – but I digress.)

For example, as I’ve struggled to understand the emerging role of ebooks over the past  year, I’ve blogged my imperfect understand and chatted with online friends who understand these things better on Twitter. Frequently, I’ll get into a conversation with one person about how the Sony Reader works or how ebooks need to be formatted, and will see other people joining the conversation, answering my questions, posing new ones or offering different points of view.

This is the core value of social media: bringing people together quickly and cheaply around points of shared interest.  Check out the #followreader hashtag for numerous examples of these conversations of interest to booksellers.

What’s the benefit to me/you?

Well, obviously there’s the personal satisfaction of having all these interesting conversations (if they’re not interesting you shouldn’t initiate or respond), there’s the wealth of information you gather during the course of these interactions that you can use in your job, and then there’s genuine opportunity to drive additional customers to your store. You can bring in customers from outside your geographic location who want to support you because you’re personally becoming an important part of their online world (note: another recent study suggests that Gen-Y considers their online friends to be more important, more ‘real,’ than their local friends – think about that!). You can get to know people who live nearby but never entered your store before, and bring them across the threshold. You can strengthen your bonds with existing customers who may then forgo the apparent savings at AMZN and buy more of their books from you. You’ll also discover interests that you never knew your customers had, and be able to adjust your stock to fill this demand — but only if you’re part of the conversation.

Links

Directory of Book Trade People on Twitter

ABA Guide to Twitter (.pdf)