Business Musings: Shopping As Experience (Jumping The Digital Divide Part 3)
All of the changes since March of 2020 brought a lot more people into online shopping, which includes buying books. Our market has grown and, with the slow decline of Amazon as the default marketplace, will continue to grow. I’ve dealt with these changes in the previous two posts on the changes the pandemic hath wrought.
In this piece, I’ll look at some of the changes, and then I’ll throw out areas where publishing needs to adapt. Do I have the solutions? Hell, no, but that’s what you people are for. You don’t have to respond in the comments (unless you see someone doing something well and you want to share) but do give this some thought.
There’s lots of room for business development here.
Now that there are more new customers who shop online a regular basis than there ever were, things are changing. Regular new consumers bring expectations, and those vary according to the age of the consumer and the product that the consumer is buying.
Let’s go with product. Yes, we’re dealing with books in publishing, but step away from publishing for a moment and think of retail. More specifically, think of your online retail experiences.
When a customer is dealing with a regular purchase, like groceries, or something that the customer gets weekly or monthly like furnace filters or cat food, that customer wants an easy experience. The faster and more accurate the experience is, the happier the customer is.
A lot of the subscription services on various sites recognize this. Some are easy to use—click a button and on this day/date, the item will arrive at your doorstep. Some are ridiculously counterintuitive and lead to what the retail gurus call “shopping cart abandonment.”
I call it extreme frustration. Customers are willing to give a smaller site the benefit of the doubt. They’ll poke around for a while, but they’ll give up if that poking around takes too long.
That same thing goes for something like filing a change of address or getting a digital product sent to the correct email address. I still get paper magazines and since we moved this summer, I was the one handling all of the change of address forms.
Some were super easy. The online form allowed me to select when we’d move, when the new service needed to arrive, and whether or not I needed a pause in-between. The simplest was a newspaper that Dean still likes receiving in paper.
The hardest is an long-established publishing industry magazine that has no online change of address form. I have to write a letter to someone, using a 2008 style click-an-email link—which takes me to an email service that I don’t use.
I finally gave up in frustration. I couldn’t even comment on the website or ask for a help menu. Eventually, I will submit a paper change of address form, with real stamps in a real envelope. When I’m a little less peeved. In 2021, there is no reason for something to be that hard.
Convenience. It’s important. During the vaccine rollout, when everyone had to get an appointment weeks ahead of time, the people trying to get those appointments were 70 and above. Depending on the state or region here in the U.S., the computer appointment system was either streamlined or incredibly convoluted.
Dean spent hours with Nevada’s early system, set up by the state. By the time the vaccine was available to my age group, over two months later, I went onto an established pharmacy website and scheduled an appointment in ten minutes.
Those early experiences, though, brought a lot of seniors online. They were frustrated, yes, but they soon learned that most systems weren’t as complicated as the vaccine site had been. Easier in comparison meant that a lot of seniors starting using the web more.
On the other end of the spectrum are the kids who grew up with online access. They want convenience too, for those pesky things like setting up shots or getting something on a regular basis or signing up for a softball league. But they bring a whole different attitude toward their moments online.
They want experiences online.
It’s not enough to scroll through pages after pages of possible product. It’s not fun to put a title in a search bar to find that book or that particular pair of jeans. It can be frustrating and time consuming, just like convenience use of an online retail site can be.
But it can also be fun. The pandemic changed a lot of people’s behaviors.
Before the pandemic started, for example, a lot of people under 30 participated in “squad shopping,” but it’s really caught on when most folks were trapped in their homes.
Essentially, squad shopping or group shopping is the online equivalent of going to the mall with friends. Only the shoppers do it one of two ways: they either used social media, especially something chat-based like WhatsApp, or used a dedicated app, that enables them to live-stream the online shopping experience and consult with their friends. (I assume this would also work if a person shopped at a retail store alone, properly socially distant.)
Then there is the online shop based purely on the recommendations of friends, influencers or disruptors. We’ve been seeing some of that in 2021 as disruptors are gaming the stock market, showing all of its flaws to the world.
Book people have kinda sorta done this, but not in an organized way. Some of the indies, back in the beginning of the ebook revolution, got their followers or fans to buy books all at once, to get on various bestseller lists. But no one has really weaponized squad shopping in the book business.
And there’s another aspect to it. The social aspect. Yes, it’s all well and good to follow book bloggers or influencers on social media, getting their recommendations, but that’s not the same as going into a bookstore with friends, pulling this or that book off the shelf and saying, Have you read this one?
That’s the squad shopping online experience, and once someone makes that easy for readers to participate in—in ways other than ebook bundles or book chats—then we will have a whole new 2020s way of selling books.
The group online experience grew tremendously in 2020. The Netflix Party app caught on in April of 2020. What it did was put friends in the same system, watching a movie or TV show together in real time. One designated person would pause or fast-forward, and everyone could laugh or joke or discuss and simply be together to enjoy whatever they were watching.
That app is now Teleparty, and you can enable it on a bunch of streaming services from Netflix to Hulu to Disney+ And it’s not going to go away.
The online group experience with entertainment as entertainment will remain part of our culture.
I have no idea yet how book people can use this, but we’ll figure it out. I do know that there are places like Wattpad and other subscription services that have managed to make a small group experience work. While they appeal to some readers, they’re not appealing to the majority of readers.
But do they need to? As you can tell, I’m spitballing here.
Other trends that started in the pandemic that will continue from now on are things like order online and pick-up in person. A lot of retail stores developed systems for this as well as restaurants. Many bookstores did as well, but dropped the system the moment the quarantine restrictions eased.
I’m not sure that was a good idea. A lot of people are going to remain socially distant for a year or more, and they’re not going to want to go into a bookstore (or any other retail establishment) and touch books others have touched. (Not to mention breathing the same air.)
Online discoverability for books has always been a problem, and it’s gotten worse as other shopping experiences have gotten better. Essentially, the reader needs to know what she wants when she goes to a bookstore—even Amazon. Windowing is hard. Finding new product harder.
Social media is helping in a variety of ways. Influencers truly do make a difference, even in books, but not the kind of difference you see in other industries, although BookTok on TikTok might prove me wrong here.
We need, as an industry, to figure out how to match discoverability with the shopping experience. We’ve been struggling with this for a decade now. But there’s something niggling at my brain between the omnichannels (see the previous post) and squad shopping and Teleparty. There’s a lot of room for growth here.
And that doesn’t even take into account the global publishing market, which, thanks to the pandemic is growing at leaps and bounds. We will deal with that in the next post.
This one is just me, noodling. Feel free to noodle in the comments as well. Everything is changing because of what we’ve gone through (what some of us are still going through) and I’m just starting to look ahead. It’ll take all of us to wrap our arms around this future.
I’m sure we can do it. But it will take a while to settle in. And we have a lot to learn in the meantime—and a lot to develop.
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“Business Musings: Shopping As Experience (Jumping The Digital Divide),” copyright © 2021 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / Paha_L.
A couple of things I’ve noticed. One is about websites. If the store doesn’t have the supplies lined up – the customer leaves. I spent 6 weeks trying to get a washing machine on one website. The shipment kept being delayed again and again. I went to another website store (which was obviously better managed) and had the washer at our house in 3 days. Cancelled the first order and will never go back to their online store again – even though I like their in-person store.
And about experiential shopping – I’ve sold books at two outdoor festivals this summer. People right now are starving to shop in person. The atmosphere is like a huge party – often with masks. I was stunned at the response to selling books at a street fair. Readers were obviously stocking up for the future – having read all the stuff on their bookshelves during lockdowns. People want to touch, feel and see things and talk to other people.
A related issue that is going to — eventually — feed backward into print publishing, because so many more people are going to be thinking of buying printed materials (books and periodicals) that they want on paper through online retailers:
Just say “no” to foil lettering. Or digital representations of it.
Traditional marketing memes are going to have to catch up with “bright and shiny is good” not working online, or with 21st-century people (some of whom are adults now, and you should all get off my lawn before I hit you with my cane — the one with the dual ports to recharge my flip phone). Our Gracious Hostess probably has some really bad memories of publishers trying to snow her about “Only the lead title every month gets embossed-foil lettering, because that’s how everyone knows it’s special.” (So does Bloomsbury UK, which didn’t give a certain kid’s book from an unknown author that treatment in the 1990s; the one that it did has been out of print for two decades… and Bloomsbury UK’s track record on this sort of thing is statistically better since the 1980s than any of the remaining big NYC trade publishers.)
My point is that the shopping experience is affected by product packaging, and vice versa. This is a lesson that recorded music has picked up on, but publishing not so much. (Really: When’s the last time you saw shiny embossed foil letting on an item of recorded music, whether a CD or any other format?) The snarkier version is that being a marketing genius for kid’s toys doesn’t translate all that well to adult toys (clean your minds up! books and power tools are the ultimate adult toys).
I know that it seems like instagram might be on a downward trend, but I’ve followed bookstagram for several years. I definitely buy books based on reviews that I see there. I’ve seen a few authors build a “launch team” of influencers for their books. It seems like this might work best for YA books, but I do wonder if authors in other genres would have similar success.
The challenge with getting eye on our books (IMHO) is finding a way to work together as a group. Individual authors can be very effective in pushing their own books…and sometimes other authors’ books. But in a larger group, it seems to come down to paying for a promo. This can work, but there’s not much interaction with the readers.
Book clubs were mentioned in the comments, and I think that’s a good idea. I’ve seen a few groups on Facebook, but maybe we need to work together to encourage book clubs to try a book a month. Twelve authors, twelve books? Or maybe a book a week? Who knows…but noodling is always a good thing. 🙂
Having been on TikTok a while, and BookTok for the last few months, I’m finding I enjoy it in so many ways. It feels fun to share what you’re reading and what you’re writing. I get a sense of community from the readers and writers I’m following or have become friends with. Making content doesn’t feel that hard. I don’t know, but it just seems to work better as a social media platform than any other I’ve been on. The only other platform I feel attached to right now is Discord, and that’s because of a couple of server communities I’m in. Maybe I’m just rambling, but yeah, I think TikTok might be the social media platform that becomes the most helpful to publishing, especially to indie authors.
I am all thumbs with video, but BookBrush now has a new functionality on their web app: TikTok video creation! I signed up for it so I can watch the Zoom recording later, but it looks doable for fairly easy book trailers.
I’m a little nervous about TikTok—or am I reading only the doom side of things? Data grabbing, etc.—not to mention it’s a Chinese company, and the Chinese don’t give a rat’s patootie about copyright.
I find myself thinking about book clubs.
In researching Kickstarters for books, I’ve noticed some authors having a level at which they’re offering, say, 10 books plus a Zoom chat with the club members. Current technology allows us to interact with fans like that, no matter where they are.
Blogger and author Jenny Lawson (aka thebloggess) opened a bookstore in 2020, just as the pandemic hit. One of the ways she kept it from going under was to start a book club, not with her own books, but other authors’. I’m not sure of the finer details, but members pay for each month’s book and then discuss it online. Not exactly useful for those of us who don’t own bookstores, but what if someone approached Jenny about selecting their book (and offering a Zoom chat to go with it)? What if other bookstores started this, and authors could apply to have their book chosen?
I googled “book clubs” and found sites that list a bunch of clubs, and even “book clubs in Portland” found a great site listing a bunch.
It occurs to me that I could put a page on my website for book clubs. What it would cost for 10 books plus a Zoom chat for half an hour or an hour, etc.
Oooh, I love that idea. I also think this might be an interesting idea for Patreon. For instance, establishing a monthly chat at a certain support level, and sharing books by another author who might want to chat with an audience. I see it even as a “special event one-time fee” type thing. I don’t know… thoughts are spinning right now. I can see it working though. Thoughts?
The question is, would a monthly chat mean more book sales? I’m sure I’ve seen that in higher Patreon tiers, which of course mean more money monthly, but I’m not sure how it translates to sales (as opposed to being a separate income stream).
Probably not if the chats were only on Patreon, however, if they got warehoused on Youtube and referenced in other social, it might amplify the effect. There would have to be a disclaimer that the recording will be posted online for future reference and accessible by the public.