Business Musings: Advertising: The Year in Review Part 6
2022: The year that advertising stopped working.
That’s not true, but it feels true. Conversations at the 20Booksto50K conference were all about the broken ad revenues, and the inability to goose algorithms.
BookBub ads don’t seem as effective. Newsletter campaigns aren’t working. And what happened to all the book bloggers? Nothing seemed to get a book traction…except…BookTok, maybe. Social media sites at the beginning of the year. Traditional marketing categories seemed to work…until they didn’t.
I will deal with social media in a separate post. We find ourselves at a crossroads there. As for the rest, I wrote about this a bit, with some suggestions for things to do, back in October. In many ways, that post did not go far enough. But it’s worth taking a look at.
That post really didn’t examine the year, though. And that’s what I’m doing here.
I believe that what we have in advertising is a confluence of many events.
Those events are, in no particular order:
- Economic Uncertainty
- Privacy Legislation
- Changes in Third-Party Cookies
Let’s take a look at all of this and figure out if we’re in a crisis or if we have just arrived at a turning point…or neither.
First, let’s talk about the concrete stuff. Privacy legislation worldwide has changed how the internet works in our corner of the globe.
In democracies or democratic-leaning countries, the concern is data privacy, particularly as it relates to personally identifiable information. (Where a company can figure out that the information came from you.) In other parts of the world, particularly those with repressive or totalitarian governments, the concern is keeping a containment on data, particularly data that might let citizens of those countries have a broader view of what’s happening in the world or in that country.
Such privacy concerns on both sides have led to a lot of privacy legislation in places like India, Indonesia, Canada, and the European Union. Some of those changes had little impact on the large tech companies. Others had a major impact. Here’s an analysis of many of the changes (and upcoming changes).
In the United States, the federal government (read Congress) tried and did not yet succeed in passing a national data privacy act. There was a lot of debate and analysis at the beginning of the year, but with the press of other concerns, that act got set aside. There was a valiant attempt at reviving it after the Supreme Court eviscerated abortion protections and gave the go-ahead to neighbors spying on neighbors (and medical providers and all kinds of other icky things). But, again, there was no time and no real will on the right to make sure that anything was done to protect the privacy of individuals.
With the failure on the national level, states stepped up. In 2023, new privacy laws will go into effect in California, Connecticut, Utah, Colorado, and Virginia. (I have a feeling I’m missing a few.) In the United States, when state regulations involve big players, like California, that means that national and multinational companies play according to California’s rules, so that the companies don’t get slapped with fines or worse, get disallowed from playing within a state’s borders (creating all kinds of headaches).
Add to that a change in the way that third-party cookies work. For years, marketers (including writers) have used third-party cookies to track and target possible consumers. Entire businesses have been based on this.
Early on, consumers were unaware of the impact of third-party cookies, but now, most consumers set their privacy settings to block third-party cookies. Web browsers like Chrome, Firefox, and Safari have all announced (or implemented) plans to do away with third-party cookies.
What does all of this mean for writers trying to act like the big boys and do target marketing or surveillance advertising? It means that any tricks a writer used based on that kind of marketing will get harder and harder, if not impossible, in the next few years.
That kind of marketing has already gotten hard, which is why data-driven writers online and at conferences like 20Books are in a quiet (or not so quiet) panic. The entire basis of their livelihood had completely disappeared. They now have to build slowly, which is hard, particularly when you got the instant gratification that tweaked algorithms could provide.
Writers aren’t the only ones having trouble figuring out advertising. I think every single issue of The Hollywood Reporter this year had an article on the changes in advertising. Some of it was rather gleeful, especially in regards to Netflix adding an advertising tier to its subscriber base—which means that journalists might actually see Netflix’s viewing numbers now—but a lot of it was filled with fear, especially during the summer.
What happened in the summer? Two things. But let’s start with Economic Uncertainty. As I’m sure you all recall, inflation returned with something of a vengeance in 2022, scaring everyone under 50 who had never lived in a world with rapidly rising costs.
To my surprise and the surprise of several economists, consumer spending didn’t drop the way that it had during the last difficult inflationary period forty years ago. Consumer spending dropped, but not as rapidly or as deeply as predicted.
Still, consumers reacted to inflation and the talk of a recession (which, as if this writing, still hasn’t hit yet) by focusing on essentials, although those essentials had changed since the 1970s and 1980s. Now, the essentials weren’t universal. Yes, everyone needed groceries and many people needed gas, but after that, people chose their own essentials.
From gaming platforms to scaling back on streaming services (but not cutting them out completely), consumers continued to purchase the things that mattered to them the most. They simply didn’t try new things.
And one of the main points of advertising is to get people to try something new. Readers, for example, were less likely to try to read books by writers they had never heard of and were, instead, revisiting old favorites or buying books only by people they had already read.
That wasn’t uniform, and that was the problem. None of this was uniform, making it defy easy prediction. Some writers, for example, had no impact on their sales. Others, particularly writers with a strong backlist, experienced growth. Writers who had never worked on building a reader base (just an algorithm base) watched the bottom drop out of their business completely.
Data-driven writers need to find new ways to tweak data or change their business model altogether.
Writers who have a reader base need to focus on discoverability. Just last week, a reader who had read the first book in my Diving series years ago and loved it just realized that I had many more books in the series—so many she was overwhelmed by the idea of buying them all.
Had I failed on discoverability? For her, yes. But we can’t be everywhere. However, we can focus on more than just the latest book. We can find and educate readers, and bring them into the fold in other ways.
It means a different way of marketing and a different way of looking at advertising, which also means a different way of thinking.
And then, starting in the spring, Distraction took over. For the first time in two years, most people emerged from their self-imposed exile from socializing. In fact, people did so with a vengeance.
They traveled, they visited friends and family, they went to concerts, they ate out. They partied and partied some more and spent time socializing, not scouring the internet for the latest deals or paying attention to emails reminding them to buy the latest books.
The distractions haven’t really let up. Unfortunately for folks in the United States, we had the largest travel season on record—right in time for a once-in-a-generation storm that hit over half of the states in the lower 48, if not more. It was so big that it overwhelmed news outlets which were tracking it. I seriously can’t find how many states were impacted by this thing, but I do know that only the Desert Southwest had no watches or alerts in the days leading up to Christmas. That’s a lot of people who experienced something from a deep chill to feet of snow to disrupted travel plans.
What I found most interesting about that storm was how many people stubbornly refused to give up their travel plans, despite warnings. It was clear that things were going to be bad, but people were willing to brave it. They were tired of being trapped at home, even if it meant they were going to be trapped at an airport instead.
These people are not going to care that you had a flash sale on your latest book. They’re not going to read your newsletter. They’re barely on social media at the moment—and if they are, they’re complaining about the travel nightmare.
We all are. Try to remember what happened in the news in the past year. What were the big stories? As I researched this article (and as I’ve been researching the year in review), it kept striking me how many things happened in 2022 that felt like they had happened years ago. This year went by quickly, the first year to do that since 2019. That meant that we all missed announcements and news stories and books and personal changes that our friends underwent and…and…and…
We were distracted and it had an impact on the effectiveness of marketing our work.
But there was another thing that had an impact on the effectiveness of advertising.
It has grown stale.
So many of us were doing the same old same old. We had a routine. We’d publish a book, and announce it on various social media sites. We’d announce to our newsletters or maybe invest a few dollars in targeted advertising.
We weren’t thinking about how we marketed our work anymore. It had become rote.
And that actually worked in the pandemic because people were hungry for distract, any distraction. But it doesn’t work anymore, for any of us. In fact, many of the advertising companies are new discussing “experiential” advertising, which is advertising built into an experience.
We just had a large such event here in Las Vegas. The brand new Resorts World casino partnered with Hallmark to create a light show, maze, and an overall experience. Called Enchant, the entire thing took up a large section of real estate on the Strip. We considered going until we realized that the entire thing cost about $40 per person. There are cheaper and just as pretty things to do here in Vegas including the free Bellagio Conservatory and Gardens (which does, by the way, get you into the Bellagio to eat or wander the casino floor or spend money on a variety of things).
I know the cross-marketing brought a lot of people into the casino. Hallmark has a brand that people love, particularly at the holidays. I’m not sure what Hallmark got out of it, except some additional advertising, and that might be enough. These kinds of things are worth watching, though, and might be replicable on a very small scale.
Advertising companies are also touting Digital Out Of Home Marketing (DOOH), which encompasses everything from VR sampling to ads that show up on menu screens at restaurants and other places. VR marketing might be something that writers can do. Again, we’ll have to watch and see how this all works.
In other words, most companies don’t know what the next best thing is, although there is something buried in the numbers.
Apparently, marketing geared at in-person purchases was effective. In fact, in-person holiday sales in the U.S. grew 6.8%. (Digital grew 10.6%, which isn’t as quick as previous years.)
As Steve Sadove, an advisor for MasterCard (who was looking at MasterCard date), told Time:
…consumers diversified their holiday spending to accommodate rising prices and an appetite for experiences and festive gatherings post-pandemic.
Experience and festive gatherings. We don’t have a captive audience anymore. Nor do we have an audience that is looking at ebooks or reading online as the newest thing (which was happening up until 2015 or so).
Book advertising methods are still based on the pandemic and 2009-2015 experiences, which doesn’t work at all.
In fact, staleness in marketing is the best way to make sure no one hears the message. Yeah, yeah, you always say that is the subconscious thought. Then your product gets dismissed and the consumer moves on.
I don’t know what the next advertising trend is in book publishing. No one does. Just like no one expected social media to change as dramatically as it has. I’ll be looking at that in the following post.
Remember, though, social media isn’t the only way to advertise (although for many, it became the only way). Writers need to get creative in reaching readers.
That’ll be a subtheme in the next few posts, but I won’t do anything solid on discoverability for a month or two, as I gather my own thoughts.
This is a challenging time. We knew that life would be different coming out of the pandemic, but I don’t think we—or I, anyway—expected everything to be different. Maybe because that change would be too vast to comprehend. We’re experiencing it now, and it is too vast. But we’ll get through it, and then be surprised at the way that things had changed.
How we advertise our books is just one thing that’s changing. There are so many more.
So back to my initial question up front: Are we in a crisis or is this just a turning point? I’d say turning point. Because advertising will do what it has always done. It will work for some, particularly the innovative, and it won’t work for most.
That is always the way.
What are the innovations? That remains to be seen. I couldn’t ferret out any trends yet, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t happening. It just takes a while for trends to become clear.
We’ll see what 2023 brings for advertising. Right now, I’m not making any predictions.
Because of my voluntary abandonment of my Twitter account, I have lost one of my best promotion tools. Which means I’m going to have to step up my game here.
I’m going to at least one workshop per blog post that will augment some of the things in the post. If there’s a relevant non-fiction book that I wrote, then I’ll mention that too.
For today, I have two classes. They’re about two of the best forms of advertising no matter what else is happening in the culture. The first class will help with your book covers. The second will help you write good sales copy.
If you want to understand the theories of getting your work in front of readers, then pick up my book Discoverability. Some of the techniques are dated (I tried not to use things that would date, but it was inevitable), but the theories remain relevant.
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“Business Musings: Advertising: Year in Review Part 6,” copyright © 2022 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / studiostoks
As a writer, I mostly bailed on promotion this year. I just couldn’t figure it out. As a consumer, I felt barraged with ads. For everything. My FB feed is a minefield of ads – way too many. So I’ve gotten in the habit of tuning all of them out. Whether it’s something I might be interested in or not. It’s too overwhelming to make decisions. And there was also that one ad I clicked on, bought and the items never arrived, despite emails saying they would. I’ll never trust a FB ad again. For anything.
My income halved this year, from the previous year. And I put that down to last year was lockdown, this year wasn’t. And this year was the first year since lockdown, hence the holidaying/partying etc and less reading. But. I would like to mention something that I don’t often see mention and that’s saturation. There are pressures coming from multiple angles, which are reaching breaking point. We have retailers that have an ever increasing supply of books. Nothing new there, but there was a time with less books on Amazon. A lot less books. I already have enough books on my kindle device to keep me in reading content for years, without buying any extra books. And that doesn’t include the numerous books I have on my bookshelves. And some of these eBooks I got for nothing or next to nothing. I think part of the reason advertising is not working as well, is because there are just so many books. What does it matter if I see an ad for a book? There are a hundred, or a thousand other books being shown to me at the same time, some of them for 0.99 or free. And all these books have great covers, lots of ratings… Why choose one over the other? And I just don’t buy the argument, that there’s ‘always been lots of books for people to read!’ Really? As many as there are now? As easily accessible? Basic advertising, i.e. cold calling is probably a waste of time unless you are prepared to throw a LOT of money at it (and possibly lose a lot of money). The kinds of funds most indie authors don’t have.
I think some kind of answer to all of this, is the fostering of your author brand. With all the promotion/advertising you do, supporting in some way that brand. And be laser focused with that pen name on one particular sub niche.
This all makes a lot of sense. I felt stale too, and I felt the rote feeling. I used to be excited to share new books, and then I’d just do a quiet launch and move on. I was bored, BORED STIFF, having to share my excitement. Part of this is my lack of discipline, and part of it is the fact that I’ve. become alarmingly introverted during the pandemic and only now I am starting to feel normal, with energy to do things.
I’ve been talking with someone about turning a story into an educational game, and he suggested starting with AR (augmented reality.) Say the kids color a picture in the story coloring book. When they take a photo through an app, their colored picture will become 3D and move. Apparently this is now doable and some people use it.
I wonder what it would take to make a hidden-code template on book covers, so that readers “in the know” will find hidden content under the obvious image? That would be great for writers with extra illustrative content. (I don’t mean just a QR code, this would be “exclusive” to subscribers who get to download their discovery app.
Just a thought. We all could do a lot with something like this.
This post is reassuring in a way. I let things slide during the pandemic and was determined to make a better effort in 2022. I made a plan and my sales doubled. Things were going really well until everything fell off the cliff around October. As you say, I was trundling along in my tried-and-true rut but suddenly not getting any traction. I thought about starting up some Amazon ads but then we were into the holidays and prices were climbing out of my budget. Like you, I saw all the posts of people reacting and decided to just wait it out. I have other sources of income, so I can wait for the dust to settle, but it’s disappointing. I am always trying to get better at marketing and things change every time I think I might have cracked it. It’s exhausting. Thanks for keeping on top of it. Your posts are always helpful.
During the past two years, I signed up for a lot of newsletters from writers – mostly writers I had newly discovered. I enjoyed those newsletters, both for the news of new books and for the glimpse of their part of the outside world. This year, those newsletters seem to be overwhelming my inbox and yes, they seem stale. I’ve been unsubscribing to most of them. I do still check several book blogs like BookBub, but I’ve found fewer books and fewer reasons to invest. I think part of it is that even though I read a couple hundred books a year, I have a pretty big TBR pile stacked up. Honestly, I’m inundated with other issues right now and I read fewer books in 2022 than in previous years. I’m finding your assessment fascinating and information. Thanks!
Hey Kris, this series is really interesting. I’m enjoying your breakdown of last year, and the way you’re digging into next year. I have Discoverability. I’ve seen you mention a couple of times before that some parts are dated. Any quick details on which parts I should take with a grain of salt?
Anything that directly recommends a method of promotion, like Amazon ads (which I know isn’t in there). But things like that.
Great, thanks! Happy New Year, and thanks for this wonderful blog!