When Reader Targeting Goes Wrong

Taking a non-scammy tangent from Saturday"s post, I’d like to talk about what happens when you target the wrong readers, because being too scattergun with promo can really hurt your book.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this over the last few months. Currently, I’m in the process of both updating Let’s Get Digital for a third edition and writing a book on the topic which is tentatively called The Reader’s Journey: From Strangers to Superfans – as well as working on a third, secret project for writers that is all about using a certain kind of targeting in a very specific way to build audience and drive sales.

And I’ve been putting all these theories into practice too, working with a bestselling author on their launches and promotions, with some pretty amazing results. More on that when I can share, but the cool thing is I’ve had the opportunity to test all sorts of fun things and play with a much larger catalog than my own puny collection of books.

In future posts, I"ll share some great examples of reader targeting and ideas on how to improve your own, but first it’s important to identify the problem – or where you might be going wrong.

This initial example is an extreme one but it’s illustrative nonetheless. I don"t know about you, but I learn just as much from looking at when something goes wrong, and why it goes wrong. Kind of like reading a bad book – sometimes I learn more from a bad one than a great one. Sometimes when you can see the seams, it’s easier to figure out why a story didn’t come together, and perhaps how it should have been done instead. At least for me, anyway.

(I won’t link directly to the book I"m going to talk about here, and will endeavour to make it unidentifiable, so forgive me for being vague.)

I stumbled across a novel on Amazon recently which had rather inartfully shoehorned the phrase “Game of Thrones” into its subtitle. This is what’s known as title-keyword stuffing – when you take what you think might be a popular search on Amazon (anything from a big genre to a famous author to a hot new release), and then shove it into your own subtitle somehow. The main reason people do this is that they hope it will give them more visibility when readers are searching for something insanely popular like Game of Thrones.

I"m pretty sure that kind of trick is against the Amazon Terms of Service, but that’s not what this post is about. Rather, it’s about targeting the wrong readers. Because the book using this wheeze was a historical novel. It wasn’t even fantasy.

Now, the ruse didn’t work – this particular book doesn’t appear in the first five pages of searches for “Game of Thrones” (I gave up after that). But let’s imagine for a moment it did, and lots of epic fantasy readers had purchased this historical novel.

What would have happened?

That’s right, his Also Boughts would have been filled with all the other things that epic fantasy readers buy, namely epic fantasy novels. I dove into Also Boughts in detail a couple of months ago in two posts called Please Don’t Buy My Book and Who’s Pointing at You?

If you haven’t read those posts you should do that now, but the short version is that Also Boughts are central to Amazon’s recommendation engine… and probably the least understood part of that system.

My current theory is that when Also Boughts re-crunch – usually twice-weekly – Amazon’s system takes the temperature of your book and decides whether to start pushing it on-site, and by email to customers, and also by how much. The level of that support is probably determined by your current sales level at that moment, and the velocity of those sales.

Where having inappropriate Also Boughts can screw you is that the Also Boughts help Amazon decide which readers to recommend your book to. Therefore, in our thought experiment above where the Game of Thrones wheeze has worked, this author will have his historical novel recommended to all the wrong readers, epic fantasy readers, who will inevitably purchase in lesser numbers, if at all.

I"ll give another simple example: when most self-publishers release their first, they often excitedly tell their friends and family about their book, hoping to get the ball rolling in terms of sales. I did this. Most people do this. But it"s not the best idea.

Because it means that your Also Boughts will reflect the tastes of those purchasers, and those people aren"t necessarily your target audience – and Amazon will then recommend your book to the wrong people.

In both of these examples, the lower conversion rate that will ensue from being recommend to a sub-optimal audience will then damn the book in the eyes of Amazon’s system and they’ll stop pushing it altogether. Worse than that, the system will decide your book is one that doesn’t convert and you will slip down the rankings, because your visibility will be curtailed.

A death spiral of sorts.

Some of this is guesswork, I’ll admit. Amazon is a black box in many ways, and all we can to is observe the inputs and outputs and then apply a little bit of fuzzy logic – trying to come up with some kind of coherent explanation of how it all works. And Amazon changes too, complicating matters further.

I had one reasonably successful stab at it a few years ago with Let’s Get Visible, and I’m having another go at it now, but trying to come at it from a different perspective – the reader’s perspective.

It’s less of a paradigm shift than a POV switch, but it does help you analyze things in a different way. We are always looking at our books and our audience and our platforms that it can be incredibly illuminating to jump over the fence and try and look at it all from the reader’s shoes.

This attempt of mine mirrors a general shift in the world of marketing, where the focus has shifted from things like sales funnels (and associated talk of your company and your products) to looking at what they call The Buyer’s Journey – ensuring you look at your marketing efforts from that perspective and that your strategy recognizes each stage buyers go through, and, crucially, that the right customers are getting the right messages at each stage.

There’s a lot we can learn from this approach and I’m having fun applying this template to the world of book marketing. What this framework which I’m developing will ultimately teach you is how to:

  • identify your ideal reader
  • design marketing from the perspective of that ideal reader
  • recognize the different stages your ideal reader goes through – from being completely unaware of you or your books to being a passionate advocate for your work
  • tailor marketing to target your ideal reader at each stage of that process
  • optimize your approach to increase conversion at every step

The cool thing is that once you have this framework down, it doesn’t just let you set things up the correct way right from the start, but also provides you with a toolkit to see where your existing process is borked.

Sometimes when you have lots of books out, or your books have been out for a while, it can be really hard to know where the fail is in the chain. Is it the cover? Maybe it’s a slick cover, designed by a pro, but designed for the wrong readers. This is quite a common trap!

Could it be the description? The keywords and categories? The book itself? Or the end-matter? Is it your website? Your email marketing strategy? Your price? Or could it be more simple: that you just aren’t getting enough eyeballs on your work.

With so many variables, it can be impossible to know where you are losing readers. And guessing can have you running in the wrong direction. To give a very simple example, if you think the problem is traffic and spend money bringing lots of readers to your page, but the real problem is your categories, or your cover, then you have just made a very expensive mistake. I’m hoping that The Reader’s Journey framework will allow you to both identify the exact problem plus how to fix it.

And I’m aiming to release it at the end of summer.