I’m pretty experienced with digital advertising at this point but when I got my interview for Google AdWords back in 2003 I had to… Google it to figure out what the hell they did. And I still got it wrong!
I was quite lucky that I first interviewed with Overture (the former name of the digital advertising division of Google’s one-time rival, Yahoo) because I had absolutely no idea how these kind of ad platforms worked, let alone best practices. But I learned fast—Google’s training was excellent.
One thing that was drilled into us constantly was the importance of granular targeting. It might be a little more obvious in 2018, but back then the only really familiar advertising model was the broadcast one. Put your message in giant letters on the billboard. Flood the airwaves with ad spots. Take out full page ads in newspapers and magazines (for the kids: these are paper versions of websites that used to be popular). The basic strategy was a simple, brute force one; if the signal is strong enough, the right people will hear it.
Of course, there is a lot of waste in that model. The ever-present adage from that old world was one from John Wannamaker which was true for almost 100 years. “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.”
In today’s world of Google and Facebook and targeted advertising, we can get a very clear picture of the effectiveness of our ads—click rates, conversions, engagement; we’re drowning in data.
Best practices are pretty well established in 2018 too, and it’s interesting to see how core principles haven’t changed that much in the last fifteen years. One of the most central being the importance of granular targeting.
If you have read Strangers to Superfans, you will understand the significance of developing a picture of your Ideal Reader. For those who haven’t—*glares*—it’s the basis of the new marketing paradigm I introduce in that book which takes Stephen King’s craft-based concept and moves it into the world of marketing, and plots out the process through which your Ideal Reader transforms from being unaware of your work to being its most passionate advocate.
The concept of your Ideal Reader is such a useful one in so many ways—that POV shift to the reader will transform how you craft your product and your packaging as well as your promotions—but to employ it successfully you first need to vanquish a powerful enemy: your Inner Artist.
My beret is firmly on my head when working on a book, but it most definitely gets cast aside when the time comes to sell it, because your Inner Artist will lead you astray. Your natural artistic instinct is to share your work with the world, to broadcast in all directions that you have written A Book and that everyone should read it.
I’ve explained before how dangerous it can be to do something as natural-seeming as telling your friends and family about your new book. I’ve also written about how attempting to ride the coat-tails of a popular author can backfire tremendously — ethical considerations aside. But the issue here is much more fundamental than possibly scrambled Also Boughts. The very sustainability of your promotional efforts is increasingly dependent on developing a sense of your Ideal Reader, and then marketing to them exclusively.
And I mean marketing in the broadest sense because this should inform the stuff baked into the product too: categories, keywords, covers, end matter, email autoresponders, even the tropes. But the most obvious place where you need to get really granular with that targeting is with advertising, and this is the place where we probably screw it up most often, even with the best of intentions.
A clear and simple example might be my self-publishing books. Writers come in all shapes and sizes, so, in theory a book like Let’s Get Digital or Amazon Decoded might have broad appeal, among writers who self-publish or who are curious about it, at least.
However, all the data I have tells me that most of the readership for those books are women between the age of 35 and 54. And if I run an ad on Facebook and only show it to women aged 35-54 it will perform much better than an ad targeting all those interested in self-publishing.
You might think that you are missing a lot of your potential audience like… all men, for example. But that’s the wrong way to think about it. That kind of conclusion is being influenced by the old, outdated broadcast model. You need to start thinking instead in terms of most likely purchasers.
Take Amazon for example. It doesn’t try and show you all the products it has. Instead it rearranges the store, to an extent, for each individual customer, to show them more of the things they are likely to purchase and less of the products they have less interest in. It doesn’t mean that I never have any interest in buying a banana slicer or a Nicholas Cage throw pillow, but my purchasing history clearly shows I’m much more likely to buy ebooks and cheap Chinese phone chargers that break every five minutes.
In the same way, you don’t want to show your ad to all potential customers because that would cost an incredible amount of money. To return to the example of my self-publishing books, Facebook has 2.1 billion people to whom it can serve ads, 199m of which are interesting in Writing.
That sounds like a lot of people, but maybe it’s encompassing people interesting in other kinds of writing, like copywriting and technical writing, and maybe even just consuming it. If I dig a little deeper, 7.2m of those are specifically interested in Creative Writing, which is still a crazily broad audience. Drilling down to Self-Publishing specifically only winnows the field to 1.2m. If I go further and restrict it to those interested in Self-Publishing who live in America and also own a Kindle of some kind, we are still well over a quarter of a million people — and it’s very expensive to hit an audience even of that reduced size.
So I need to drill down further. And if I narrow that last-mentioned audience by women aged 35-54, which a variety of data points have historically and consistently shown me is the demographic slice which responds best to my books, then we get a much more manageable 61,000 people.
Your Inner Artist will be wailing at the 200,000 plus that were lost in that last step alone, thinking how many Precious Readers will be cast aside with this aggressive culling, but being this granular with your targeting — I mean the general approach rather than these specific steps per se — is the only way that you can make digital advertising work for you. (And, in fact, I might well narrow the audience in that example even further.)
You are always far better off drilling right down to the subset of readers who are most likely to purchase. There might be only 10,000 such people when you get granular, but limiting your audience like this is infinitely better than advertising broadly.
Our natural inclination as artists is to be read by as many people as possible, but we must fight against that instinct when it comes to online advertising. We need to target the right people exclusively, otherwise it gets expensive fast and you will run out of money very quickly.
And there will be little coming back to you via book sales, either.
If you want to read more about the concept of the Ideal Reader and how it can improve your marketing, check out Strangers to Superfans. And if you want more specific advice on advertising, I’ve just concluded a series on BookBub Ads for my mailing list, and started one on Facebook. Sign up here so you don’t miss out!