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Batten down the hatches

urlA post on the Jacket Copy blog (LA Times) recently bemoaned the fact that publishers are not getting the results from social media that they had hoped they might, and that ‘it’s difficult to measure the efficacy of an online marketing campaign’.

Leaving aside the fact that the latter observation is patently untrue, whilst it may not be an especially palatable truth, I’d suggest that if this is anyone’s fault, it is the publishers themselves.

To my mind, two of the reasons that publishers’ social media presences (such as they are) are so lacklustre and ineffective are: firstly, they are viewing social media like any other form of promotional activity, which it isn’t, and secondly, they are treating social media like a vending machine: deposit money, and get something tangible back.

These attitudes speak to me of fundamental category errors.

Effectively used, social media should afford publishers, scholarly or otherwise, the opportunity to reach out to new customers and communities in an authentic way, and to add value, meaning and a human touch to existing relationships rather than just pumping the grapeshot of direct marketing at them, and hoping some of it hits the target (the latter also, somewhat perversely, presupposes that the target enjoys being shot at). To mashup several of Chris Brogan‘s metaphors, the difference between the use of social media and the use of traditional marketing methods could be characterized by the quality of interaction enjoyed by two parties having a relaxed conversation in a cafe, and that afforded by one party marching up to the other and shouting in their ear with a bullhorn.

This March, a Nielsen news release (PDF link) reported that social media and blog use had crept ahead of email in terms of the amount of time users dedicated to their use online, and that its usage was ‘growing twice as fast as any of the other four largest sectors (search, portals, PC software and email)’. In short, the average user now spends more time online using social networking in one way, shape, or form than they do e-mailing. A question to scholarly publishers: how much do you spend on email to promote, market, and advertise your products? How much do you spend on your social media presences?

If they are to use social media effectively, scholarly publishers must adjust their mindset. At the very least, they will need to relinquish their ‘command and control’ mentality. They will need to acknowledge the fact that it is the customers and the communities that they serve that own their brands, not them. There is nothing demeaning about their being their brands’ stewards or concierges; they are, after all, handsomely rewarded for the work they undertake.

Oh, and there’s the small matter of open access. And the pressure the institutional budgets that fund their subscription products find themselves under. And the falling off of interest in the lucrative non-subscription paper products such as reprints and supplements that publishers have traditionally enjoyed selling to the pharmaceutical industry and others for use in marketing contexts. And the fact that the digital incarnations of these products do not appear to be holding the interest of the customers they are aimed at in the way that it was hoped that they might. And the fact that the pharmaceutical marketing spend scholarly publishers have pursued in the past is disappearing behind ‘velvet rope’ communities of interest that they have yet to be invited into.

In short, scholarly publishers face a perfect storm. How are they preparing themselves to weather it?

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