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Brand Management for Writers Part 2: A Brand New Adventure

October 7, 2011

A/K/A: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Brand

Last time, I talked a little about the history of branding, and about why it’s important for writers to think about.  Hopefully, I assuaged many concerns about author self-branding with this simple point: a brand is not a product.  And you, as an author, are not a product.  Rather, a brand is an image: the collection of values and emotions and thoughts that a customer associates with a product or service.  For you, as an author, your brand is your image to readers, and the collection of values, emotions, and thoughts that a reader associates with your name (or pseudonym) when they see it on the cover of a book or on the by-line of a story.  Whether you are actively cultivating a specific brand image or not, you have one – and you can’t really choose to opt out of branding.  You can only choose to disengage and let it happen on it’s own, or to actively take charge of it and direct its growth.

Either choice is legitimate, but there are dangers associated with disengaging: you may end up with a brand image that you come realize you don’t want, at which point it may be too late to change it.

Whatever choice you make – whether to engage or disengage – every blog post you write, every tweet, every public status update, every story you write, every book, every public appearance you make, how you dress and how you carry yourself in public, the visual appearance of your blog or webpage, the cover art on your books – all of it is influencing your brand image.  Some of those things are more in your control than others, but they’re all making an impact on the image your reader is developing of you.

Assuming, then, that you have chosen to actively cultivate your brand… how exactly do you do that?

Marketing & Branding

In the most basic level marketing course you can take, you’ll learn about the “Four P’s of Marketing”, which are: Product, Price, Place, and Promotion.  (Although I’ve seen a slightly different version, too.)  The Four P’s are a useful mnemonic for remembering the different aspects of what constitutes a “marketing”-related activity.  It’s also a useful tool for thinking about branding, because of the four, two are an essential aspect of branding and the other two are at least peripherally important.  This isn’t terribly surprising: virtually everything about a product can influence a customer’s perception.

In my marketing and branding classes, we engaged in a number of simulated exercises that encouraged us to experiment and learn about how marketing and branding actually work.  These simulations typically us a product to be marketed, and a budget, a number of ways to spend that budget, and the ability to set the price for our products.  What were some of those options?  Purchase marketing research to tell us about the market and what customers want.  Purchase advertising – where we got to customize some of the content of our advertising message.  Buy premiere shelf-space at retailers, or pay salaries for a dedicated sales force to service certain retail channels.  And finally – usually later in the game – the option to invest in product research to either create new products or refine existing product lines. 

What we learned was that advertising was an important part of marketing.  Advertising allows you to set the message, to choose what you want to communicate and who  you want to communicate it with – but the primary pay-off from advertising was in consumer awareness.  Consumers won’t try your product if they’re not aware of it.  But after you convince someone to give your product a try, you’ve got to keep them coming back.  And that’s the real secret of branding.    How do you keep them coming back?  The answer to that is simple: give them what they want.

Basically, what I’m trying to say is, while “messaging” is important – what you tell your prospective customers about your product and how you communicate with them – it can’t completely override what the customer sees right in front of their face.  The most important aspect of branding – the single overriding factor – are the physical features of the product itself (including pricing) and how those features compare to customer needs and expectations.  If a customer wants “Feature X”, and your product provides “Feature Y”, you’re not going to keep the interest of that customer.  It doesn’t matter if you say in your advertising that “Our product has Feature X” (it doesn’t; that’s a lie), or “Our product has Feature Y, which is a substitute for Feature X” (is it really? maybe it is, but unless “Feature Y” is demonstrably superior to “Feature X” that’s not going to fly) or even “You think you want Feature X, but what you really want is Feature Y, which our product has” (oh really?  you think you know what the customer wants, do you?).  Throughout these simulations, all else being equal maybe advertising or price or ideal promotion would win the day – but in a marketplace with differentiated markets, the product that appealed to the right customers was the one that gained the advantage.

So what does this mean for writers?

The Product Is the Message, or Author Authenticity

As I mentioned in my first post on the subject, one of the things that I found ironic about Nathan Bransford’s post was that while he says he’s arguing against building an author brand, he spends his whole article actually arguing in favor of effective author branding.  What do I mean?  After leading off with the provocative line: “I believe this strongly about the Internet: There is no such thing as a brand.” and “To me, a brand is a cultivated fiction, it’s an image spun from a grain of truth.” he spends the rest of the article talking about the importance of “authenticity”, which he contrasts as being antithetical to branding.

News flash: the only truly effective branding is that which is authentic.  This is true, ultimately, even without the internet.  A brand is not merely a cultivated fiction.  It is something that connects to consumers in a specific, emotional way.  But you don’t achieve that by delivering a message that runs counter to the facts of your product.  Frito-Lay doesn’t try to position their products as fine foods, or delicacies.  Frito-Lay makes snack chips, and they market their products as being ideal snacks for certain snacking occasions.  This branding works because it relates well with the facts on the ground.  It doesn’t contradict customer expectations.

For authors, this is interesting, because they produce work in a medium of communication.  In the classical sense, branders are producing a physical product, and then relying on some medium of communication to deliver a message about that product.    For writers, the message is the product. 

Writers, as they say, write.  As a branding strategy, then, the best thing a writer can do is to write wellReally, really, really well, if you can manage it.

The next most important thing a writer can do is to correctly identify your audience, and refine your product and your communication to the needs of that audience.  This isn’t as simple as writing for “readers”.  Who are your readers?  You can refine this by genre.  You can refine by age.  You can refine by gender, or by any number of other demographic or psychographic.  (A real quick aside: demographics you’re likely familiar with: age, sex, race, etc.  Things that make people visibly different on the outside.  Psychographics are about internal, non-visible traits.  They’re your interests and preferences.    Demographic boundaries and psychographic boundaries do not necessarily coincide.  People with common interests do not always look alike.  But in the regular marketing world, psychographics are harder to measure.  Luckily we writers and readers have been dealing with this for a long time: for us “genre” is one very useful psychographic.)

If you’re self-publishing, then your only concern will be your direct audience.  But if you’re aiming for a traditional publishing path, then you have a more complicated audience question: there are also editors, agents, and others you may have to work with.  As much as possible, you want each of these not only to like and be enthusiastic about what you write, but about how you write it, which is to say how easy you are to work with.

Blogging & Social Media: Your Message Is You

Effective branding works in part because of a consistent, targeted message.  You know who your audience is, and what they want, and that you have a product that meets those needs.  Now you just need to keep pushing that message to your audience in creative and engaging ways.  And if you’re an author, you blog.

Here’s the good news for your budding brand-conscious author-blogger: you control the message and the delivery.  You can write about what ever you want to write about.  But if you want to brand effectively, you need to consider two things: what’s authentic to you – what’s interesting to you, or about your life – and of those things, which are likely to be of interest to your readers that you’re also comfortable sharing publicly?  For your message to have maximum impact, you need to be able to engage those readers at a personal level.  If you’ve picked your genre, you already know one useful thing about your readers: what they like to read.  Expand and expound upon that, and branch out from there.

Ultimately, this boils down to what makes a good blog: readers come back to a blog if the blog regularly updates with content the readers find useful or entertaining or both.  If you can’t be both useful and entertaining in what you write, you may have picked the wrong profession.

But here’s the bad news: unlike in those marketing simulations we ran, you don’t have access to a magnanimous corporate budget.  You probably can’t afford air-time on a mass-market channel.  This makes it harder to benefit from the positive effects of “consumer awareness” that a mass-market channel can provide.  And you can’t afford expensive and detailed marketing research that tells you all about your audience and what they like, want or need.  That makes it harder to target specific customers.  This makes what tools you do have – your blog or other social media presence – all the more important.  You’ve got to be clear and consistent in your messaging.  You’ve got to be exciting and engaging.  And you’ve got to be attentive to your readers, to their likes and interests, and intuitive about how those overlap with your own interests and agenda.  And this is, as it turns out, really hard to do on a consistent, regular basis.

The good news, part two: even though the internet is forever, the internet is also a long-tail of second chances.  Until you make it big, you’ll keep getting new chances to get it right.  Nobody’s likely to read a long backlog of uninteresting posts stretching back years – and if those posts were uninteresting it won’t matter too much.  What matters is that you keep your current content fresh and interesting.

Other little pointers: look-and-feel matter.  As I pointed out above, visual elements are a part of your brand, and that includes the visual appearance of your blog or site.  Here’s one where I’m failing, I know.  My list of links and whatnot has grown so long that my sidebar is a cluttered mess.  So yes, I’m failing at my own advice, here.  I just haven’t had the time to deal with rebuilding the visual and thematic elements of the site.

I hope I’m not failing at the other aspect of my blog: providing interesting and engaging content.  Either way, I still have time – both to fix the visual appearance and to continue to learn to provide good content.

And I still have time to work on the most important aspect of my brand: my stories.

How much thought do you put into what you blog about?  What your blog looks like?  Who your audience is and what their needs are?

And, in the interests of following my own advice: What do you think about my blog: the appearance, the content, and so on.  What keeps you coming back?  What likes and interests do you have that I’m able to touch on here?

Share all this – and more – in the comments.

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. October 8, 2011 9:21 am

    These posts about marketing have been great. So, since you’re an expert, I have a question for you. How do you go about identifying your audience?

    I ask this because it’s something I really struggle with. My initial answer to the question of my target audience would be “people who like things that I like”. But I don’t really mean that I think my book will only appeal to thirty-something women in Australia with two kids and a preference for urban fantasy novels with male protaganists. So how do you go about identifying which parts of “like me” are your target audience?

    • October 10, 2011 11:33 am

      That is an excellent question. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have a particularly easy answer. In the business, honestly, some marketeers hand-wave it, or they conduct focus-groups. To really understand who your audience/customers is/are, you need good solid market research, and a host of regression analysis tools. I’m pretty good at the math myself, and could crunch the numbers and run the regressions. That’s not the problem. The problem is getting that sort of market research to review in the first place: it’s difficult to design an effective survey and to administer it to a large enough population to have statistical significance. So yeah. That’s not very helpful. Heck, many businesses don’t do this sort of research, even if they should.

      For authors, you have to use the few sources of information that you have. As I mentioned in my articles, “genre” stands in as a useful psychographic. When you write in a genre, you’re explicitly targeting the community of readers for that genre. If you’re a little loose around the edges of genres – on the borders between one and another – that can make things a little more difficult to discern, but there tends to be a lot of overlap among readers across the different speculative fiction genre categories, IMHO. The other source of information you have is feedback on your blog: who’s subscribing, who’s commenting, etc. Unfortunately, that’s like to be a small number, overall, compared to the number you’d want to have useful market research. But you can still learn from the people who are most active on your blog.

      For instance, nearly all of my most frequent commenters are readers of speculative fiction and also writers and aspiring authors of the same. That is, perhaps, not surprising considering the title and tag line of my blog. I’ve also learned that my readership skews ever-so-slightly female. I can’t say whether this is reflective of the genre as a whole – but my supposition is that aspiring authors are a case of “super-users” of the genre as a whole. These are people for whom stories and books resonate so strongly that they aspire to create their own works. From this group, then, I can learn that there’s a lot of interest among readers in stretching genre boundaries and challenging staid genre tropes.

      Basically, as a writer, you’re going to be writing for a lot more people than just those who “look” like you. As mentioned in the article, psychographic boundaries don’t always overlap or approximate demographic boundaries. I have a lot of readers here who are psychographically similar in the reading and genre tastes but who are very different sociographically or demographically. And I kind of like that.

      The other thing about choosing your target audience that we learn in branding: you’ll target your product and message to appeal to a specific, core user: this is the ideal user, the super-user, someone who’s going to get very excited about your product because it’s so perfect for them. But if you target your message to this person, you’ll have a shotgun effect, hitting others in a radius around that core user. These are “aspirational” – they may not be exactly like your core user on demographic or psychographic measures, but they self-identify as being like them, or want to be like them, or otherwise are in that core user’s sphere of influence. For example, you might create a product that targets hip, young, got-it-all-together and everything’s-oh-so-perfect housewives. Or whatever like that. But if you craft your message to appeal to that group, you’ll also appeal to those who aren’t quite as hip, or aren’t quite as young, or aren’t quite as got-it-all-together – but who identify with that core group.

      Conversely, writers are often given the advice to write for as wide an audience as possible – and they’re also given the advice to write for the most narrow possible audience: an audience of 1 individual (i.e the author him- or herself). I’m not saying either of those is wrong – but perhaps it’s more useful to target an audience that’s slightly broader than just yourself without having to write for everyone. I think successful authors are writing to appeal more broadly to generally-similar interests. Largely, that means similar tastes in stories and genre. This is why, I believe, you often see marketing and promotional verbiage that says something like “if you liked ‘X’, then you’ll enjoy ‘Y'”: these blurbs are identifying like and similar tastes.

      In that sense… think about your literary influences. Which books do you like? Who do you go back to to read again and again. What published books is your work most like? Answering these questions will go a long way to establishing what your readers are most likely going to look like. And… of course… that requires reading widely in your chosen genre – about the only type of market research you’ll be able to afford to do…

      Ideally, you’d be able to tell how large that market of generally-similar interested people is. But back to the beginning, there’s no way of really knowing that without some customized market research…

  2. October 8, 2011 3:36 pm

    These are all really good things to ponder on, I think.

    “And you’ve got to be attentive to your readers, to their likes and interests, and intuitive about how those overlap with your own interests and agenda.”

    Yeah, that’s the hard part. I feel like it’s been trial-and-error for me since I started blogging, posting different types of content and trying to get a “feel” for what takes well to my audience (and potential audience) and what doesn’t. I’m still learning in this arena, as I continue to attract new readers from spheres I’d previous not attracted, but I think it’s getting easier.

    Viewing genre as a psychographic is actually helpful. I do like to write about topics that aren’t necessarily genre-specific, though for the most part my work is “fantasy”–or, even more specifically, “fantasy-adventure”–and this inevitably colors my perspective on things. On one hand this is limiting to me, though on another I think having limits or defining attributes is helping me to discover, build and embrace my “brand”. (Sooner or later it clicks that you can’t appeal to everyone, even if you’ve known this all along in the back of your mind.)

    As for your blog, I think it’s pretty clean, though I do tend to ignore the long lists of links, heh. (Truth be told, I don’t like my elongated “list” of widgets all on one side, either. I might have to play with some other themes one day and play with layouts.) I know they’re there and can look at them any time, though I come back because of what you write about. I like that you focus on changes and aspects of the writing industry as they pertain to all stages of a writer’s career. Your scope is beyond where I’m at personally, so it gives me things to consider in the future.

    I don’t always comment ’cause I don’t always have something worthwhile to say, lol, but I am pretty much always reading. 😀

    • October 10, 2011 11:39 am

      Unfortunately, I don’t really have a better method or solution to offer than continued use of the “trial-and-error” approach. I would prefer a more systematic approach – but a systematic approach requires systematic tools, and ultimately tools like that aren’t readily available to writers. Thus the reliance on “intuition”. Someday, when I’m feeling rich and philanthropic, maybe I’ll start a market research firm dedicated to providing information, tools, and services to writers. 🙂 Well… a man can dream. Thanks for the feedback on my own blog. Ironically, despite knowing my sidebar is cluttered for a long time, I just can’t get the will to do anything about it. I have a draft “Links” page to which I’ve transfered maybe 6 of the off-site links in my sidebar. And I’ve even registered a separate, private blog called “Stephen’s Sandbox” where I can try out changes to the look-and-feel without screwing around with readers. But doing all of that requires time, and it’s time I’m not generally overflowing with…

  3. October 11, 2011 3:33 pm

    I read this blog for content. You post frequently and comment on current events that affect writers and the industry, even if we disagree on many aspects of the merits of digital self-publishing.

    I’ll echo the feedback that the layout of double sidebar with links and tweets and such gets ignored. I’m here for the latest post on topics of interest.

    Af for future posts, I’d like to see more about marketing as you sort it out and apply your schooling to the real world.

    I also like your analysss of fantasy tropes and mythology topics. These things help more iwth world-building, but are relevant to many writers nonetheless.

    • October 12, 2011 2:00 pm

      “I also like your analysss of fantasy tropes and mythology topics.” Those are my favorite posts to write. I am a huge lover of speculative fiction, and I love learning more about my favorite genres and sharing what I’ve learned, and I love thinking deeply about them and musing aloud. Of course, I’m also keenly interested in how all the changes in the industry will impact me and my potential for having a career. Which is why I blog about all of that.

Trackbacks

  1. Linky Friday « creative barbwire (or the many lives of a creator)
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