From page to screen

With sales of its ebooks up 182%, publisher Penguin is seizing the opportunity to create a digital shop window that uses online communities and visual search to connect readers with its titles.


The landscape for books is changing, according to Anna Rafferty, managing director of Penguin Digital at Penguin Books. “There are fewer bookshops, and there is less opportunity for people to go and browse and try to find a book, but there are just as many readers,” she says.

Figures from the Booksellers Association show that 102 independent stores closed in 2009 – part of a decline of 27% since 1999 – while the number of adults visiting a public library has decreased over the past few years, from 48.2% in 2005/06 to 39.4% in 2009/10, according to data from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. With the appetite for reading shifting from physical to digital – a trend perhaps best demonstrated by Amazon announcing in January this year that it is selling 115 Kindle ebooks for every 100 paperback titles across its US business – publishers need to change their tack, and Penguin is leading the way.

“Sometimes people know exactly what they want to read and that is great, they search for it and find it,” says Rafferty. “But they don’t always, and sometimes they’re up for being inspired or for finding the next thing.”

It is this opportunity that lies at the heart of the publisher’s digital marketing strategy – the opportunity to create a ’digital shop window’ to fill this gap. “It could be about creating destinations that we can use as a virtual shop window, but more than that it is about ’discoverability’ and connecting readers with books they want to read.”

Online Communities
While Rafferty doesn’t believe that Penguin’s digital marketing strategy has undergone dramatic change, the growing volume of digital content, coupled with the shift towards consuming – and searching for – books online, appears to have focused the publisher’s mind. It has a history of embracing digital developments and can count the early creation of sophisticated online communities, successfully experimenting with blogging before it became widespread, and racking up nearly 40,000 fans of Penguin Books UK’s Facebook page among its achievements in this sphere. But now the focus is on ensuring that people can find this wealth of content.

A key part of Penguin’s activity to aid this discoverability is its increasing focus on the use of metadata – tagging its content and titles in great detail to increase its presence in search. “Discoverability is this weirdly amorphous word but we are doing lots of work on it and it is really important, and things like metadata are fundamental,” Rafferty says.

She also cites visual search as a priority. With the popularity and sophistication of video growing online, and Forrester Research reporting that video SEO is 53 times more likely to drive a first page search result than traditional SEO, Penguin is exploring how it can tap into this, particularly with its teen audience.

“We are having to put quite a lot of effort into what that visual search is and what it should look like. A lot of the content we produce is black and white text so we don’t necessarily have visual assets in the way that other people do, that they can just repurpose really easily.”

She adds that the ’tween’ and teenage groups are unlikely to want to see a video of the author talking about why they wrote the book. “That isn’t what engages them. What engages them is story, characters and plot. So you have to think carefully about it. Again, it’s all about discovery and that discovery cycle.”

The use of both visual search and metadata played a role in Penguin’s publication last year of author Alex Scarrow’s first novel, TimeRiders, a title aimed principally at 10- to 12-year-olds. “It’s brilliantly written and a fantastic thundering adventure, but it was a debut novel – no one had ever heard of it,” says Rafferty.

“We know where those 10-, 11- and 12-year-olds are – they’re largely on YouTube. So we created a trailer for the book, which we posted on YouTube and similar appropriate sites.” The trailer used a clever stick drawing animation, masterminded by the author, to draw readers into the book’s concept without visualising the characters for them.


Rafferty is keen to point out that creating a digital asset is only part of the process. “That is step one. The clever bit is how we then optimise it and make people find it and then where it leads them. We have to create a whole cycle of marketing around this.”

Penguin leveraged metadata, carrying out a lot of analysis around trends and keywords, to enable that age group to find it when they were searching on related topics. Once engaged they would be driven to the TimeRiders website. The online trailers received “tens of thousands” of views, and Penguin saw a “massive spike” in sales, particularly of the digital iBook, with TimeRiders becoming Penguin’s first number one iBook.

The science of discoverability is playing an increasingly important role for brands, and Penguin’s greater investment in harnessing and leveraging the mass of crucial data available is an extension of its discoverability work that has, to date, been rooted in identifying and leveraging communities of like-minded people online. The value of creating digital destinations for its readers to find books, discuss books and be inspired to read new titles, was an opportunity it spotted early on.

In 2008, the publisher launched Spinebreakers, an online community for – and largely run by – teenage readers, created in response to the general decline in the opportunity for young people to read and discover books. The site now has more than 200,000 unique visitors a year, typically attracting about 15,000 each month, and Rafferty says its continued growth surprises her. “Presumably there must be a churn – they get to the age where they say they don’t need it anymore; they’ve gone to university and they will go straight to Amazon to get what they need – but it is still growing and obviously teen reading is still really important.”

But Penguin is not just targeting young readers. The publisher’s Pig2Twig community, set up in 2008, is also still going strong.

Rafferty comments: “Pig2Twig is still getting tens if not hundreds of thousands of people going to it.”

The community’s growth was something of a happy accident. “It was going to be a blog because it’s based on a diet book written by India Knight. But we swiftly realised that a blog wasn’t enough because we were getting 50, 60 or 70 comments on each post and we learned that people wanted to be able to talk, so we had to turn it into a forum.”

The community’s success – and the way Penguin spotted the opportunity and leveraged it – served to change the publisher’s way of thinking. “It’s not something that Penguin would necessarily have ever got involved in – we’re not a diet business – but the idea that you don’t focus necessarily on the fact that people like a particular author proved interesting. You think about what the scenario is that is motivating them in their life. What is their shared interest? What is bringing them together as a community?”

But Penguin hasn’t always got it right. While its Blog A Penguin Classic site attracted over 90,000 unique visitors per month at its peak, its crime and thriller community, Penguin Most Wanted, has caused less of a stir.

Unlike Spinebreakers and Pig2Twig, which tap into emotive, shared interests beyond the book genre itself, the crime community has perhaps been too narrow. “I wouldn’t call it unsuccessful, but it hasn’t blown me away,” says Rafferty. “People will go there to find the next book they want to read, and that’s great, but further engagement is difficult. Whereas you can get much deeper engagement on [ladies fiction community] Bijoux or Spinebreakers.”

Penguin’s ability to recognise and galvanise communities online has not only fostered brand loyalty, it has proved a valuable platform for the marketing team. Its Ladybird Mum’s Panel gives the publisher direct access to a group of about 100 mothers. “They are part of our marketing success. They are an amazingly useful sounding-board that we talk to about products, commissioning, design, jackets and all those sort of things. I find them indispensable when we are creating new products.”

She cites the experimental digital apps for babies as young as three months old, which Penguin released in January this year, as an example of this success. There was some expectation that people would view the concept as controversial but there was no questioning at all. “I honestly believe part of the reason why our Baby Touch stuff has been so successful is the involvement of our Ladybird Mum’s Panel.”

Rafferty explains that digital marketing lives and dies on good digital word of mouth and the enthusiastic endorsement of the panel also boosted the popularity of the apps on launch.

Penguin’s growing success with digital products is a sign of the direction the business is heading. In 2010, parent company Pearson reported revenues from Penguin’s ebooks were up 182%, accounting for 6% of Penguin’s total revenues. The planned opening of a sophisticated new media suite in August 2011 further underlines the publisher’s commitment to digital. “We’re spending hundreds and thousands on creating our own media suite at Penguin HQ this year,” says Rafferty.

“It is a huge investment in terms of space, resources and cash, and we are the only publishers doing it.” As well as using the facility to create its own digital products, such as audio books, it will play a big role in Penguin’s digital marketing. “It really is key. We will use it to create assets for our digital books, enhanced ebooks and apps. We do a lot of podcasting and video podcasting and it will be very handy to have a properly staffed resource in the building.”

It will certainly aid Rafferty’s focus on creating more visual assets to promote Penguin’s titles online, but she admits that the success of the TimeRiders trailers won’t necessarily be easy to replicate. “That was sci-fi, conceived around time travel, so you could easily put it into a trailer for people to understand. Not every book is like that.”

But she says Penguin has a lot of audio book assets that can offer great scope for further creativity. “There is no one-size-fits-all marketing strategy for books. That is the joy and frustration of working on book marketing.”

  • 39.4% of UK adults visited a public library in 2009/10 – down from 48.2% in 2005/06
  • 90,000 The monthly number of unique visitors the Blog A Penguin Classic site attracted at its peak

Online debate to TV campaign


Penguin Books UK used a debate started on its Readers’ Group website for a TV campaign to promote actress and comedienne Dawn French’s book A Tiny Bit Marvellous, that went on to become the biggest-selling debut novel of 2010.

When Dawn French’s first novel, A Tiny Bit Marvellous, came out in October last year, Penguin contacted its Readers’ Group website – a community for adults who want to set up reading groups and discuss books – and offered a free copy of the book to anyone who Penguin knew liked reading a similar type of genre. But the publisher decided not to reveal who the author was.

“We tore off the cover and title pages – anything that had a reference to Dawn on it – and it started a little bit of a mystery around the author,” says Anna Rafferty, managing director of Penguin Digital at Penguin Books.

Proof copies were sent out and recipients were invited to start reviewing it on the website. “As always, we have to be pretty brave because people don’t necessarily like what you give them – that is the nature of reviewing. But they started reviewing and the discussion became lively and interesting. People found the two voices in the book really resonated with them and wanted to talk about their own experiences.

“We found all the buzz around it really interesting and wanted to use some of it. We invited some of the most vocal people to join us at a studio in London where we filmed them continuing their discussion. They came along and they swiftly forgot about the cameras.”

In the middle of the animated discussion, Penguin revealed the identity of the author and introduced Dawn French in person. “It is a wonderful moment of drama, all caught on camera, where readers were amazed and then delighted and wanted to ask questions,” says Rafferty.

The video content became the TV ad campaign for the book. “It was too good to waste. The content that people were creating in the digital environment was so interesting we made it into our above-the-line ad campaign. And in another little twist, which I quite loved, the TV ad had its premier on Amazon.”

A Tiny Bit Marvellous was the biggest-selling debut novel of 2010.


key points

  • Amazon announced in January this year that it is selling 115 Kindle ebooks for every 100 paperback books across its US business. Penguin is responding to this trend by investing more in digital products and digital marketing, and will open its own dedicated media suite in August.
  • In 2010, Penguin’s parent company Pearson reported that revenues from Penguin’s ebooks were up 182%, accounting for 6% of Penguin’s total revenues.
  • Penguin’s digital marketing strategy centres around creating a ’digital shop window’, including destinations such as its online communities, as well as greater investment in discoverability to make it easier for readers to connect with its books.
  • Penguin’s Spinebreakers site – a community for teen readers – was launched in 2008 and is still growing. It now has over 200,000 unique visitors annually, typically attracting about 15,000 unique visitors each month.
  • Two priorities for Penguin’s digital marketing are a focus on metadata – or more detailed tagging of its products – and a greater emphasis on visual search, which involves creating more visual assets to market its products. Both combine to aid greater discoverability in the fast-growing sea of digital content.



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