One of Amazon's Best Marketing Tool Revealed: the Vine Program

Amazon-New-Detail-Page (Photo credit: kokogiak)
Der Loyalitätskreislauf (Marketing, E-Marketing)
Der Loyalitätskreislauf (Marketing, E-Marketing) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Amazon's Vine Program is a truly amazing marketing tool and perhaps it works so well because it is (relatively) discreet. It's simply brilliant: it takes advantage of our human compulsion to compete - we all love to come out first! - and of our distrust of traditional paid advertising. It harnesses the power of independent customer reviews and unashamedly turns it to its own advantage - but then, why shouldn't it? Amazon has thought it out and fine-tuned it, so why not reap the benefits? I can't think of any other online vendor who has constructed such a sophisticated marketing tool.

So what's it about? Amazon's own presentation of the Vine Program is not easy to find in the site and it turns up in relation to reviews made by people who participate in the program. Under their name when they review a product - and it can be anything from an electronic gadget to a book - appears in blue letters a little sign which reads "Vine™ Voice" plus sometimes an explanation which says Customer review from the Amazon Vine™ Program. That's where you get a chance to click on a "what's this" box that will take you to a full explanation. Here's the link: http://www.amazon.com/gp/vine/help

Take a look and then come back, I'm waiting for you, I've got more on this. You'll learn that this is a program you can't join unless you've first earned a high ranking as a reviewer - yes, this is where the competition comes in! To review for Amazon is fun (and a competitive activity!) and they actually encourage you to review the products you've bought. Also the Vine Program is by invitation only - meaning Amazon invites you on the basis of your ranking which is determined by what other people think of your reviews. Have you noticed that little sentence above reviews which says "x number of y people have found the following review helpful"? Indeed, you're encouraged to click to indicate whether you agree with the review. Just take a look, you'll see a lot of people do that sort of clicking. 

Of course, Amazon is not naive and is well aware that some people may game the system and get their friends to click approval of their reviews. So they take that into account through some sort of algorithm that levels the playing field. How that's done I don't know, they won't say but I'm quite sure it works - also to improve your ranking, you'd have to obtain "votes of approval" for your reviews from thousands of "friends", something that's obviously impossible. I believe it is fair to say that the Vine Program has only "trusted" reviewers - which is of course the Amazon goal for the program.

A Vine Program reviewer doesn't make money being a reviewer, he simply earns "badges". There are all sorts of badges: for belonging to the top 1000 reviewers, top 500, top 100, top 50, top 10, for being the first. Yes, it's highly competitive! And you can even earn a badge which reads "real name" and is put under your reviewer's name (I'm not quite sure why but it does sound positive). So what Amazon does with all these badges is - yes, you guessed it - encourage competition. Keep it up, you guys!

But there is a small material advantage in belonging to the Vine Program: they get for free the products they review and for books that means ARCs (Advanced Review Copies). So they're not like the rest of us who whenever we review a product we buy it first and then earn a "Amazon Verified Purchase" button next to our review. They don't because Amazon sends them the products obtained from the publishers, labels, studios, manufacturers or any vendor participating in the program. But they're not obliged to publish positive reviews, they can write whatever they want. This is something that Amazon insists on, they are left entirely free to evaluate the products as they wish. I checked a few out and yes, I can vouch that they actually do. A Vine Program reviewer is just as likely as anyone else to produce a negative review, but since they've earned so much trust from other customers, it is obvious that their reviews carry more weight.

What is perhaps a little strange is that the reviews from Vine Program members aren't necessarily longer or more in-depth than the average. Indeed, they can be as short as a couple of sentences that "skim the surface" of the product - that is especially true for books. I noticed some really shallow 5 star reviews for books that deserved better coverage (I won't name names, but I assure you they exist). But then, I noticed these particular Vine™ Voices weren't specialized in reviewing books. Looking at their profile, I found they reviewed all sorts of other things from electronic gadgets to pick up bags for dog poop. Presumably they weren't avid book readers, but overall, they had gained enough support from fellow customers to join the ranks of the Vine Program. 

Indeed, Amazon tries to enroll in the program reviewers that are popular - and of course, over time, reviewers tend to achieve a status of "near-specialist" because of their knowledge and continued interest in certain types of products. On a side note: reviewers that achieve high rankings are not necessarily book reviewers, on the contrary. For example, the last time I looked, among the top ten program reviewers only one was specialized in reviewing books!

However that's not what makes it such a marvelous marketing tool. The real beauty is that Amazon can schedule the customer reviews: some reviews come out in the pre-launching period of a product and for books in particular, this is very important. For example, Paul Auster is coming out on 21 August with a new book published by Henry Holt and Company, Winter Journal.  At the time of writing (15 August), it has already obtained 17 reviews, all of them Vine™ Voices.
English: Paul Auster at the 2010 Brooklyn Book...
Paul Auster. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now, of course Paul Auster is the kind of author who automatically gets good editorial reviews from the likes of Booklist, Publishers'Weekly, Kirkus, Library Journal. So what is the effect of Vine reviews compared to the industry standards? Hard to say, but some of those Vine™ Voices have a large following. They are people who have done upwards of two to three thousand reviews. Three were classified in the "top 500 reviewers" and one in the top one thousand. What does it mean? Well, take one reviewer who's ranked 121 - he has garnered 6159 "helpful votes". His reviews have been read by many more people of course, but that number was sufficiently impressed to click the helpful vote button. Not bad...Multiply that by 16, and you get a nice core of some 100,000 people who have manifested interest, and all of that even before the book comes out! Consider also that the reviews were nicely varied, from 5 to 2 stars. Yes, even one 2 star review and pretty damning too, saying "Sorry, this just didn't work for me. It was boring and embarrassing to read". But there was no one star review. This leaves the overall average at a good, rounded 4 star level - which adds to the feeling of trust. This looks (and I'm quite sure it is) very genuine, free of any undue pressure.

Also, in the fragile, initial period, sales of a product can be sustained with a trickle of reviews from the Vine Program or if sales flag, they can be boosted. It is interesting to see how the reviews from Vine™ Voices  pop up at fairly regular intervals to sustain the book sales of Amazon imprints, ensuring that they don't gather dust on their digital shelves.

Yes, if you're published by an Amazon imprint, whether Thomas Mercer (mysteries), AmazonEncore (out of print and self-published), AmazonCrossing (translated books),Montlake Romance or 47 North (sci-fi, fantasy, horror), you are supported by the impressive Amazon online marketing toolkit, including the little known but incredibly effective Vine Program. 

This is a book promotion tool traditional publishers are  probably drooling over...But they can use Amazon's marketing toolkit to their advantage too, right? That's certain what Henry Holt has done!

What's in it for self-published authors, you may well ask. For the moment, not much. You can try to contact a Vine reviewer, but you're not likely to get far - if any of you has managed it, please let us know how you did it!

I do believe however that Amazon could do something with the Vine Program in the area of self-published books. It could be systematically used to try and identify the "better" books. I know Amazon is already trying to do that through a competition run from its Create Space platform, to identify the "breakthrough" novel. That's a good idea, but surely more could be done, in particular through expanding and strengthening the Vine Program...Your opinion?



Participate in an Italian Art Competition, the "Premio Celeste", Open to the Whole World!

You don't need to be Italian to participate in this art competition and you don't need to be a painter either, you can be a sculptor, a photographer, anything you like provided it's contemporary! I happen to be a figurative painter (besides being a writer of course) and I've just decided to participate with one of my oil paintings.

Here it is, it's called OVER THE EDGE:

Cool, isn't it? Especially in this hot weather...all that nice fluffy snow! I've just finished writing a novella by that title and I plan to use this painting for the book cover (when I get around to publishing it!) What do you think of it? If you're holding your breath and wondering how this guy is going to land, well, I'm wondering too! Actually, that's the whole point of the painting...

And yes, the novella OVER THE EDGE, is full of suspense too, it's set in the future, two hundred years from now, when medical advances have solved the problem of aging and you live your whole life looking young until the moment you drop dead...But is that a blessing when the man you love doesn't know how old you are? And here in this painting is the man she loves, a young athletic skier engaged in a magnificent jump while she is...122 years old and just a few hours from Death!

Here's the link to the Premio Celeste - if you want to participate, hurry up, inscriptions will be closed by midnight August 8!

Condividi il tuo lavoro - Premio Celeste
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Are Amazon Rankings Killing Your Book Sales?

Cover of "Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudi...
Cover of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice
There are nearly one million and a half titles on Kindle: if you're beyond the 100,000th rank, could that fact alone discourage would-be readers? I think so, though I can't prove it. But one thing can be done: investigate what the concept of rankings really mean, starting on well-known books of proven quality, whether literary or genre, classic or contemporary. Took me a whole day, and I only looked at some 25 writers - a sample too small to go beyond anything but impressionistic preliminary conclusions * - and all my numbers hark back to 28 July when I did my research in the Kindle Store (rankings change on a daily basis of course). I'm sure some of you have done it too and you could contribute to my investigation, please be sure to include your observations in the comments, I'm looking forward to them!

Thus my conclusions need to be taken with a grain of salt, but they're interesting all the same and some of the results were truly surprising. 
In a nutshell:

1. Amazon rankings do NOT reflect book quality. Classic authors are easily outranked by nobodies. A few examples will suffice: do you know where Tolstoy's celebrated Anna Karenina is ranked in "paid-in" Kindle Store ("paid in" as opposed to books available"free")? It's sitting at #2,746! Of course, the fact that it's also available free doesn't help...Hopefully this abysmal ranking will be improved by the coming Joe Wright movie (look at the trailer below, amazing! And Tom Stoppard did the screenplay too, wow!). But Tolstoy is not an isolated case. Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice is even worse off, at #3,665, even though the Kindle world is reputed to be the province of Romance books, and Regency Romance at that. Yeah. And take a look at Gore Vidal's ranking - he passed away today, probably one of the major American authors of the 20th century -. His historical novel, Lincoln, surely one of his masterpieces that has made him the top American historical novelist, comes in at #61,058 as I write (August 1) the day his death was announced (presumably people are downloading him today). His other books all range upwards of #300,000.  But of course you knew that only the first one hundred titles in the Kindle Store are best-sellers, right...

Alexandre Dumas, photo by Nadar.
Alexandre Dumas, photo by Nadar. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

2. Among the classics, "action and adventure" is a best-selling genre. Surprise, surprise. Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Montecristo ranked at 450! Incidentally, on the e-book offered on the Amazon site, the author's name is spelled "Duma" without the "s"! Incidentally duma is a word that exists, it is a Russian term for a representative assembly. I haven't read that particular e-book, but I suspect the text is awash with typos if they can't even get the author's name right... Lest you think that murder mysteries by a classic author can outstrip Dumas, here's Agatha Christie's ranking for her most "popular" novel (Amazon has a "popularity" ranking too), And Then They Were None: #23,540. Surprised?  You thought Agatha Christie's books also (at least notionally) had action and adventure? Well, no. Not in Amazon's ranking world, that "special rankings" labyrinth...

3. Special rankings: a jungle to navigate! In addition to overall ranking in the "paid-in" Kindle Store, achieving ranking in a special category can suddenly make you look good: you may be well out in the ether in overall ranking, but a special category can bring you into the first one hundred! There's a hitch, though. Those categories seem to be as numerous as the keywords or "tags" used to described books on the Amazon site. Some are duplicates (what's the difference between "drama" and "tragedy"?) and many are simply not remotely relevant. Just a couple of examples to show you how crazy it can get: Carlos Ruiz Zafòn's The Shadow of the Wind is ranked #51 for the following category: "Education and Reference". Really, for a novel? And an atmospheric, unique novel such as this one?? And if you think I've dug up a glitch in the system just to be annoying, here's another one: Anne Tyler's The Accidental Tourist turns up as #78 for..."English as a foreign language"! Ok, the novel's protagonist is a guidebook author, but this is a novel, for Goodness' sake! And I'm sure you've come across some weird ones yourself, please share your findings in the comments!
What's the real use of ranking beyond the first one hundred? Bottom line, they are a mere reflection of current sales, but presumably they help readers find what other readers buy the most. The trouble is: the system feeds on itself - it's a vicious circle. The more you sell, well, the more you sell...The snowballing effect means people are used to buying stuff in the first one hundred, whether overall ranking or special ranking. And if your book is listed in neither, then it's tough, baby, but no matter how many good reviews you have, you won't cut it. No way. Which is why some people will use any means - including using all their friends and crowdsourcing techniques (see article below) - to kick their book into the hallowed hall of the top 100.

A fair way to do it? No. Will it work? Maybe. There's that snowballing effect...But here quality kicks in: if the product is no good, no one will buy it. Or they won't buy your next book. Yes, because you can always download a sample and that's what most people do to make sure they want to read it. And if the sample stinks, well, it's curtains!

That brings me to the other two marketing instruments that help "book discovery" on Amazon: customer reviews and "likes". 

Customer reviews and "likes: that's something self-published authors work hard at: gathering as many reviews and "likes" as possible - some even try to get as many tags as they can, presumably to feed into the "special rankings". Then if they get one star reviews, they get desperate. Yet, one star reviews are meaningless: the best books get them. For example, James Patterson (yes, that one, the great Patterson) got 19 one star reviews (out of a total 90) for his best-selling I, Michael Bennett. That says it all.

Conversely, five star reviews are also (relatively) unimportant: an avalanche of compliments seems unrelated to the ranking and sales. For example, Anne Tyler for her top selling novel, The Beginner's Goodbye, got 123 reviews that averaged at 4.1 (out of 5) with only 2 one star reviews, yet her ranking is nothing to write home about: #28,280. And I can multiply the examples as I'm sure you can too.

Do reviews work as well as rankings in driving readers to a book? Who knows, but there is little doubt that a total lack of reviews is associated with a ranking way out there in the ether. Let's be clear on this: with no reviews and no "likes", your book is dead, gathering digital dust on its virtual shelf. But even here looking at how major authors fare brings some surprises. Just one comparison between two best-selling authors: Barry Unsworth who won the Booker Prize with his Sacred Hunger, got only 3 reviews for that book (average: 4.3) and 2 "likes" and ranks at a modest #18,731. Ian McEwan, with his best-selling Amsterdam got 47 reviews (average 4.2) and 2 "likes", but is relegated to a whoppingly high #111,109.

Makes no sense at all. And if you look at "likes", the story is even more surprising. Take Aaron Patterson, a writer whose books fall into the James Patterson "kindle book list". By the way, that's something self-published authors try to do again and again: get themselves listed along with a major author famous for producting blockbusters. If you look at the James Patterson list there are 483 results (yes, that much - but then James Patterson is notoriously prolific himself). Aaron Patterson clocks in at ...#1 on that list, ahead of James Patterson himself! How did he do it? Did he benefit from the similarity in his name? Maybe, but it's more likely that he worked very hard at marketing. Whatever he did, he got 74 reviews for his book Sweet Dreams, averaging 3.7 (better than James Patterson's 2.8 for the above mentioned I, Michael Bennett) and obtained a whopping 207 "likes" (as opposed to James Patterson's 4). Did all this effort put him in the top 100 in paid-in Kindle? Nope. He's at #1,289 - a lot better than the master, but still...The real reason he beat the master, I suspect, is price: his book costs $ 4,02 as against $ 12,76 for James Patterson's (prices quoted here are those on Amazon for Europe - higher than in the US). 

There is little doubt that the e-book market is a world on its own. Classics available in paperback or used editions are often cheaper than e-books and have been reviewed more often but this does not seem to translate into better Kindle ranking or more digital sales. 

You can engage in what is considered all the "right" steps: numerous reviews including professional ones in trade magazines, a smashing book trailer, many "likes" and classification in several "special rankings", but all that effort still won't get you into the hallowed top 100 in paid-in Kindle. A recent example comes to mind that perfectly illustrates what I mean. Take Adriana Trigiani's The Shoemaker's wife, just out in April 2012, published by HarperCollins. Of course, being trad-published, it's priced very high: $15.22. But it still managed to get 170 reviews (plus a few professional ones) averaging a respectable 4.3 (that includes 3 one star reviews), an excellent book trailer, 74 "likes", and good ranking in special categories (#7 in "domestic life" and #8 in "family saga"). Yet it didn't make it into the hallowed top 100: it stands at 340. Respectable given the high price, but not quite good enough.

Now, how would have Adriana Trigiani's novel fared if it hadn't been hampered by such a high price? Extemely well I should think...Because, as of now, the top 100 is populated by books that are in the low range of 99 cents to $5.99 (with a few exceptions of course). So price trumps everything else...for the time being. I do wonder what will happen once the traditional publishers realize that the e-book market is insulated from their printed book world and that they can behave just as self-published authors have: reap the benefits of pricing e-books in the low price range and watch the sales clock up!

Because conventional wisdom tells us you need everything to make it work: an attractive low price, lots of customer reviews including professional reviews, many "likes", a good book trailer, and last but not least social networking to spread the word. And then some excellent books still don't make it. Go figure...

Still, that leaves one with a doubt. Could it be that Amazon by ranking your books is killing your sales? Once you're beyond the #100,000 range, it doesn't look good. Readers who like to follow the crowd draw conclusions from such things...

Also, what's the use of "special rankings"? Some make sense, like "family saga" or "action and adventure". Others don't. Wouldn't it be better to clear up the mess (probably created by automatic computerized adding up of tags)? Because if categories were clear (even if numerous), they would surely help in book discovery. If you like "action and adventure", there's no doubt about what it is, you go look for it. A category such as "education and reference" applied to a novel surely doesn't help! 

What's your opinion? Should Amazon review its special rankings and desist from ranking books beyond the 100,000th rank?
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Retired People of the World, Unite!

Campus Theater
Campus Theater (Photo credit: Gerry Dincher)
Are marketing gurus waking up to new markets out there? Have they (finally) realized that the Baby Boomers are about to retire - nay, that they're retiring? It's going to be a tsunami of consumers over 60. And that will change the marketing game forever. 

So far, products were sold with pretty pictures of youth. Now we'll get your grandmother selling you a red hot Ferrari, I can just picture her wiggling out of the racing car (or running away?). Ah, no matter, the name of the game is Baby Boomer Buying!

At least that's what AARP and their magazine think - and what they think does matter, after all the magazine sells to over 22 million readers! That makes it the biggest magazine in America (and perhaps the world). As Andrew Newman of the New York Times recently pointed out  (see article below), they've launched a new campaign aimed at advertisers that features people in their 50s and early 60s, arguing that "brands should be focusing on them, not people ages 18 to 34, commonly referred to by the marketers who covet them as millennials."

Indeed. Advertising has traditionally focused on the young and that was a very good strategy when the Baby Boomers were young back in the 60s and 70s. Now they're old, and the numbers should speak to marketeers: as of now, they're some 75 million of them in the United States alone and the numbers are growing. Also population is aging everywhere, Japan in particular but also in China (where by 2040 there will be many more retired people than active workers).

The numbers have clearly spoken to Hollywood. It is trying to get boomers back in the movie theatre, producing films to their taste like “True Grit,” “The King’s Speech,” “The Fighter,” “Black Swan”, “The Social Network”. They have all been "surprise hits" at the box office and reaping Oscars. Wow! So selling to Baby Boomers does work! As the New York Times put it in an article reviewing this developing trend in movies (25 Feb 2011), they have become hits “based on wit and storytelling, not special effects”. 

Gone is the pointless gore and violence and wild, unrealistic flings of fancy. What a relief! As far as I'm concerned (but then yes, I'm a Baby Boomer), I'm totally fed up with wild pursuits through improbable settings, sprays of ketchup blood and the deafening sound of gunfire and explosions. 

Remarkably, people are getting used to seeing old faces. Films featuring old actors are making it to top rankings in the box office: Judi Dench and Maggie Smith (both 76), Helen Mirren (65), Sylvester Stallone (64), Liam Neeson (58), just to name a few. But I'm sure you can think of many more. For example, French actors like Gérard Depardieu or Alain Delon.
LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 07: (EDITORS NOTE: Image has been converted to black and white) Dame Judi Dench attends the World Premiere of 'The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel' at The Curzon Mayfair on February 7, 2012 in London, England. (Image credit: Getty Images via @daylife)

What is striking is the change in plots. For the first time, movies are squarely focussed on the retired and aging. For example, “RED”, a hit in 2010, stands for “retired and extremely dangerous” and the current hit  “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” is about a group of British retirees who go to India (Fox Searchlight).

The exploding growth of Facebook and Twitter is largely the result of a surge in adoption by older people: a recent US poll (Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, Feb 2011) shows that the share of Americans older than 50 using social networks doubled in 2010, with a virtual majority of baby boomers, and about one-quarter of the nation’s seniors, now using the sites to stay in touch or reconnect with long-lost friends.
The media is catching up (not just AARP for whom Baby Boomer retirees are at the center of its mandate). Since March 2011, the New York Times has tried to launch a free quarterly magazine and associate website called "Your Guide to Better Living" aimed at Baby Boomers. As far as I can figure out, it's not online yet or at least not visible to the average Google navigator - which goes to show that it's not easy to market to Baby Boomers. This is something that Chuck Nyren points out in his excellent article: a marketing campaign works if it promotes a product that is NOT age-related. Why? Probably because we all like to look hip. It's a left-over of the Baby Boomer heredity. We can't get excited about ashen faces, hearing aids and walking sticks.

The same is true for literature. Novels with the aging and retired as protagonists are on the rise - what I like to call BB novels (for Baby Boomers just like YA novels are for Young Adults). That's precisely what my next novel, A HOOK IN THE SKY, is about. But if BB novels are going to be sad, tragic stories about wrinkles and back aches, you can bet no one will want to read them! 

A good BB novel is one that makes you smile, that let's you get in the head of older people and understand them. Empathy is the key word here. We'll all get there some day, old and bent, but it need not be a drama. No, there can be good things about growing old, it's just a matter of looking for them. I think that's what that Deborah Moggach's novel, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, really does: it exorcises the fear of Death, it tells you how to handle age with grace and dignity and it makes it sound (at last!) like good fun! A skilful black comedy, it's a great read, I highly recommend it.

It's everything a BB novel should be. And I'm not surprised it's such a roaring success - and the film too. It's BB times coming up!
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 23:  A detail of actress ...
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 23: A detail of actress Pooja Kumar's ring and bracelet is seen at the 'The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel' New York Premiere at Ziegfeld Theatre on April 23, 2012 in New York City. (Image credit: Getty Images via @daylife)

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