Do You Need to Spend Money on Ads?

Josie Leavitt -- May 8th, 2014

Modern booksellers are faced with different ways of advertising. Every week, I get besieged by reps who walk in and extoll the virtues of their website, newspaper, local first coupon book, school directory, etc. Every week I make a decision that is usually no. I am not heartless (although the more persistent reps might disagree) — I am being pragmatic.

All retailers have an advertising budget, but increasingly, I’m finding that the most lucrative approach is often to spend less money in a more targeted money. I live in a place where there is one daily paper, the Burlington Free Press. It’s a fine paper, but one that is getting smaller and one that fewer people read in the paper format. Most folks I have know I have shifted to the online version. The alternative weekly paper, Seven Days, is much more widely read, but also prohibitively expensive for a small store. We ran a six-week ad package in Seven Days and lost money because our coupon didn’t bring in enough sales to warrant the expense. One thing I’ve learned about ad money is that there better be a way to track its success in a real way. This is why we do coupons. As the coupons get redeemed we write on them if it was a new customer or an old one and how much they spent. Then, when the campaign is over we see how much customers spent. Sadly, the print campaign just wasn’t worth the money.

I don’t understand web advertising much. I’m not sure how effective it is. I understand the concept of click rates, page views, and all the other things that go along with internet ads, but I’m not sure how well it works for a bookstore. Do people who frequent bookstore spend as much time online as people who would just buy a book at Amazon? That’s hard to know. I’ll be honest, I don’t really like online ads when I’m on a site. I find them annoying and try to minimize my screen so I can only see the article I want to read.

Increasingly, the advertising that works for our store is free. Our Facebook page is like a massive ad for the store. The only money I spend there is the occasional push to get more “likes”, and I’ve never spend more than $100 in a year. People spend time on Facebook and seem to enjoy the posts we put up about books and events. When we have events we ask folks how they heard about the event and increasingly they say Facebook. This is hardly scientific, but it does help me to know where folks are hearing about things.

We have a great thing here called the Front Porch Forum which is a free online neighborhood bulletin board. You can post anything from needing to borrow a power washer to recommendations for dentists to posting bookstore events. More communities have similar things and call them by a plethora of names. We post on there frequently when we have events. Our staff is diverse enough that we get pretty wide coverage of our area (you can only post to your neighborhood forum, so it’s helpful to have friends who can re-post for you in their forum). For whatever reason, these forum emails are among the first people read. You cannot get more local than your neighborhood Front Porch Forum, and these are book readers. Yes, they’re reading the Forum online, but they believe in shopping local. These are our people. We posted three days ago about Jon Muth coming and within hours had 30 RSVPs and that number keeps growing.

The last free advertising we do is our email blast. We have almost 3,000 people on our email list. Not all these people live locally, but all have chosen to be on the list and are therefore letting us know they’re interested in the store. Sometimes the out-of-town people are the book collectors who will order signed copies of books when authors and illustrators come to visit. We do not overwhelm folks with our blasts, because nothing hurts more than folks who want to opt out. These blasts land in email inboxes at good times of the week, usually Thursday or Sunday mornings. It’s very easy to track the effectiveness of these by the number of people who open the blast and then what they click on in the blast. This kind of information, while a little creepy, does help us figure out what kinds of links work best and that’s useful. We also attach a coupon that folks can print out or have on their phone to redeem at events.

So, I’m curious, what advertising has your store found to be the most effective?

2 thoughts on “Do You Need to Spend Money on Ads?

  1. Carol B. Chittenden

    Generally agreed, but a bit of elaboration about print: our print ads generally get a better response when they feature content that is already widely known. And although our print ads rarely pay off directly (except for the holiday catalogue insertions), I think a community really needs a newspaper, and advertising in ours is something I consider a community responsibility — up to a point. Our paper just cut back from semi-weekly to weekly, and is going digital for the rest. That has me wondering what comes next.

    And what about underwriting on NPR? We’ve experimented with it, but we generally feel we’re preaching to the choir there. I do consider our (considerable) rent in a central location to be part of our advertising budget.

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