Publishing group Random House is set to launch a widget programme next month in a bid to mine the long tail of the online book market.

The move is the latest form of digital content to be developed by the company as it seeks to extend the reach of its products.

We caught up with digital marketing and publicity manager Ros Lawler to ask about the scheme, as well as the company’s other online marketing ideas.


Where can you reach readers online nowadays?
What are the key trends in their online behaviour?

Where can’t you reach readers online would be an easier question to answer!

There are many well established sites for regular readers, such as LoveReading and publisher sites, and countless more for fans of specific genres and authors. 

Librarything, Shelfari and GoodReads are established social networks based on sharing book collections, reviews and recommendations. 

Facebook now has over 100 applications relating to books, and over 28,000 users have installed the iRead application. That’s not to mention all the excellent sites created for and by younger readers.
In addition to reaching this broad category of ‘readers’, the internet opens up the ability to introduce people to books according to their interest by connecting with them via topical sites and communities. 

Be it parenting, cooking, travelling, celebrities or fly fishing, there’s an opportunity to reach people who may never go into a high street bookshop.


Can you give us a rundown of your social media strategy thus far and plans for the future?

Over the past 18 months we’ve experimented with a wide range of activity on social networks - promotions on Bebo, fan clubs on Facebook, author pages on MySpace, competitions on YouTube, and creating a community for young fans of Jacqueline Wilson to name a few. 

We’re currently running a competition on Flickr to design a cover for the book ‘Crowdsourcing’ (search for ‘coversourcing’ on Flickr to see the entries.) 

Through this activity (and a certain amount of trial and error!) we’ve developed excellent skills and knowledge across our marketing teams, which we will continue to fine-tune. We’ll be building on the relationships and ideas we’ve established and continue to look for new ones.

In March, we are launching the Random House Widgets, a small digital version of the book which users can flick through to recreate the book shop experience.

They will be available to grab from our site or from online retailers, and will allow anyone to host the widget of their favourite book on their site or blog. Over time, this will massively increase the reach of our books and develop the long tail of sales. 

We also have some exciting plans for developing our communities of authors and readers.


You’ve been pretty active in Second Life. How effective a marketing channel has it proved, both in terms of sales and branding?

Our Second Life activity is not intended to be a branding exercise for Random House. The intention is to reach different communities of readers and writers, and provide a space within which to experiment. 

We’ve been very pleased with some of the results, particularly in the area of non-fiction.


Is scepticism about marketing in virtual worlds justified?

In some cases, yes. Stories of well known brands spending large sums of money on campaigns which have been rejected or destroyed by virtual communities have been widely reported.

In virtual worlds and social networks it’s more a case of giving ideas, content and tools to the community and seeing what happens, than imposing a pre-planned marketing campaign. 

This can be a very daunting prospect for companies who are used to keeping a tight control of their product or brand.


How do you measure RoI in Second Life?

If you were to measure it purely on books sold from direct links in Second Life, it would come out as a poor investment.

However, if you measure it in terms of reaching opinion-formers and as a publicity tool it can show real returns. 

For example, a number of our regular visitors write for SL newspapers or influential blogs and their reporting of our events has an incredibly wide reach. 

The event we ran for Richard Dawkins ‘The God Delusion’ (at which God famously put in an appearance) gained coverage in six UK newspapers.

The point of being there is to maintain a dialogue with the community so as virtual worlds develop we’re a part of the action, and not playing catch up.


Are you planning any further Second Life projects in the near future?

Our island on Second Life hosts regular meetings for readers and writers, alongside book launches and competitions.

For example, this month you could attend a book group to discuss ‘Atonement’, hone your writing skills with the writers group, watch a live interview with Sophie Kinsella or pick up some audio book samplers in our Valentine’s promotion. You can find more details of events on the blog.


What proportion of books do you now develop digital content for?

To date we’ve been restricted by marketing budgets, and so primarily focus on creating digital content for lead front list titles. This includes mini-sites, podcasts, games and so on.

The launch of our widgets will mean we can easily create digital content for every book, past and present. 


How big a contribution to sales do you expect from digital content versus e-commerce sales of print products?

A Nielson Online survey recently found that books are the ‘most popular online buy’, as 41% of internet users had bought books online.  

As sales of digital content are so new they are yet to show up on surveys of this size. However, downloads of audiobooks have increased by over 200% in the past year and the arrival of Kindle and the Sony Reader will have a dramatic effect on the sales of ebooks. 

The landscape could be very different in 5 years time. 


Any more thoughts on Kindle and ebook business models?

We are big supporters of ebook and will be re-launching our ebook list in May with a lot of exciting new titles coming out on ebook and in print.

We think the new devices are going to inject a huge amount of excitement into the market and that genuine innovation in this sector will bring huge benefits to users.

The Amazon Kindle is great as it has wireless purchasing for the Amazon e-book library. We are also big supporters of the Sony Reader. We expect both to launch in the UK this year or early next year.