If you’re an aspiring writer looking to sell your work online take a lesson from the retailers of yester year.
Malls are transforming into community centers, places where you can renew your license, bowl ten frames, and lift weights. Meanwhile tent pole retailers, like Macy’s, Sears, and J.C. Penny are all pulling up stakes.
While most blame the rise of online shopping I blame the retailers. Shoppers who venture into brick and mortar stores are there to browse while retailers do everything they can to get in their way. CEOs blame shrinking profits on their employees’ inability to hand sell, to walk customers around the store, to give every person the same attention they’d give to shoplifters.
When I walk into a store and a clerk says, “What can I help you find today?” I’m taken aback.
“I’m just looking.”
“Well, what are you looking for?”
“A way out of this awkward conversation. Can you help me?”
“Not really. I’m only programed to ask close-ended questions.”
“I’m going to go, um, be not here anymore.”
“Okay, I’ll check back in a few.”
Let’s say I find something I want, before I can buy it the clerk behind the count has another script, like a laundry list, they have to go through too.
“Are you shopping with our rewards program?”
“You know if you spend several hundred dollars in the store it’ll actually save you money, before it auto-renews at the end of the year.”
“Do you mind if we ding your credit score by getting you to apply for a credit card with an APR so high it could be considered predatory lending?”
“I do mind.”
“Would you like to sign up for a protection plan that doesn’t cover damage, theft, or loss?”
“What does it cover?”
“Acts of God. Provided you can prove God’s existence.”
“Can I have your email address?”
“It’s one of the metrics I have to score a higher on.”
“Will you spam me every day?”
“All day everyday, until it occurs to you to click that microscopic unsubscribe button.”
“Yeah, no. I won’t be doing that.”
“Alright thanks for shopping with us. Oh, and just so you know there’s a survey on the bottom of the receipt. If you take the time to fill it out you have an infinitesimal chance of winning compensation for that time.”
Hey retailers. Want to pull your industry out of a tailspin? How about easing up on the hard selling? When customers leave your store feeling socially awkward they think twice before coming back again. That’s the dark field of study all your surveys and secret shoppers keep missing. It’s not just the discounts that have people turning to the Internet. It’s the comfort that comes from not having to worry about being shaken down.
What Real and Virtual Storefronts Have in Common
If you’re an author building a brand think of your website as your retail space and think of your social media as the walkway outside the front doors.
You could invite shoppers to see the reading you’ll be doing or to sit in on the interview you’ll be hosting with a fellow author. You could roll out a cart filled with sample stories and invite readers to grab a bundle to share with their friends. You could offer neighboring businesses advance reader copies too. You could even hand out coupons for all your titles.
When shoppers enter your store you could offer them a tour, make it clear what you’re offering, how it benefits them, what sets you apart, and what’s new on the shelf. Make sure you’ve got someone at customer services that can respond to comments. Leave forms out for people to signup for your newsletter at their leisure.
These are the kind of soft selling techniques that will leave people with a good impression of your business (or for the sake of this metaphor your blog). Odds are shoppers won’t buy much on their first visit, but they’re likely to comeback.
Or You Could Hard Sell
Now imagine this shopping experience.
You’re in the food court chatting with your friends about your favorite horror stories, when a man in a bunny costume, spinning a big gold arrow, cuts in.
“You like horror stories? Then you should hop along to Hector’s Horrortorium on the third floor.”
You try to ignore the giant bunny, but he won’t leave you alone. He follows you into the Reddit Store, making the exact same pitch to anyone who likes horror. So you humor him.
When you walk into the shop a customer service representative stops you in the vestibule.
“Howdy, you don’t know us, or really what we do, but why not subscribe to our newsletter?”
You say, “No thanks, I’m just browsing.”
The alarms go off as you walk in. The same clerk steps back in front of you. “It looks like the system detects an Adblocker.” He puts his hand out. “I’ll have to take that before you can go inside.”
When you finally get in the store you find the layout confusing. You were promised horror, but you find more titles on marketing and self-help than anything else. There are some horror stories, but you’ve got to dig around to find them. The whole thing feels like a bait and switch.
The store doesn’t seem to have its own identity. There’s even signage for things the store doesn’t carry. There are entire sections sponsored by others. What kind of business allows competitors to post ads amongst its own products?
A customer service rep approaches. “How’d you like to like our Facebook page?”
“That’s okay, I’m just going to follow you around and keep asking while you look around.”
Another rep approaches with a stack of advance readers. The title looks like something you’d be interested in. “May I interest you in a free sample?”
“Yes please.” You put your hand out.
The rep dangles the book over your hand. “I’ll give it to you if you tweet out an endorsement for this fine establishment.”
“Then it isn’t free is it?”
The rep strokes his chin, tilts his head back and forth and shrugs.
The Point Already
The point is: nobody likes to be upsold, in retail or the virtual world. It is a lesson Twitter’s algorithm had to teach me. I kept playing the man in the bunny costume, trying to get people to hop along to my website. I shared links, on the hour every hour here go to my blog, here join my newsletter, here buy my audio book. That’s not what most Twitter users are hanging out in the food court for. I was trying to boost my blog’s metrics while they were there to bear witness to the downfall of western civilization, or be social, or whatever.
Writers need to play a longer game. We need to be softer salespeople, giving potential customers a nudge in our direction. We need to build relationships with customers by making our showrooms welcoming places that invite them to participate.
If you’re an author with aspirations to write bestsellers you won’t have time to forge personal relationships with each of your readers, but you can work to forge a relationship with your unique audience.
In the same way established authors encourage writers to write the stories they’d want to read, you should write articles you’d find intriguing, rather than chasing a general audience forge a relationship by finding your niche.
When in doubt, ask yourself how would you sell you to you? What impression would you leave yourself with? Would you want to come back?