thought leadership


In my work with nonfiction authors (and in my experience as a reader), I’m noticing that the function of nonfiction books is changing. From the perspective of a reader looking for expertise in solving a problem or in just gaining knowledge, there are so many information options out there now that – for me, at least – the nonfiction how-to book is beginning to take on a more discrete role than just an emblem of expertise.

Entrepreneurism is exploding right now. Many experts are not just writing books, but building businesses around their expertise, with full-service interactive websites, seminars, webinars, workbooks, and coaching opportunities. Experts/authors and readers have more direct contact with each other than ever before. Which is fantastic. But it also means the book is a relatively distant and static way for readers and authors to communicate. So what are readers looking for in a book?

Put simply, when a reader reads your book, it’s their first, small investment in establishing a relationship with you. I’ll put it personally: when I buy a how-to nonfiction book, it means I’ve seen it recommended by someone I trust (this could be an impersonal, trusted curation source or a personal friend). It means I’ve been to your website and I see that you really do have a depth of experience in the topic – and – this is key – you have a number of deeper-access offerings by which I can get more of your expertise. You have other, more personal ways to interact with you and keep the conversation and the learning going. The book is not the end (establishing your expertise) but the beginning (establishing a relationship). (It may seem ironic that we’re all craving relationships more and more now that our relationships are becoming more digitized, but it’s a very logical result. But that’s a topic for another post.)

Even more, I believe what readers want from books is some way of knowing that the author cares about them and about solving their real problems. And alth0ugh the book does function as a way for authors to build trust with their readers, the real proof of trustworthiness is accessibility.

The takeaway from this is that readers aren’t necessarily looking for the author/expert with the most impressive expertise, but simply expertise that meets certain standards of excellence. And perhaps the most important standard of excellence they’re looking for – the one that has the most weight – is service. Not just robotic or same-for-everyone service, but personal service. In other words, a relationship.

The book is often the first tangible investment in a business relationship a reader/prospect can make. Authors who understand this and have a clear path of accessibility and continuing the conversation beyond the book would certainly be more appealing to me than someone who has the highest awards in the field but remains aloof and self-satisfied in her own expertise.

Readers don’t just want the book anymore. They want the author.

Most of us remember the oft-quoted Edelman Trust Barometer’s 2006 finding that people trust “a person like me” the most. As a result, many businesses and marketers quickly began trying to act less like institutions and more like their customers’ friends or peers, particularly through social networking. Communicating more often and more casually became the goal. Businesses wanted their customers to see them as people like them, in order to trust them, and eventually to buy from them.

But I haven’t seen many implications drawn from this year‘s Edelman Trust Barometer finding that people now trust “an academic or expert” the most. Why the change? My guess, purely based on personal experience and discussions with friends, is that after several years of constant social networking, we’re talking to our online peers way too much about minutiae. With multiple Facebook updates, texts, and tweets daily from people we truly care about and have personal relationships with, we’re in fact drowning in a barrage of minutiae. And this is just from our real friends. To survive, we have to automatically delete all the “relevant” offers and content marketing from even the businesses we’ve opted in to, because we just don’t have time to sift through them.

In 2006, we were just discovering social networking and were craving personal connection – we trusted our peers more than anyone at that point, and certainly more than any faceless institution. But now in 2011, we seem to be craving the curation and discernment of experts, because after experiencing how little of import our peers actually have to say (if they’re talking constantly and we’re listening constantly), maybe experts aren’t as overrated as we thought.  Also, in my humble opinion, this current trend of tsunami-like e-mail marketing has taken advantage of customers’ trust. We opt-in to a mailing list of a business we’ve trusted in the past, and now this business fills our inboxes with multiple “relevant” offers or content per week – sometimes even per day. Even once a week is too often for businesses who offer products or services that I wouldn’t consider buying more than once per quarter. Trust erodes quickly in this kind of environment, because it indicates businesses either don’t know or don’t care about electronic information overload. They just shout louder or more often.

Here’s what I’d like to see happen: I’d like to see businesses act like the experts they are, instead of trying to “talk” to me multiple times a week through Facebook or Twitter or e-mail. What if a real person did this to you in order to be your friend? (Last year, unsolicited email became spam. But now even e-mail marketing lists we opt in to have become spam, because there are just too many. You may be thinking about your business all day every day, but your customers aren’t.) Being a credible, professional expert first is the only way we can develop the trust needed to become friends, and for me to trust more frequent communication from you. But it’s really OK if we only ever stay business partners and never become friends. Those relationships are valuable too.

Most people trying to find a trustworthy product or service provider go to the Internet to search for credible experts – when they need it. And these credible experts usually prove their credibility by putting their expertise front and center as professionals. Content marketing is right on the money if it’s organized by customer need and downloadable online, when customers need it and thus search for it. (I’d even pay for it, if it was from a trusted source and had discernible value in helping me make a good purchasing decision in an objective way. If businesses’ truly put their expertise in terms of customer needs, they could even become quite credible publishers. But that’s another post.) But if businesses’ expertise is split up into a myriad surface bits and sent to my inbox several times a week, it just becomes noise.

Businesses who behave like the calm professional experts that they are, allowing me to find them through search and a recommendation by a trusted and credible source, will get my business every time. And it might even be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

My apologies – I just discovered comments were turned off for the previous post. Completely unintentional and mysterious, but it’s fixed now.

The Bloom Group, a top-tier thought leadership marketing firm, came up with a deceptively simple tool that will likely replace the white paper very soon: the topic microsite. Topic microsites are simple, single-page websites centered around a particular topic, with a place for an in-depth article, video, a curated newsstand of relevant links and blogs, polls, and community comments. (Here’s a visual.) Essentially, this is dynamic, up-to-the-moment, html content vs. static, print/pdf content.  A multimedia long-term gathering place instead of…well, a white paper.

Even though topic microsites were developed primarily for businesses to showcase their expertise, they seem to be particularly useful for author marketing – as an additional page for your website or a strategic part of your larger marketing plan. Here are some of the particular benefits I see:

  1. They focus on the topic and not on you. Let’s say you’re a nutritionist and you’ve written a book on how to naturally increase your heart health. You could use a topic microsite to laser-focus on (and keep a conversation going about) a topic that incites hot debate, like prescription medications. (A fiction writer could do the same, focusing on a personal passion or the interests of your main characters.)When readers click on the video introduction, they’ll see and hear directly from you why you think this topic is important – maybe even a personal testimonial. They can scroll down a list of in-depth articles about the signs of needing prescription medication for heart health. They can see other blogs and online sources listed in a sidebar. And they can read others’ comments about prescription medications and heart health. Nowhere will the name of your book or its Amazon link be mentioned. You’re the gracious conversation host, focused on the topic at hand, furthering knowledge and truly valuing others’ input. Just including others’ web content as a regular feature in the first place proves you value collaboration and want to help people more than grow your own ego.
  2. They provide targeted stability in making connections and strengthening your platform. By providing a trusted content filter and a gathering place where people will want to return, again and again, for updated content on a very precise topic, topic microsites can help you find like-minded contacts and potential readers perhaps more effectively than a single, ephemeral blog post (even with links and video). People will get to know you over time – your passions, your personality, and your ability to filter out the best web content to best further the conversation. Remember, this is not just about putting forth good ideas, but establishing an energetic and perhaps unusual gathering place for your readers.
  3. They’re a collaborative way to keep abreast of developments in your field. Not only will you be scanning the web for good links to put in your sidebar, your readers will also be sharing their knowledge as well. You’ll be researching slowly over time, and by being tapped in to the knowledge base and true needs of those you want to serve, you’ll know even before you start that your next book idea will be relevant, timely, and truly meet the needs of your readers.
  4. You’ll have fun meeting people who are interested in your topic as you are. Most writers are overfocused, obsessive people (aren’t we?) – with a topic microsite, you’ll encounter folks who are as obsessed about Greek mythology or the Paleolithic diet as you are. Which will inspire you to keep writing and keep diving deep.
  5. They can provide a potential income stream. Once you’ve proven yourself a hospitable host, and your microsite has become a truly valuable resource, you can allow companies that provide relevant services or products to advertise here (if you think it wouldn’t ruin the ambiance), or introduce a monthly subscription rate for full access. If known experts are guest posting articles, if you’re providing true insider information, and/or if this is an extremely cutting-edge topic, many would find a small monthly access fee well worth it.

Perhaps more than anything, topic microsites can make marketing more authentic. Nothing turns me off more than someone who is constantly mentioning their business or talking about their book, and I imagine the same is true for you. When I need information about a topic, and my search leads me to a place where the host really seems to know what he’s talking about and cares about helping his readers personally, I’ll want to learn all I can about what resources this person offers and likely spend some money. Not just because he’s knowledgeable (many others are too), but because I’ll trust him. Topic microsites are a simple tool to help authors “be their best selves,” as my son’s kindergarten teacher used to say – showing transparent passion and expertise in a humble and inviting way.

Mike Shatzkin, very trusted source on how new media is affecting old publishing, just alerted us to one zinger of a headline: full-time novelist Barry Eisler has turned down a $500,000 contract from a traditional publisher in order to self-publish. It now makes transparent economic sense for (some) writers to develop their own publishing capacity (see the lengthy but crucial conversation between Eisler and noted self-publishing author Joe Konrath here). As most of us have already known, this development also makes clear that those who produce content (ideas and stories), not those who polish the delivery mechanism, own the true value.

This is all the more true for thought-leading businesses – now is the time to develop your own publishing capacity. The business model of publishing as a separate industry just doesn’t make economic sense for large businesses who have already developed their own niche market through their services and their web presence. The more directly accessible your content is to your tribe, the more they will buy it. (Smaller and/or less known individuals and businesses still benefit greatly from traditional publishing’s reach and expertise because they don’t have it themselves. But with even small effort applied to leveraging new media, this will change sooner than we think.) Very soon there won’t be a large divide between blog posts and books – it will just be one flowing continuum, where people will click on their choice of media – digital or print – to read your content of varying lengths. Those who have their own media arm are well on the way – adding book publishing capacity will only get easier and easier. Why not own that capacity yourself?