Shining a bright light into the dark corners of the shadow-world of literary scams, schemes, and pitfalls. Also providing advice for writers and industry news and commentary. Writer Beware is sponsored by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Inc.

August 20, 2015

Beware Social Media Snake Oil

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

This week I've got another great guest post for you, from marketing expert Chris Syme.

We writers have all heard that we "have" to be on social media, which is presented to us--both by experts and the not-so-expert--as the Holy Grail of marketing and self-promotion. But apart from the thorny questions of which platforms to use (Twitter? Facebook? Pinterest? Some of them? All of them?), and how to use them (How often should we post? What's the proper mix of friendly interaction and self-promotion?), there's the problem of "services" that want to exploit our confusion to rip us off.

Read on for solid advice on how to separate the worthwhile from the worthless, and warnings about some common social media scams.

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Social Media Snake Oil Comes In All Shapes And Sizes
by 
Chris Syme

Authors want to sell books. But most indie authors know very little about how to promote their books. And when it comes to social media, authors everywhere are throwing up their hands. Is it a waste of time? Do I need to be on Twitter? How often should I post on Facebook?

I get email from authors who are frustrated. They see social media as a minefield and don’t want to step in for fear they will never come out. Sometimes the easiest thing to do is just buy that package of hundreds of tweets for twenty dollars and cross your fingers hoping that somebody will buy your book. After all, everybody says you have to be on Twitter, right? We hear words like platform, brand, discoverability. How can an author break through the firehose of noise on the Internet and decide what, if anything, to do?

Separate The Wheat From The Chaff

My husband is a grain farmer. Every year we pull out the massive combine and dust it off, getting ready for the magic of harvest. Gone are the days when workers had to beat the grain shocks by hand to separate the wheat from the chaff. These days, those big expensive machines cut the wheat and feed it through a mechanism that separates the grain from its stalk The stalks are chewed up into chaff and spewed out the back of the combine to be absorbed back into the soil.

In marketing, we need to do the same. We have to learn how to separate the snake oil from the good stuff. Authors should want to learn how to spot a worthless marketing scheme. But there’s a learning curve. And sometimes that Facebook ad that worked for your friend isn’t going to work for you. This is where education comes in. The book marketing sector, more than any I have ever worked in, is full of bad marketing advice. My objective here is to help you separate the wheat from the chaff -- to be able to spot snake oil when you see it.

It’s The Principle Of The Thing

Every business sector has best practices. It’s possible to circumvent those and get a modicum of success, but that is an anomaly. Social media marketing has basic principles of success. They aren’t rocket science, they are based on data. Take this example on hashtags.

In early 2014, Dan Zarella, a social media data researcher for HubSpot, found that if hashtags are used in a tweet (# -- a pound sign -- followed by a phrase of reference that is followed by many people), that tweet is 55 percent more likely to be retweeted than one with no hashtags. His results were based on mining data from over one million tweets. So, people jumped on the hashtag band wagon. The more, the better, or so people thought.

In 2014 Buffer, another reliable social media research company, published data that showed that after two hashtags, engagement of a post actually goes down (graphic courtesy of Buffer).

This is a principle that most savvy marketers take for granted now. But there are some unethical snake oil salespeople out there telling authors that the more hashtags the merrier. They didn’t get the memo on too many hashtags tanking engagement. And, for a mere $19, you can buy a day’s worth of tweets loaded with hashtags from beginning to end that promise to hike your books sales. Here is a sample ad:


Not a day goes by that I don’t see this scam retweeted by several authors, maybe because they promised to help promote the service for more free tweets that will “reach millions of people generating a truly astonishing amount of traffic.” All these hashtag-laden tweets do is annoy people. To the savvy social media user, they reek of stupidity. The outlier may sell a few books, but I wonder how many more books that person could have sold if they had used their money wisely.

Another popular Twitter scam offered by more than one company offers authors hundreds of thousands of followers worth of exposure for your tweet for a fee. I experimented with one of these snake oil outfits recently just to test it. I knew I was blowing my money, but it was a mere twenty bucks to prove my thesis.

This company boasts three different Twitter accounts with 375,000 followers. I want to add that it is fairly easy to amass Twitter followers if you know what you are doing. For instance, this particular company is supposedly followed by LeBron James, according to the report I ran on their followers on Simply Measured. But the real LeBron James only follows 184 people. So, on a whim I looked through them all. This company was not there. And, their fake LeBron James has only three million followers while the real King James has 23 million. This LeBron James page is a fake account built to fool people into following. It has been followed by millions of people who think it’s the real thing. These fake accounts automatically follow back so other unscrupulous people can amass large follower counts. It’s a well-known racket in marketing circles. Fake follower companies search diligently for these auto-following accounts to increase their fake reach. (Did you notice I use the word fake a lot?)

Also, an analysis of this company’s top 20 influencers did not produce one account that would be in the market for my books. My $19 produced zero sales and zero new Twitter followers. Maybe I should have spent more money. But alas, here’s a review of their service from an author who purchased five days worth of tweets. Also no sales.

Scam artists know what they are doing. They are playing on peoples’ pain points and ignorance. They can build fake followings completely on accounts that follow back automatically. Keep in mind that all you need to start a Twitter account is an email address. It’s an ugly, dark business. There is no verification to make sure that real people are setting up accounts. These companies abound on the internet. Hint: if the website looks rinky-dink and boasts of millions of daily impressions from loyal fans, beware.

We Will Promote Your Book…For A Price

There are more bad promotion sites out there than you can shake a stick at. How can you tell the difference between the good, the bad, and the ugly? Many of them have slick websites, Facebook pages, and multiple Twitter feeds boasting of thousands, maybe millions of followers. Here are a couple pointers to help you make up your mind.

1. Good sites: There are many sites out there that are based on good marketing principles and have a large audience of both authors and readers. They validate their expertise with blog pieces, authentic peer recommendations, podcasts, books they write, webinars, speaking engagements, and they can prove success by numbers over a long period of time. Not everyone in this category is spot on when it comes to social media strategy, but most are trying. The resource may be membership-gated such as Jim Kukral’s Author Marketing Club (I am a member), Where Writers Win, and others. They usually offer a subscription at a reasonable yearly price and offer a large variety of tools to help authors succeed. The large variety of marketing tools is a key.

There are also many knowledgeable marketers that cater strictly to authors such as Penny Sansevieri’s Author Marketing Experts, Joel Friedlander’s The Book Designer, and Book Marketing Tools.

In the good category are also author forums like Writers Café (KBoards) and The Alliance Of Independent Authors (I am a member). Forums like these are populated by authors and are a good place to get recommendations and reviews for everything from editors to marketing services.

There are also a number of authors out there that share their validated expertise with other authors through a combination of free resources and pay-per webinars and classes. Joanna Penn and Jane Friedman come to mind.

2. Questionable sites (the bad and the ugly): It is impossible to list all the suspect author marketing services out there but I do write about them often on my agency’s blog for authors. These sites ask for money for their suspect services. There is no information on their “about” pages that validates their expertise or existence, just blabbing about the reach of their audience. They are not published authors or even legitimate marketing services. They are product-only.

Beware of offers like this one from Contentmo. Besides the fact that their website design is a red flag, their claim that they have 23 million impressions a month on social media is irrelevant. There is no explanation or proof of who or where those impressions come from other than a list of their interconnected Twitter feeds and low-volume Facebook pages. Another red flag here is the absence of real people’s names in the About section of their site, a Gmail address as a contact, no address or location information, and their testimonials are suspect. I am also wondering why a company that brags 23 million impressions a month has only 167 likes on their Facebook page.

Many sites in this category have some free services. If you want to give them a try, keep track of your results. I recommend recording results with every marketing strategy you try. If they are free, give them more than one try so you can make sure your initials results were correct. Free is okay but you often get what you pay for…nothing.

The world of social media marketing is a quagmire for many authors. If you’re just not sure what to do, I would recommend starting with self-education. I have a list of resources (mostly blogs) on my website that I personally recommend. The more educated you become, the easier it will be for you to spot snake oil when you see it.

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Chris Syme has over 25 years experience in the communications industry and is principal at CKSyme Media Group. Her agency specializes in social media marketing, virtual assistant services, and digital communication services for self-published authors and higher education. She is a former university media relations professional. Chris is a frequent speaker on the national stage and the author of two books on social media: Listen, Engage, Respond and Practice Safe Social 2.0. Her agency won the 2014 SoMe Award for Social Media Agency Of The Year. Her new book, SMART Social Media For Authors, will be released in fall 2015.

Contact: Chris Syme | email chris@cksyme.com | phone 406.599.6079 | website: www.cksyme.com

17 comments :

Anonymous said...

One really simple test I use right off the bat when I see an offer for a marketing approach:

I put on my reader hat, and ask how I would respond as a reader to this approach.

Endless blasts of "buy my book" tweets? Thickets of hashtags? Robotic, personality-free messages? I don't respond to any of these tactics as a reader, so I surely wouldn't use them to market my own books.

Also, I can't imagine that it would ever be worthwhile to buy followers on any site.

Sue Bursztynski said...

I agree. I've been known to unfollow people who spent all their tweets on eith "buy my book!" Or "Look, this reviewer loves my book!" And yes, what's the point of buying followers?

Patrick Jones said...

Totally agree...I spend more time blocking the "Buy Ten Thousand Followers" Tweets than it is worth! I am trying an experiment to not tweet as much and haven't even noticed a difference on sales...Most of the accounts are fake now and unless you take the time to click on the website address on the profile...you will just have a bunch of bogus followers. Great article...thank you so much!

Chris Syme said...

Anonymous- What a great tip. Put on your reader hat! Love it.

Chris Syme said...

Sue-I agree. All that blather is just annoying. So I am wondering how these people stay in business...or maybe they don't.

Chris Syme said...

You are welcome Patrick-I agree that the problem of fake accounts and bots just make the problem worse. Honestly, I don't think Twitter has ever been a good place to sell books.But it can be a good cross-promotion channel for your blog, newsletter, and website. It's also a great place to do research.

Anonymous said...

Social media will not help a writer whose book stinks like some people I know.

Frances Grimble said...

I've been self-publishing since 1993. Although I seldom sell direct to readers any more (these days most want to buy from major online bookstores), almost all my sales have always been driven by direct mail or email (even if readers buy elsewhere), much of it these days to potential readers' social media accounts. I always make it very explicit that I am selling books, what they are about (concisely), and that they can be bought in online bookstores.

I get the occasional snide little lecture (often from other authors) about how “no one” will buy books because of my emails because “everyone knows” that marketing technique “offends everyone” or that it “never works” (never mind that I know it’s worked well for me for over 20 years). I even get the occasional very rude response, although most are from trolls—it’s really not necessary to use the F-word, after all. However, a *great many* more people thank me (some fervently), send me thumbs-up icons, tell me they already own and love some of my books, or ask questions whose answers may lead to a sale. This direct contact is what keeps up my sales year after year, even for old books. I’m doing no other marketing except for the occasional public post on a group just for the heck of it, even though most of those are probably not read.

“Soft” marketing, or too much of it, usually does not work well. If you keep giving away material, readers will just expect constant freebies and are unmotivated to pay for your books. If you don’t tell readers what your books are, they will seldom take the trouble to look them up. So your Facebook handle is “Author Jane Doe”—people think, so what? Thousands of authors post on social media so why, exactly, should potential readers go to any trouble to research what *you* have written and where to buy it?

I don’t use Twitter, but let’s talk about Facebook. *Some* posts from business pages (and this includes author pages) appear in *some* readers’ news feeds—where they may never be seen because they are quickly buried under many other posts. As far as I can tell by observation, post are first sent to the news feeds of a standard core group of the same 100-200 people, no more. Only if posts get many likes are they send to another group of people, and if they get many more likes (usually they don’t) they may be sent to a third group. The vast majority of business posts only appear in the news feeds of the core group composed of the same old people. Although many people who see a post don’t bother to click on the Like button, you can tell how popular a post is by the number of likes and therefore whether it ever passed the core group, as well as by the names in the who-liked-this-post list you can bring up. Facebook has software to filter out sales posts from business pages *because they want to sell the business owners paid advertising instead*.

I’ve been watching a certain business page for many months. The owner sells DVDs, classes, and booklets on sewing. She posts about six times every day, always with a picture of something. Every post is geared to be popular—it’s related to a popular movie or book, or is on a topic that is usually successful for her. She will get 600 likes for a well-worn sewing joke, a picture of a cute kid (not her kid and not her picture), or a picture of a beautiful dress (copied from another website). And then occasionally she’ll post about her business. When she does, she gets 25-30 likes, never more, and all from the same few people. So she’s spending a huge amount of energy posting to drive her business page readership, but almost no one sees her sales posts. Probably most people who follow her have no idea that she’s selling anything.

Frances Grimble said...

Sue, the point is that it's necessary for an author to actually sell books, not just to chat endlessly. I also sometimes get responses that say things like getting a sales pitch "leaves a bad taste in their mouth," or even that because I'm actually trying to sell books they will never buy any of them (some even demand to be given freebies!!), or some such. But the vast majority of responses are positive.

The hard fact is, this kind of sales is a numbers game. No individual potential customer really matters. What counts is how the majority react and also, reaching as many people as possible as often as possible. Social media is not exclusively a place for chat. There are ads all around you in every forum. Just take a good look.

Jack Messenger said...

Thanks for this post. As a writer cutting through the jungle of advice on this subject for the first time, and also using Twitter, I've noticed the contrast between my eagerness as a writer to believe that my books will be sold in this way, and my boredom as a reader when I am inundated with 'buy-my-book-now' tweets. I just don't read them anymore. Only when something civilized and courteous is tweeted is my attention drawn. They make me feel grateful that someone out there knows how to behave.

Frances Grimble said...

Jack, basically the trick is to keep finding new potential readers, contact them privately, keep a record of everyone you send to, and instead of bombarding the same people all the time, keep finding new ones. That way no one gets bored. Some people even tell me they never like to receive sales emails, except mine are fine! It's OK to post on a public group once in a while, but private contacts are much more effective. A programmer wrote me custom software to facilitate the process. Note, I write nonfiction so it is easier for me to target likely readers than if I wrote fiction.

Chris Syme said...

Francis- I love all your input and it's good to see you know exactly what works for you. But I would remind everyone that we need to earn the right to sell to people directly. You can do that by developing connections and offering value, whether it's through a newsletter, a website, or through Facebook. Also the marketing process has multiple stages. Some people come in pre-qualified to buy, maybe because of a friend's recommendation or a fascinating cover or a good review but every buyer's process is different. The beauty of social media, for those that use it well, is that you can use it to build a proprietary audience, such as what you do with your newsletter. Social media is only part of an effective marketing mix. The point here was to help authors understand that there are some masqueraders out there claiming their "products" deliver sales when they are not built to do that.

Anonymous said...

Just curious. I saw this on social media and was wondering how legit it really is.

http://literary-agents.com/

They list reputable agents, but the premise is if you stick with them you'll get a dream publishing deal and we all know that's not how things work in publishing.

Oh, and they take all major credit cards, too.

Chris Syme said...

Anonymous-Not as familiar with this world as I am with marketing, but I trust Victoria's advice. Here are a couple links to pieces she has written on the subject:

http://www.sfwa.org/other-resources/for-authors/writer-beware/thumbs-down-agency/

http://www.victoriastrauss.com/advice/safest/

Hope that helps

Victoria Strauss said...

Anonymous 8/30,

Literary-agents.com (a.k.a. Literary Agent Undercover and The Bestselling Author LLC) is run by former literary agent Mark Malatesta, who ran a small agency called New Brand Agency Group a number of years ago under the name Mark Ryan. This agency did make a number of solid sales, but its track record was spotty, especially taking into account the number of years it was in business. (Maybe to justify this, Malatesta now claims to have been "undercover" as a literary agent, in order to find out how to get his own books published. Talk about turning your clients into guinea pigs.)

At any rate, he does have knowledge of the industry, and he does provide some solid info on his website (along with some dubious info--for instance, there's no such thing as "the 50 best literary agencies" since the best agent for one writer could be the worst agent for another). But the Literary-agents.com website is part of the opportunistic industry that has grown up around writers' hunger for publication.
The free info is really just inducement to draw writers in to Malatesta's paid services (consultation, coaching, etc.). I'm not saying that you might not benefit from those services, if you were willing to pay for them--but I really doubt that Malatesta can tell you anything you couldn't learn or research on your own, at far less expense.

Malatesta is also involved, with his wife or girlfriend Ingrid Elfever (who was also involved in his agency venture) in Born Celebrity, a "personal brand company" that also sells consulting and training services.

Anonymous said...

Wow. Thank you for clarifying this. Anon 8/30

Victoria Hay said...

Good post -- thank you. I've been collecting posts like this to pass along to my editorial clients, among whom are increasing numbers of writers who crave to self-publish their golden words. Really, I've become more and more concerned about some of them. Today over lunch, one otherwise highly intelligent client tried to persuade me that Readers Favorite is THE best thing that ever came along.

 
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