How to promote your book with Facebook advertising

Chris Woodford, whose Atoms Under the Floorboards: The Secret Science Hidden in Your Home, has just been published , draws from his own recent experience to show how Facebook advertising can boost sales.

It’s all very well if you’re Russell Brand. With 10 million followers on Twitter, 1.1 million YouTube subscribers, and a couple of hundred thousand podcast listeners, the love-him, loathe-him political comedian certainly knows a thing or two about social media. Numbers like that are music to a publisher’s ears, and partly explain why Brand’s books command seven-figure advances. New media certainly comes in handy when old media—a new book—needs a hand.

If you’re an unknown author with a book to sell, and you can comfortably count your Twitter followers on one finger, social media is going to be a long, slow haul—indeed, something of a Catch-22. You’ll never be a best-selling author if no-one knows you exist, but why should anyone take any notice of you, or your book, if you’re not a household name in the first place? The attraction of social media is blindingly obvious: 300 million people send 500 million Tweets a day; 1.5 billion of us use Facebook and spend 7-14 hours on the site each month. Social media, at its best, explodes like a supernova. Last year, cancer sufferer Stephen Sutton’s fundraising campaign rapidly raised over £5 million, most of it (initially) through Facebook. Even Twitter whip-rounds organized between friends can raise thousands overnight.

But if you don’t already have a huge and compelling presence on social media, it’s a bit too late to start working on that the day before your book comes out. Or is it? Even if you’re “follower-less” and friendless, and you barely know the difference between a Like, a Tweet, and a share, there’s still one very powerful way to push your book on social media: using Facebook advertising, you can target an amazingly precise audience and reach thousands of potential readers within hours.

Why Facebook? What makes Facebook different from virtually all the other social networks is the huge amount of demographic and behavioural data it hoovers up from users it’s come to know “personally”. Back in the nineties, the Internet thrived on anonymity; everyone hid behind abstract user names that were impossible to tie to real people or their identities. As Peter Steiner’s 1993 New Yorker cartoon of a pooch typing at a computer famously put it: “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog”.

Facebook changed all that by compelling people to sign up with real names and birthdays and publish genuine information about their friends, families, and highly specific interests: on Facebook, you’re most definitely Barry Smith, 38, married with two daughters, and your “likes” include Top Gear, Dad’s Army, historic farm machinery, and rural France. Great stuff if you want to find like-minded tractor fans online. But there’s an important and oft-forgotten quid pro quo: while you’ve slowly gaining those 437 friends you’re so proud of, Facebook has been steadily building up its meticulous marketing dossier. It not only knows who you are and where you live, but pretty much everything you’ve done since you signed up, everything you’ve looked at, and everything you’ve actively “liked”. Privacy and ethical issues aside, this makes Facebook an astonishingly powerful tool for advertisers—including those of us with little or no social media following and an urgent new book to promote.

How does it work? Suppose you’ve scribbled a riveting account of historic French tractors and you want to find potential readers. Barry Smith, 38, married with two daughters, certainly sounds like a prospect. How would you reach him? If you had enough cash, you might splash out on an ad in The Daily Telegraph, but there are three obvious problems with that idea: first, there’s an enormous barrier to entry (even the cheapest newspaper ads are likely to be well beyond your budget and they might take days or weeks to organize); second, most of the paper’s half-million readers are probably not interested in old tractors (so quite a lot of your “spend” will be wasted); and, finally, Barry Smith doesn’t read the Telegraph anyway.

Facebook advertising solves all three problems. You can spend as much or as little as you like over whatever time period you please. You can select an astonishingly precise demographic (maybe males aged 45-65+ living in the UK or France—though much narrower targeting is possible) and a precise list of matching interests (tractors, rural France, agricultural machines?). According to the budget you’ve set and the interests you’ve selected, Facebook instantly computes the maximum possible audience (the total number of its 1.5 billion users you could possibly hit) and daily “reach” (the number of people likely to see your advert), and you can tinker with all sorts of parameters until you get exactly the numbers you want (the biggest daily reach for your chosen audience and budget).

Top tips Facebook offers two very different kinds of advertising: conventional sidebar ads that display in the right-hand column of a user’s Facebook page and promoted posts. For my money, the second are better because, although they’re labelled “Sponsored”, they don’t look like advertisements (so they’re not instantly ignored) and they’re inserted directly into a user’s customized “feed” (the scrolling list of posts they see from their friends, family, and interest groups they’ve opted to follow). They’re the online equivalent of what newspapers term “Advertisement features”: sponsored editorial content specifically designed to be read. If you opt to use promoted posts, credit your readers with intelligence and treat them with respect: write something interesting that they’ll want to read and share. Remember that promoted posts run between cheeky, chirpy updates from friends and family that people really want to read; intrusive, hard-sell advertisements are unlikely to be welcome. Think how you’d feel, browsing through your family photo album, suddenly to come across a whack-in-the-face advertisement for oven chips or loo cleaner. But if you were browsing through dozens of old tractor photos posted by your friends, would you mind stumbling across a well-written story on exactly that subject? (“Ancient tractor discovered in barn! A pristine Massey Ferguson, untouched for 87 years, has just been discovered in a farm in Languedoc. Blah blah blah… [Nice picture of tractor] This is one of the fascinating stories explored in A.N. Other’s new book, Tractors of France, published today by….”).

That’s why my number one top tip is to write your promoted post like a short news release or editorial story in a newspaper (more like PR than advertising). Make it relevant and interesting to your readers. It doesn’t have to be a crass hard sell; a tantalising nugget from your book, mentioning the book itself right at the end, might work far better. Make sure the post includes a link to a very specific “landing page” on your own website (where you can go into greater detail, add retailer links, and so on); there must be some sort of “call-to-action” or your advertisement won’t achieve much at all. Although I’ve not tried it, I think I’d avoid making a link direct to something like an Amazon sales page (though you could do that if your book page is strong—with lots of good and genuine reviews), which I suspect might just cause users to click straight back to Facebook. But you can try it and see if it works.

How much should you spend? I suggest you start with a low budget and tinker with the demographic and interest targeting until you find a formula that’s really effective. You can start, stop, and cancel your advertisement however often you like, though I’ve not found a way to edit an advert while it’s actually running. You can set either a total (lifetime) budget or a daily one and a maximum cap, so there’s no danger of over-spending. With a well-written ad and a decent landing page, you should be able to reach several tens of thousands of people for an investment of a few hundred pounds. The better your ad, the more people will share it, and the more you’ll reach (“virally”) for the same budget.

How can you measure its effectiveness? Once your advert is running, you can monitor the number of clicks, likes, and shares to get an instant idea of how well you’re doing; you’ll get measurable data within hours. Facebook will tell you your advertisement’s effective “cost per result” (how much you’re paying for each like, share, and click), which will instantly tell you whether people are biting, and it helpfully rates adverts from 1-10 according to how effectively they’re performing. If you can get a CTR (clickthrough rate) anywhere near five per cent, you’re doing wonderfully well, but even 1 per cent is good.

Of course, the real test is what effect your advertising has on actual sales—and you can attempt to measure that too. If you’re targeting the US market, for example, you can relate what you see in Facebook to something like the Nielsen Bookscan figures available through Amazon.com’s Author Central website (though Bookscan lags behind actual sales by a week or two, so you won’t see an instant correlation). If you’re selling your books directly, or through Amazon Kindle, it should be quicker to see an uplift—although if you’re promoting your book in many different ways at once, it might be hard to separate the positive effects of your advertisement from everything else you’re doing.

To sum up, I’ve found Facebook’s advertising amazingly effective, largely because it offers what seems to be a unique ability to reach such specifically defined groups of people. Other forms of online advertising let you target demographically, but I can’t think of anything else that lets you advertise to people with highly specific interests (perfect for authors of non-fiction). Even if you’ve built up a huge following on Facebook, you might want to reach an entirely different demographic or interest group and Facebook’s ad targeting lets you do exactly that. It’s all very easy to use and, as far as I can tell from my own results, cost-effective. The only things you need are a Facebook account (which is free) and some money to spend.

So what are you waiting for?

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Chris Woodford

Chris Woodford had his first national magazine article published at the age of 13 and has been writing about science and technology ever since. After graduating from Cambridge University with a degree in Natural Sciences, he started his career in IBM's publishing division, then trained as an adve...More about Chris Woodford