Reviews, word of mouth and Super Users – Guest post by MCM

Today I’m pleased to present a guest post by MCM. This post explores the difficulties in building a fan base through word of mouth, and talks about how reviewers can help us with that.

Recently, I’ve had some conversations with very smart people about the future of publishing, specifically about how readers and writers can connect directly and make old-style functions like reviewers obsolete. It’s a great notion with dangerous consequences, and if you’re game, I’ll explain why.

Here’s the thing: the internet breaks down barriers and actively enhances communication between people. In the old days, it was impractical for an author to chat with their fans; today, it’s downright pedestrian. The old notion of “word of mouth” expanded beyond your neighbourhood and now covers the globe. Tell your five best friends about your new book, and they’ll tell their five best friends, and eventually you take over the world. It is, theoretically, pure unbridled exponential growth (at least until you run out of people to tell). This is the way of the future.

Except it’s not as easy as it seems. Just because you tell your five best friends, it doesn’t mean all of them will like your writing enough to tell anyone else. There are lots of factors that play into the “infection rate”, but the end result is you may only get one of your friends to follow through. And then only one of their friends. And so on. It’s still exponential, just working on a lesser scale.

Word of Mouth (WOM) depends less on the potential pool of converts, and more on the accessible pool. There are billions of people on the planet, but you probably only know 0.000002% of them. Add in decay (meaning your WOM is not eternal… eventually, the lag in reading will affect the infection rate) and your growth is severely capped. If you have 135 friends at the start, in most cases you’ll end up with a total audience of 621 (note: all numbers are based on a rough systems model and are probably too high).

Next time around, you’ll have a base pool of 600 to work from, which helps a lot. But unless you’re willing to spend years and years building up an audience, straight WOM is not going to cut it.

This is where Super Users come in. They are, very simply, people with a lot of friends and influence. If they say “this book is awesome!” a larger percentage of their network will act on the promotion. You get a 1% infection rate, but they’ll score 10% or higher. Add that to their larger pool, and your growth will have much more potential. Switch from a gentle curve to a steep one, and you see the difference.

The other benefit of a steep curve is that the decay is postponed… someone, somewhere will always be finishing your book and telling their friends about it. It creates a constant state of critical mass, which also ups the infection rate. Think of it this way: nobody likes to be dancing alone, but if you’ve got a large pool of people all dancing together (even if some of them cycle out after every song), it looks like a party. You’re more likely to dance if that’s what everyone else is doing. Super users can find enough people to throw that party.

Super Users can take many forms online, but one important role to weblit is the reviewer. People are looking for advice on what to read, and reviewers read a lot of material. As a reviewer proves their merit, their social network grows, and so does their influence. Writers can expand their network with every new title, but reviewers can expand with every new posting.

The value for authors is that a single positive review by an established reviewer can give them access to thousands of eyeballs, not just hundreds. If you have no social network, a reviewer can give you one. If you already have a solid base, a reviewer can help you tap a different set of people, or at least add to your own influence.

To compare: if your book is reviewed by someone with a social network of 1,000, your total audience potential increases from 621 to 4,937. If their social network is 10,000, you’re looking at just shy of 82,350. Imagine someone with a million Twitter followers reviewing your book… you’re looking at 8,242,224 converts.

The trick for weblit reviewers is that, right now, very few of them have large followings. That’s something authors can help change, by supporting and promoting them. It may seem unappealing to put reviewers on a pedestal (especially since it reeks of gate keeping), but if you look at it objectively, a healthy weblit community depends on a healthy reviewer class.

The question of how to build a SMART reviewer class is something I’ll cover in a guest post on Novelr tomorrow. And yes, it’ll have more graphs. Yay!

MCM is the creator of the animated series RollBots as well as the author of several picture books for kids. His grown-up work includes the sci fi thriller “The Vector” and a crowdsourced mystery novel called “Fission Chips”. He has a background in programming and systems thinking, which is how he learned to make graphs. He lives in Victoria, BC, Canada with his wife and kids, and may be at least partially insane.

What are your experiences with word of mouth marketing? Do you trust all reviewers or no reviewers? Do you have particular places that you’ll go for reviews to help you decide on a purchase? Leave a comment.


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9 thoughts on “Reviews, word of mouth and Super Users – Guest post by MCM

  1. I don’t think reviewers are a gatekeeping thing. A proper reviewer gives the audience an idea of whether they will be able to enjoy a story (by giving an idea of what it’s about, its themes, and whether it’s readable) and informs the writer of what they did well and what areas of improvement they could pay mind to. Reviewers save everyone a lot of time in that respect. While a writer may be able to tell a reader why they might want to read their story, it’s a bit difficult to do so objectively. Writers who need very much to work on their craft, and are turning out poor work, often still represent their stories as excellent works of literature. Reviewers are necessary for our ecosystem. Call them reader advocates, if you want. At some point we just have to swallow the bile and face that our work is being judged any time it’s being read – and that’s a good thing.

    I’ve noticed a fear of centralization amongst some self-pub authors, and it’s really a shame, because ‘centralization’ and ‘community’ kind of go hand in hand. On the internet it’s hard to have one without the other. If a reviewer pulls a lot of readers and manages to give writers a lot of hits, that starts a sort of centralization. The reviewer’s opinion does its own job of vetting. But on a micro scale, this is done every time a reader does not like a story and tells their friends to avoid it. With the advent of blogging and Twitter, those readers have a pretty wide scope to affect the story’s future readership with. We’re already being reviewed on a micro scale – the macro is not nearly so daunting when you consider that.

  2. Also, on the actual building of Super Users or just plain dependable reviewers, a good start is here! is trying to draw in readers to help promote all sorts of, well, WebLit. We’d love reviewers to list here. I’m sure something like a blog with a regular review feature would be acceptable to list there. it would draw readers to sites and would also draw writers to those reviewer sites, and writers could link them… etc. It just takes a little momentum to get things rolling! Posting in the Web Fiction Guide forums that you have a review site would probably help as well. (‘You’ being whoever wants to be a reviewer.)

    It’s also expected that quite a lot of reviewers are also going to be WebLit writers, and I think that’ll help everyone when it comes to trusting each other and building up a network. We’re all here to help each other, after all. My traffic is probably going to be your traffic after a reader leaves my site after the most recent update, and vice-versa.

  3. I think these figures are way optimistic. Yes, you get a higher click-through rate with a ‘trusted’ referral, but 10%? Pull the other one!

    In the end, word of mouth is just like any other type of marketing: hard work and being constantly on the ball.

  4. @Patty: Oh yeah, the numbers are fantastically optimistic. There are tons of factors that go into WOM that make the graphs really funky and fun to use, but confuse the issue. I simplified the dynamics so it would be clear how things work.

    In the end, it’s a question of recognizing that not all WOM is made equal, and that it’s still in your best interest to seek out the Super Users to help you boost the effectiveness of your campaign. Depending on your friends to spread the word is a recipe for disaster.

  5. This is a speculative math! In some instances 10% is extremely pessimistic, it will all depend on the material and how long it takes to digest. In the case of any ‘classic’ YouTube video, the infection rate is global within days. The material is quick to consume, free and easily passed along. Once more time commitment is involved (i.e. reading a book) there is a massive cut off in the take up rate and a much longer lag before a recipient will pass the material on.

    For a writer, a good reviewer is invaluable. There have been a few sources of reviews in my life that I have grown to trust. It used to be NME (New Music Express, a weekly music rag) and currently it’s Total Film. Of all the movie mags out there, I have found they have very similar tastes and attitudes to myself. The result is that I have watched and often purchased films I’ve never heard of before purely because they gave it a 4 or 5 star rating. I have yet to be disappointed, so this trust gets stronger.

    The Utopia would be to have a Super Reviewer. Someone with a big following who’s views are trusted by their followers. A Super Reviewer with 5000 followers would have a significantly larger take up rate than any Super User with 20000 followers.

    Long term as a writer you are looking at the ultimate goal of your name being considered a quality brand. Your ideal position is where people buy your next book purely on the basis of liking your previous work. On the assumption that each new book is as good as or better than the last, this in itself will have a compounding effect on your fan base. Each new book brings new readers and solidifies the loyalty of existing ones. Eventually you might reach the Dan Brown Event Horizon where you’ve sold a million copies of your next book before you’ve even written it.

    In a completely indirect way, what I’m saying is that the above speculation is a closed system based on each book you release as an individual entity, exclusive of anything else you’ve written. Each new book you write creates more awareness of you and your work and shifts the % uptake. Also, each new book has an impact on the uptake of your previous work.

    Finally, how many is enough? What the figures don’t take account of is the point where media gets involved. Once a book is being talked about by enough people, it will gain media interest – maybe be mentioned, maybe reviewed in a mainstream publication (newspaper or magazine, etc). At this point you take a massive step up the exponential curve. The question is how many people is enough for this to happen? Or is it just the right ONE person to take note.

  6. Graham – all excellent points. I think landing that one super review is a holy Grail for writers (Oprah’s book club anyone?) Most of us build up to the midlist with a long slow burn and I’d be more than happy with that. Of course, I’d also be happy with far greater success! Regardless, as many good reviews from as many places as possible is what all writers need. How far it goes is anyone’s guess and open to more than a little luck.

  7. The model for book adoption is interestingly based on the model for the spread of disease, and if I’d put more time into building this out, it takes into account randomized bursts of growth (where you run into a Super User unexpectedly). There’s also the notion of base growth, where you’ll retain a certain number of users from any campaign. And this assumes no efforts beyond basic word of mouth, which would almost always be supplemented by marketing spikes.

    That said, I should say that a Super User is not necessarily Oprah (though she’s one with massive reach AND influence)… all you need to be a Super User is to have more followers than the average, and a good amount of trust flowing your way. This is why helping to find and create Super Users is vital to the weblit community: even small spikes can do a lot of good.

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