Reviews, Word Of Mouth And Super Users

This is a cross-posting from Alan Baxter’s alanbaxteronline site, from 9/28/09.

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).

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

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.

135and1000 Reviews, word of mouth and Super Users   Guest post by MCM

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.

1000and2influence Reviews, word of mouth and Super Users   Guest post by MCM

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.