April 24, 2018

Audio Spotlight: Marketing Strategies Help Vitalize Audiobook Collections

The audiobook industry continues to grow in near-equal measure in both the library and retail sectors, with the Audio Publishers Association (APA) ballparking sales at an all-time high of $1.2 billion. Libraries are in a real position to take advantage of the trend. Yet with diminished AV budgets, limited title and format availability, and a constant influx of competing downloadable and streaming offerings from the consumer realm, the prospect can be daunting. For libraries wanting to reap the benefits of increased awareness and discovery of their audio holdings, LJ spotlights some best practices in audiobook promotion, discusses some of the challenges inherent to the medium, and proposes new ways of thinking about audio that might even make it a catalyst for moving print.

Integrative marketing

It’s the golden rule of any successful audio marketing plan: treat audiobooks as you would print. Include them among your staff picks, incorporate mentions of audio availability into your booklists, suggest readers’ advisory (RA)–style “soundalikes” to patrons. Put in the same kind of legwork.

Children’s librarian/school liaison Kate Capps, Olathe Indian Creek Branch Library, KS, does a lot of handselling with her library’s audio titles, “browsing the shelves with patrons to find materials that address their listening needs.” She also prelistens to select acquisitions “so that I have firsthand knowledge of the content.” Similarly, to keep patrons tuned in to their audiobook holdings, staff at Lincoln Parish Library (LPL), Ruston, LA, recently began stamping each title with the acquisition date, a practice they’d long instituted with print.

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In a bid to bridge their physical and digital collections, staff at Sacramento Public Library (SPL), CA, place “Now in eBook Format” stickers on the covers of corresponding print titles in the library’s physical collection, a move that SPL electronic resources librarian Amy Calhoun says has improved discovery of their ­ebook holdings. The same could be done with physical audio­books. Alternately, stickers could be put onto print books to advertise companion audio editions, as well as onto DVD packaging in the case of movie/book/audio tie-ins.

Just as one might create a display showcasing major award-­winning books, consider encouraging deeper exploration of your audio collection by leveraging the industry’s biggest accolade, the Audie Award (2013 winners will be announced on May 30 at the Audies Gala in Manhattan). The website of Harris County Public Library (HCPL), Houston, TX, for example, features a page inviting patrons to “branch out from your usual audiobook selections and try one of these quality guaranteed nominees.” Each title links back to the library catalog, and users can also explore previous winners.

Strategic placement

As retailers relocate their eggs into the basket of downloadable technologies, where sales rates grow fastest, libraries, committed to serving populations of every age and economic standing, remain the clearinghouse for formats new and old: cassettes, CDs, MP3-CDs, preloaded digital devices like Playaways and ­GoReaders, and downloadable MP3 and WMA content. Yet even as the market share for downloadables surges, CDs still dominate library and retail channels. As such, considerations of the presentation and placement of physical audio are paramount.

At LPL, adult audiobooks “circ like crazy on their own,” says head of public service Jeremy Bolom, requiring no promotional push. A possible explanation? “[We] add them to the new book area,” says Bolom. Meanwhile, staff at Culpeper County Library (CCL), VA, maximize exposure of their CD and MP3-CD holdings, which outcirculate DVDs, through placement alongside new fiction print titles.

At King County Library System (KCLS), WA (2011 LJ Library of the Year), where annual turnover stats show audiobooks (6.4 circs each per year) nipping at the heels of music (7.8)ljx130401webkuzyk3 Audio Spotlight: Marketing Strategies Help Vitalize Audiobook Collections and nonprint materials generally “circulate like mad,” per KCLS vendor relations manager Samantha Everett, audio and other media are “prominently displayed in our community libraries.”

Many libraries combine all AV materials into a catchall section for optimal cross-exploration of formats. In the media section of the Central Library of Monroe County Library System, NY, for example, three different movie formats (VHS, DVD, and Blu-ray) cohabitate with audiobooks on cassette, CD, MP3-CD, and Playaway. Go a step further, and situate media close enough to the circulation desk to encourage impulse browsing. Or combine YA and adult audio titles so as to create a “store within a store” concept conducive to crossover browsing.

Make your audios seen

Whether your collection is large or small and your holdings digital or physical, ensure that patrons know that there’s more than just print to your library. Increase the visibility of select physical audio content through front-facing placement, or accent authors or categories through ­signage.

To encourage discovery, CCL plans to implement a “shelf-talker” approach to its physical audiobook collection, spotlighting authors and subject areas that do well with brightly colored Mylar-encased signage. “We want to be sure that [our patrons] see our special collections without having to hunt for them,” says CCL technical services and collection development coordinator Elizabeth Hensley.

Consider every surface area as potential placement for advertising, from bookshelf ends to screensavers and desktop wallpaper. Make the existence of your audio collection immediately apparent on your homepage. Reach patrons more directly by extending your marketing efforts beyond library grounds. Every semester at Lindenwood University Library, St. Charles, MO, for example, staff email students about the availability of the audiobooks at the library, also placing an ad in the student ­newspaper.

Similarly, to alert their community to their new Recorded Books collection of 3,800 downloadable audios, staff at Ruby M. Sisson Memorial Library, Pagosa Springs, CO, recently posted an online ad in the Pagosa Daily Post that, in addition to linking to the library’s website, described features of the new service, discussed loan periods, spoke to device compatibility, listed several titles, and advertised a workshop on service ­instruction.

Social media tools such as YouTube and Twitter can promote audio collections generally and instant access to downloadable fare specifically. Staff at Mammoth Public Library (MPL), AZ, use the library’s Pinterest page as a portal for highlighting content including digital audio. Whenever CCL staff post a list of new fiction and nonfiction audio titles to the library’s Facebook page, the response is near-immediate: “We sometimes have hold requests placed remotely within the hour,” says CCL’s Hensley.

Make your audios heard

Contact your local radio station—its audience is guaranteed audio-friendly—to raise awareness in your community with professionally produced public service announcements (PSAs). Digital media distributor OverDrive offers to its partners PSAs that trumpet the availability of downloadable audiobooks from libraries, while APA, as part of its Get Caught Listening campaign, provides spots featuring the voices of popular authors championing audio formats.

Enabling patrons to sample audiobooks can help inform their borrowing decisions, further encouraging exploration and discovery of new narrators and authors. With downloadable audio it’s easy enough, as sound clips come courtesy of your content provider, but physical content should be given the same heed.

Under copyright law’s fair use clause, libraries and educational institutions can incorporate a reasonable amount of copyrighted audio material onto their websites, blogs, e-newsletters, and the like. While most audio publishers feature audio clips on their websites and would be happy to provide them, Books on Tape and AudioGO particularly offer “embed” options for certain titles, making embedding sound clips as simple as pasting code.

An excellent resource for giving YA audiences a “taste” of sound offerings is the Audiofile-hosted summer audiobook program Sync, now in its third year. Over a period of 12 weeks, participants are given two free audiobook downloads per week: one YA plus one related classics or required-reading title. Last summer, the service logged 250,000 visitors and tallied some 50,000 free downloads (through OverDrive), an increase of 42 percent over the previous year. This year’s program spans May 30–August 22 and includes publisher partners AudioGO, Blackstone, Bolinda, Books on Tape/Random, Brilliance, eChristian, Harper, HighBridge, L.A. Theatre Works, Macmillan, Recorded Books, Scholastic, and Tantor. A marketing toolkit makes promotion of the service a breeze.

Get with the program

Another way of encouraging audiobook exploration is through programming. To generate interest in and awareness of its spoken word offerings, staff at John McIntire Public Library (JMPL), Zanesville, OH, have for the past several years hosted an audiobook discussion group four to six times a year. “Hear Here” serves as a forum for advertising new arrivals, coming attractions, and best sellers as well as gives local audiophiles an opportunity to turn members on to titles they might not have otherwise discovered. “Someone might say, ‘I need a good mystery,’ and that gets a flurry of responses,” says JMPL assistant reference librarian Thomas A. Barker. “Someone else might say, ‘Watch out for (blank), it’s full of dirty words.’ Another might announce a new narrator [they’ve] ‘discovered’ and wish to follow.”

In 2012, the group even welcomed via Skype actress/voice artist Tara Sands, who discussed various aspects of and challenges to audiobook narration. While it’s difficult to quantify the group’s impact on circulation, Barker attests to the group’s longevity, growth, connection, and outreach, noting that members often encourage uninitiated patrons to try a recording: “one done, they become hooked.”

Mixing & matching

In select cases, audiobooks can drive interest in other formats, even print. Consider the late actor Patrick Swayze’s 2010 self-read memoir, The Time of My Life (S. & S. Audio), which he finished recording three weeks prior to his death. Ostensibly Swayze’s last words to his fans, the audiobook actually drove sales of the print edition. Consider also 2008 Audiobook of the Year The Chopin Manuscript, a collaborative thriller released in 2007 as an Audible exclusive. The recording was so popular among commercial audiences that it went on to be published on CD and MP3-CD (Brilliance), on Playaway, in ebook form (Amazon), and, most recently, in large print (Center Point Pub.).

Don’t underestimate the power of audio as a medium to break boundaries. There can be challenges in marketing a single title in multiple formats, such as a lag in availability between audio and print editions and gaps in/nonchronology of series titles, owing to everything from production considerations to contractual conditions, but cross-­promotional efforts combining audio with other formats can pay off. At CCL, where audio and print versions of the same book are often paired, “we have found that people respond very positively to the combination of the two formats,” says CCL’s Hensley, calling the effort “instantaneously effective—we need to refill the shelves constantly.”

A successful display at Fairport Public Library, NY, one recent summer highlighted titles appropriate for family listening during road trips (summertime is opportune for libraries to advertise their audio collections; marketing can revolve around June, National Audiobook Month). Each audiobook was partnered with its print companion and promoted a cross-section of genres and reading levels.

MPL is among several pilot libraries taking part in the National Science Foundation–funded Pushing the Limits program, a reading, viewing, and discussion series for rural libraries. MPL director Diana Stirling says that the staff opted to purchase each title in a variety of formats including print, electronic, and audiobook. For each session, she attests, “the audiobook has been circulated—participants seem to appreciate having this variety of options.”

Arguably the more options, the better—not just for preference’s sake but for the purposes of outreach as well. Stirling credits the advent of preloaded audio devices like Playaways and GoReaders with attracting new listeners, saying, “It’s so easy to check out a book that does not require a separate device.” At the Main Branch of Cape May County Library System, NJ, where the range of available audio formats and services is robust, users are similarly drawn to the format: “We are introducing patrons to Playaways constantly,” says library worker Anastasia Vito.

Marketing the extras

Formats and technologies aside, librarians would do well to push audiobooks’ increasingly many value adds: e.g., author interviews, companion ebooks, original music scores, multicast recordings, sound effects, and bookmarking. In some cases, it’s less about marketing an audiobook than about knowing which aspects of it to market. Increasingly, that aspect is the narrator.

Survey any audiobook forum, and you’ll find that audio enthusiasts are just as, if not more, drawn to a title based on the reader as on the author. Notably, when certain audiobooks are celebrity- or author-read, they can skyrocket in consumer appeal, as with Bill Clinton’s reading of My Life (Random) and Johnny Depp’s narrative contribution to Keith Richards’s Life (Hachette). In such cases, library circulation could see a real boost simply through the showcasing of the voice behind the story, rather than the “read by” credits relegated to fine print.

Targeted audiences

Beyond the considerations of how to market your audiobooks and what aspect of them to market is that of the best audience for those efforts: e.g., ESLers, seniors, veterans, and the learning and visually impaired.

In 2011, as part of an “Outspoken Library” initiative, the New Jersey State Library Talking Book & Braille Center (TBBC) provided over 40 public libraries statewide with listening kiosks offering a range of downloadable audio content to those with vision, learning, and certain physical challenges. TBBC director Adam Szczpaniak has said that the kiosks have “helped us expand our services to new, underserved populations in New Jersey, especially veterans.”

For certain of its children’s titles, MPL displays audiobook editions alongside the print. The measure has noticeably enticed young readers—“especially those [with] reading difficulties”—to check out both versions. Says MPL’s Stirling, “They seem to like the idea of being able to listen while following along with the book.” Indeed, there is much evidence to support the idea that listening to audiobooks can help with reading comprehension, vocabulary, fluency, and more. (For a primer on the subject, see Booklist columnist/blogger Mary Burkey’s Audiobooks for Youth.)

You don’t have to do it alone

Libraries can look to their service and content providers not just for training and troubleshooting materials but for free marketing materials like buttons, posters, and bookmarks. Recorded Books offers numerous promotional visuals to help libraries advertise downloadable audiobook offerings through its OneClickdigital platform. Those partnering with OverDrive benefit from promotional assistance in the form of hosted web sites, training events, on-site download stations, and even a scheduled visit by an interactive book­mobile in which users can sample their library’s digital media collection. Playaway similarly offers both ready-made and customizable marketing materials to help familiarize users with its technology, as well as useful “This Title Is Also Available on Playaway” stickers. Many websites of individual audiobook publishers, too, offer free materials touting both their general and individual offerings.

However assisted the message, in the end it’s librarians, long the greatest advocates of audiobooks, who are best poised to deliver it. In the words of Recorded Books VP/president Troy Juliar (Q&A, LJ 12/11, p. 78), “A handful of enthusiastic librarians talking up audiobooks to patrons can have as much impact as a very expensive consumer marketing campaign.”

Raya Kuzyk is a former Media Editor, LJ

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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