Serialization and Digital Marketing: An Interview with House of Anansi’s Carolyn McNeillie

In Fall of 2013, with the impending release of Ian Hamilton’s sixth book in the Ava Lee series, House of Anansi decided to try something a little different to celebrate its publication. Up to this point, Ava Lee, the young Chinese-Canadian forensic accountant of Ian Hamilton’s imagination had already managed to ingrain herself into the hearts of mystery lovers and critics. Encouraged by this popularity, House of Anansi began a completely digital campaign that rewarded new and die-hard fans alike. Beginning on November 19th, 2013 they released an Ava Lee prequel, The Dragon Head of Hong Kong in four parts—for free. The campaign was accompanied by several contests and sales that primarily existed on their social media platforms. We sat down with Carolyn McNeillie, Digital Marketing Manager at House of Anansi to see how this successful campaign came to be and what it means for their future digital marketing endeavours.

What was the marketing strategy behind the prequel ebook campaign for the Ava Lee series? Did you have specific marketing objectives in mind?

We hoped that by giving away original Ava Lee content for free, we would accomplish a few things. We wanted to reward loyal Ava Lee fans with something they could enjoy (the idea of writing Ava’s back story actually came from a fan.) We wanted to introduce Ava Lee to a new audience, and whet their appetite for the series. We wanted to refresh Ava Lee in readers’ consciousness leading up to the release of the sixth installment of the series, The Two Sisters of Borneo. And we wanted to establish a direct link to Ava Lee fans.

How did you distribute the prequel to readers?

We loaded the ebooks into a Dropbox folder, and gave subscribers a download link. The book was released in four parts of five chapters each over the course of a month. After the end of the promo (and with fair warning!) we pulled the ebooks down from the folder.

 “We kept a close eye on where subscribers were clicking and how they were sharing to make sure the emails were hitting the right notes and keeping people engaged.”

 How did you define success for this campaign? Sales, clearly, were important, but what other marketing metrics did you look at and why?

For the first phase, where our focus was on getting the prequel read by as many interested people as possible, the first metric we were interested in was sign-ups. The serialization was powered through a mailing list we built to collect opt-ins, and released in four weekly installments, so our first goal was to build up the subscribed audience as large as we could.

Initially we described the offer on our blog and used our Twitter and Facebook accounts, and Ian Hamilton’s, to promote the link. We also sent out a notification to our newsletter subscribers, and reached out to various partners and Ava Lee fans with a platform to help us get the word out. As fans signed up for the free books, they were sent a coupon and encouraged to share the sign-up link with their friends.

Once we had that base and released the first piece of content, we watched that audience grow further thanks to word of mouth, and we diverted our attention toward watching how that audience behaved when they received the installments. We kept a close eye on where subscribers were clicking and how they were sharing to make sure the emails were hitting the right notes and keeping people engaged.

What was the response like when you sent out that first email campaign on November 19th?

An amazing thing we saw right off the bat was an incredibly high engagement rate. The first email we sent had a 91.6% open rate, and a 77.4% click rate. Those numbers dipped a little after the first email, but open rate stayed consistently in the 80% range.

In addition to the ebook giveaway, there were a few other elements in the campaign: you also included a Facebook giveaway contest where participants could win an Ava Lee series prize pack, a Twitter campaign for a mysterious prize, as well as a 20% discount for previous titles in the series. What were your goals with these complimentary campaigns? Of those channels, Twitter, Facebook, and the store discount which performed the best?

We wanted to encourage the audience to share the campaign with their friends, and engage with us on our social platforms, and so we ran complimentary social campaigns. We also wanted to leverage the prequel subscribers into an expanded readership for the books, so we were sure to include the cover images of the series in every email, and the opportunity for readers to buy the series at a discount. With this audience we really didn’t get much Twitter chatter going, but we did see quite good uptake on Facebook, supported by the contest there. We converted some of the newsletter subscribers into fans of both Anansi’s and Ian Hamilton’s Facebook pages. In terms of book sales, we saw a relatively small uptake, just a handful of people took us up on the sale, but those who did tended to buy multiple titles at once.

We are actually in the process of re-releasing Ian’s prequel on Wattpad during Wattpad’s IFOA digital festival in October. It will be very interesting to see what kind of connection his work will make on that platform.

You wrapped up the campaign by offering a special 50% discount on all Ava Lee titles to subscribers to celebrate the New Year. Was that last campaign successful for Anansi?

One month after the end of the Ava Lee promotion we sent an email to the list for Chinese New Year. We offered a coupon code that allowed subscribers to buy Ian Hamilton books for half off for only two days, and we also took the opportunity to show off the new book, and announce Ian’s upcoming tour dates. This is where everything really paid off. The open rate and click rate fell slightly from the numbers we saw during the giveaway, but they were still very high: 72% opens, and 25% clicks. But the best part is that we had an overwhelming response to the sale. Our Ava Lee sale was the most successful one we had on our website this year, and the majority of those sales were to subscribers to the mailing list – close to 10% of subscribers purchased at least one book.

We keep hearing about how publishers of the future need to start building direct relationships with readers. How did this campaign help House of Anansi to build a direct relationship with Ian Hamilton’s readers?

The campaign allowed us to reach out to diehard Ava Lee fans and gather them into one place so that we can speak directly to them when we have news we think they’ll be interested in. This has been invaluable.

“Our Ava Lee sale was the most successful one we had on our website this year, and the majority of those sales were to subscribers to the mailing list – close to 10% of subscribers purchased at least one book.”

Did anything happen as you were running the campaign that you didn’t anticipate and had to adapt to on the fly?

We found that we had to train a lot of subscribers to the campaign on how to read ebooks. We already had videos to show readers how to side load content onto various devices, which had many clicks at every installment, but I also spent time with subscribers on the phone, walking them through the process of installing ADE, or opening the file in iBooks. Personally, that was one of my favourite parts. That’s when I got to hear how much enjoyment people were getting out of Ian’s story.

The Ava Lee books are a popular series in a popular genre: mystery. Do you think this sort of prequel ebook campaign could work well for, say, literary titles or is it more suited for genre books?

I think this kind of campaign is definitely a natural fit for genre books, and series especially, where you have a loyal audience that’s really immersed in a world and a set of characters and they are very keen for more content. But I think with some tweaking a similar approach could be used to promote literary titles. For example, a publisher could try to drum up exposure for new authors and build a mailing list by releasing one free short story by a different writer every week for a month or two.

A huge thank you to Carolyn McNeillie who took the time to answer all of our questions (and follow-up questions). Don’t forget to keep checking in with eBOUND for more on innovative digital marketing practices by Canadian publishers.