Social Networking: University Presses in a 140-Character World

We live in a time where we ask a new acquaintance to "friend" us rather than exchanging phone numbers. National news programs routinely receive tweets containing questions from viewers during news segments and baseball mascots hold up signs that say "Follow me" and list a Twitter handle. Social networking sites have become a powerful source for virtually all of our news and entertainment needs.

Recently, I noticed a tweet from a colleague that simply said, "Princeton University Press is now on Facebook. Twitter, Facebook—next the world! muahahaah." Amusing and perhaps a little diabolical, but it is evidence that the university presses, from Cambridge to British Columbia, have embraced and started to harness the power of social media.

A quick and unscientific survey of several university presses confirmed that most are using some form of social networking, and that the majority are using Facebook and Twitter. A few have pages on MySpace, Good Reads, and other smaller sites, although presses are not generally as active on these sites. Social networking pages are easy to set up, but once the account has been registered and images uploaded, the challenge becomes how to use these incredibly popular and influential sites in a way that fits into current publicity and promotion for specific titles and the press as a whole.

When we first launched Facebook and Twitter pages at MIT Press, we were very aware that we were The MIT Press, not an individual, and had to be careful about how we presented ourselves. The goal is to become part of the community, not alienate it with hard sales or elaborate marketing pitches. Our pages started as an experiment to try to connect with readers who might be using social media, but we never expected them to be as successful as they are—we currently have about 5,000 fans on Facebook and over 2,600 followers on Twitter.

Our primary goal is to put a face on the press and allow our personality to shine through. We try to respond to all comments and questions and encourage interaction with our readers. For a special Facebook feature, we interviewed our acquisitions editors about how they got started in publishing and what kind of books they were interested in. Recently, we asked our fans on Facebook to comment on their memories of the Atari video game. We had a new book on the topic and offered free copies to the first five people to wax nostalgic in our comments section. More than a dozen comments were posted in just a matter of hours. We have a handful of fans and followers who consistently comment on a particular subject area. Of MIT's list, technology, environment, and art titles generally see the most activity.

The University of Arizona Press, like many presses, joined Facebook first, and opened a Twitter account more recently. Kathryn Conrad, Arizona's Interim Director, says they use Facebook, where they have around 170 fans, for spreading news about press events (including photos) and about media coverage for their titles. They use Twitter very differently. Their thousand-strong Twitter community "does not like marketing or self-promotion," she says. "So, what we are doing here is trying to actively engage in the communities that are relevant to us." They use Twitter to "engage not only in talk about books and publishing but about our state and local community, environmental concerns, indigenous rights issues—anything that relates to what we publish."

Brian Bowen, Publishing and Marketing Coordinator at Yale University Press, views their Twitter following, currently at 3,500 and growing steadily, as a vital part of their promotion. He has been able to track which posts attract the most clicks, and has found that "the 140-character format allows would-be book buyers to stumble upon our content in the process of their normal web browsing."

Most staff at member presses believe social networking sites should primarily be used to communicate with media and consumers, and not for direct sales, though I was pleased when on a recent post linking to a Q&A with the author of a recent book, one of our fans commented: " I have been seduced by social marketing and have ordered the book."

Rebecca Ford, blog editor and voice of Oxford University Press tweets, uses Twitter to build relationships and communicate with journalists about Oxford titles. They currently have around 1,300 followers. "It's important to be accepted by the community," she said. "You have to participate in the community, not just provide information. It is worth it if you want to invest the time to get into the community." She has experimented with give-aways, promoting the original content on their incredibly successful blog, and linking to openly available content from Twitter. She also promotes author participation on Twitter, encouraging authors to talk with each other and collaborate.

The key to keeping people interested in your content is involving them in the discussion and paying attention to their issues and concerns. "Twitter allows us to communicate both directly and indirectly with readers and tweeters who do or might enjoy Yale books," says Bowen. "I've used the @reply feature to respond to readers' questions related to our books. Both help to expand our readership and create an online personality for the press."

While they routinely receive comments on their posts such as "great article," and "I really want to buy that book," the most gratifying response Arizona received on their Facebook page centered on a post they did about the press celebrating its 50th anniversary. A local journalist saw the post and emailed Conrad saying she would like to do a story for a local weekly. "It turned into a cover story including interviews with multiple staffers and authors," Conrad said. "We got great coverage without ever making the pitch."

Arizona has had many fruitful interactions on Twitter as well. "We discovered a local blog that then publicized a promotion we had going on. I helped a customer find one of our books she thought was out of print. We discovered a specialty account we'd never heard of and donated some hurt books for a fundraising effort they had going on. In general, I would say it's a lot like being at BEA or a book festival: you never know what good thing will come of it." Conrad added that they have, "been exposed to more publishing news than you could ever find in the mainstream media."

It is doubtful that social media will replace traditional publicity and marketing efforts. Rather, they enhance what we are already doing and afford us more direct communication with our audience, a crucial aspect that is occasionally lacking in more traditional efforts. So many of us get our news via social media that it is only logical that university presses want to participate in this rapidly growing phenomenon.

Most university presses use social media to discuss what is happening in their community and the publishing world as well as what is going on with particular books and authors. At MIT, we have found it very useful to follow others, including colleagues at peer presses and trade houses, journalists, authors, and other organizations and individuals that are relevant to our list. Editors are using social networking to attract authors. Publicists can quickly scan Twitter for alerts when book review editors resign or contribute to the buzz about a particular topic or title, and authors can keep the press and their followers interested in what they are doing to promote their new book. The possibilities are endless.

Colleen Lanick
Publicity Manager, MIT Press