The latest Marketing Meetup hosted by the American Booksellers Association covered marketing strategies that indie bookstores in tourist towns can use during the busy season to maximize that time, as well as marketing campaigns bookstores can run during the off season.
The January 18 Marketing Meetup — one of the biweekly online video conferences hosted by ABA on Zoom.us — featured guest speakers Peter Makin of Brilliant Books in Traverse City, Michigan, and Amanda Zirn Hudson of Bethany Beach Books in Bethany Beach, Delaware.
Makin shared that nearly one million people visit Traverse City during the summer, which makes for an extremely busy season for Brilliant Books. To better reach all the customers that filter through the bookstore during this time, Makin relies on e-mail.
“This is the key if you’re a seasonal store,” said Makin. “We take contact details from literally everybody who comes in so we can continue to communicate with them.”
Brilliant Books uses the program Emma to send specialized, targeted e-mails to both residents and visitors throughout the year. The locals receive information about events that are happening year-round, while the visitors receive more generalized bookstore information.
In addition to digital marketing, Makin also suggested that bookstores try participating in initiatives their downtown might be offering as well as partnering with other businesses.
“We want to get people downtown and give them the idea that, yes, there is a bookstore downtown, and there are other things to do once you are downtown,” he said. “We are in our local tourist brochure, and we’ve found that that works. It goes to every hotel, and visitors use it as a guide.”
For the non-busy season, Makin recommended that bookstores focus on solidifying their place within their local community.
“We also do some advertising on our local NPR station between May and December, and that really helps to reinforce the brand because we know that an awful lot of folks who are fans of NPR will want to find those stations wherever they are in the country,” he added. “We find that to be a pretty good way of getting to the demographic we’re wanting, to attract and remind them that Brilliant Books is here.”
Bookstores can even host events that incorporate the whole downtown, Makin noted. In 2017, he reached out to a business mentioned in the book 100 Things to Do in Traverse City Before You Die by Kim Schneider (Reedy Press) to celebrate the fact that they were all included in the publication. Many local businesses showed up, and it turned out to be the store’s best-selling book of the year. “It built an awful lot of community goodwill,” Makin said.
“With attracting the locals, as we know, no one has to go shopping. Everybody can stay at home and buy whatever they want, so it has to be an experience and it has to be something that is compelling,” he said, adding that Brilliant Books has started to sell high-end board games, fountain pens, and fancy paper. “It’s a lot easier to sell a $35 hardcover if it’s sitting next to a $170 fountain pen.”
While Brilliant Books doesn’t host events in the summer because the store is too busy, Makin said that winter events help to further make their presence known in the community.
“We do find we can have events in the winter if they’re local authors who can bring a local audience,” he said. “Sunday afternoon is good for events; we partner with local bakeries and entertain people.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Bethany Beach Books attracts tourists by planning almost all its events to take place during their busy season, which is from Memorial Day to Labor Day, said Hudson.
“By the end of May, we have 80 to 90 percent of our events already scheduled for the summer,” she said. “We put a huge ad in the paper for our entire schedule, and we put the little dots around it so people can cut it out and put it on their refrigerator.”
Bethany Beach Books also uses Constant Contact and e-blasts to promote its events, said Hudson, and the store has started using Facebook Live twice a week to talk about upcoming events and story times as well as to host a galley giveaway to encourage customer engagement.
While the store uses a variety of different marketing strategies, Hudson said that the local newspaper is a key component to its success.
“A lot of people, when they’re down for a week at the beach, just want to know what’s happening, so they pick up a weekly paper,” she said. “That’s really big for the off-season for us as well. Because we are so sleepy during the winter months, a lot of the time the only way people hear anything is from the newspaper.”
For large-scale events, Bethany Beach Books has partnered with local businesses, such as a vineyard close to the store. “We use that off-site location because our store is only about 2,000 square feet, and we can’t really move things out of the way during those busy hours. But we still want to accommodate large-scale events,” she said. For past events, Bethany Beach Books has invited authors like Jane Green and Lauren Hillenbrand.
Hudson also emphasized the importance of keeping in touch with visitors throughout the year. The store tries to keep its website updated in addition to posting regularly on social media. In terms of posting on social media, Hudson suggested going beyond strictly book-related content.
“During the off-season, some of our most popular posts are things about Bethany Beach. It doesn’t even have to have a book in the picture,” she said. “Because people are at home and missing the beach, they seem to love it.”
Additionally, the store offers a book subscription service called the Book Drop.
“[The Book Drop] has been huge for us for customers who love to visit the beach, and love our staff picks and recommendations. When they’re not with us at the beach, they still want to be reading what we’re recommending,” she said.
Bethany Beach Books also has a strong relationship with its local Chamber of Commerce. “They really help us in participating in events, and they help keep us on track by saying, ‘Oh, this hotel is going to be having a coffee-table-like book in every room, do you want to advertise in it?’ And so, we do. We do a generic all-season ad and we get a lot of feedback on that,” she said, adding that it’s also helpful to try to get a pinpoint icon on local maps.
Overall, Hudson said, Bethany Beach Books has a similar year-round strategy to Brilliant Books: “Remind people that no matter what, they can still buy books from you even when they’re not visiting.”
Booksellers who would like to participate in the next 30-minute Marketing Meetup, which will be held on January 31 and explore marketing through Instagram, can send an invite request to ABA’s Phil Davies. All ABA members are invited to join. Meetups are held at 11:00 a.m. EST on two Thursdays a month.