I started out working in digital advertising over sixteen years ago and while it can be very difficult to generalize about three very different ad platforms, there are some general rules that I recommend everyone consider:
Don’t spend what you can’t afford. Experienced advertisers may look at this a little differently but when you are starting out with ads, the old gambler’s rule should apply: only spend what you can afford to lose.
Certainly don’t borrow money for an ad campaign – that’s putting incredible pressure on yourself and greatly increasing the chances of a terrible outcome. Roll back your book profits into marketing instead. It’s a nice, organic, and sustainable way to grow your business. And whether you have a lot to spend, or a little, start small. Only increase budgets when you are sure the ads are working – and by that I mean selling books, rather than generating traffic or hoovering up Likes.
When you are much more experienced – i.e. when you have tried-and-tested targeting and you already know that your ad assets convert – you can start campaigns off much hotter, but you need to build to that point. You can’t shortcut that process when starting out without taking huge and unnecessary risks.
Do explore other paths to readers before deciding advertising is the most suitable. Advertising sounds sexy… when it’s really tiresome number crunching for the most part, or epic frustration as you spend hours wrestling with technical issues, or a boring slog learning how the systems work.
Advertising is also a massive time-sink as well as a real money-pit. A whole legion of course sellers and tool floggers and incentivized affiliates might claim that advertising is the cure for all your ills but remember that it’s only one part of the big world of marketing. Other approaches may work better for you, especially when you’re starting out or your budget is restricted.
I especially recommend that beginners (and anyone on a budget) pay attention to the world of deal sites – it’s often the cheapest clicks you’ll get anywhere and no specialist knowledge is required.
Don’t blindly take advice from anyone – a good approach generally and especially important in the world of advertising. Everyone’s ad knowledge is built on constantly shifting sands and is heavily skewed by their own personal experiences. Question everything and everyone.
I’ve been working in online advertising on and off for over sixteen years and I’m still frequently wrong, or just stumped, or catch myself acting under any number of cognitive biases – and I might not realise until after the fact.
I also know that for all the talk in advertising of data and spreadsheets and testing, it’s a deeply pseudoscientific world where data is cherry picked and where theory becomes best practice and then dogma, without being subjected to nearly enough scrutiny.
Most advertisers are chasing results above all, rather than scientific rigor, so that’s understandable – just keep in mind that things are never as “objective” or as “proven” as they seem, even when everyone is experienced and has the best intentions. And that’s before we get to all the bluffers and schemers that advertising attracts.
Do take a look at each of the three major ad platforms before deciding where to spend all your ad dollars: Amazon, BookBub, and Facebook. Play with each of them a little. Dip your toe into some resources and get a feel for what works where. Look at the strengths and weaknesses of each platform – because they are wildly different in so many ways.
Go deeper again, if you want my advice, and check your comp authors on each platform are viable targets because one of your key authors might not be targetable at all on Facebook but might have a healthy following on BookBub. Or they might have no followers on BookBub. Or might be too expensive to target on Amazon.
Time invested researching these things is often money saved on bad ads.
Don’t ask “which ad platform is hot right now?” They’re all hot if you know what you’re doing and they’re all not if you don’t.
Do focus on one platform first, though. All of the ad platforms are challenging enough to master when you focus on them. Trying to make headway with all of them at once is going to melt your brain. While the fundamentals of digital advertising can often stay the same, best practices on each platform can often be utterly different.
Learn each platform individually, and in turn, and approach each platform as a distinct problem to be solved. Besides, mastering one platform is often more than sufficient. Getting a handle on two is just gravy. (I’m not sure I know anyone who is excellent at all three, by the way.)
Finally, stick to the three platforms of Amazon, BookBub, and Facebook. There’s always who’s sure they’re about to crack Twitter or Pinterest or Google. I’ve been hearing that for years and I’m still waiting…
Don’t get too disheartened if you can’t crack one particular platform. Move on to another, it might be more your speed. I was able to master BookBub Ads relatively quickly, Facebook took me a lot longer despite having far more resources at my fingertips, and I’ve never been able to fully crack Amazon Ads – despite being on fairly intimate terms with the Amazon algorithms for some time now.
You don’t always know what will work in advance; you might need to play the field a little before finding your perfect match.
Do seek out book-specific best practices for advertising. As someone with a general marketing background, I can tell you that books are… weird.
We are selling super cheap products with tight margins where the customers are uber-picky and have the most bizarrely niche tastes and we are competing in a marketplace with maybe 1m suppliers and over 8m products. (It’s quite the marketing challenge btw, so don’t feel bad if you are struggling with it.)
Anyway, my point is that general advertising advice can sometimes lead you astray. I personally love some outside resources (Jon Loomer for Facebook ads is great, for example), but always keep this caution in mind with Facebook Ads, and Amazon Ads to a lesser extent.
Don’t listen to obvious BS from people with something to sell. I hear people saying things like “Amazon is just pay-to-play now” or “Facebook has completely throttled organic reach.”
Neither of those things are true, as a simple glance at your inbox or newsfeed should show you, which will be filled with Amazon recommendation emails and organic Facebook updates respectively. I can get still get excellent organic reach with my Facebook Page. It’s harder than it was – it takes work to keep the content focused and engaging – but it is doable. And Amazon makes millions of organic book recommendations every single day by email and in various locations all over its site, which drive millions of book purchases.
Ignore anyone saying otherwise – such things usually originate with (surprise!) someone selling a course or tool which "solves" the “problem.”
Do figure out how organic visibility works on Facebook and Amazon because it’s not only a potential alternative to advertising, it’s also something that will massively augment the ROI you get from your advertising efforts.
If you know what makes content enticing and engaging and share-worthy on Facebook, you can bake that into your ads as well. And if you know what triggers Amazon’s giant (organic) recommendation engine, you can bake that into your marketing campaigns as well.
Don’t be in rush. Set your expectations appropriately. Save up a budget for learning the platform. Learn the fundamentals. Understand how the system works. And take your time on these critical steps before rolling your ads out.
Spend significant time ensuring that the product is in good shape (that’s your book), that your ad assets are in fine fettle (your ad text and image, where appropriate), and that you are pointing these things at the right people and that the ensemble you have put together in terms of the product and its packaging and your ad assets are all screaming “This is the kind of book you love” to all those readers you’re aiming at.
Do focus a lot of attention on optimizing your landing page. Whether you advertise on Amazon, BookBub, or Facebook you will, most likely, be pointing your ads direct to your listings on Amazon (or elsewhere). Conversion is the most critical variable in advertising and probably the most under-discussed.
The experience that readers have when arriving on your book’s page will close the sale or drive them away – and everything must be in harmony, working towards that goal: your cover, price, title, blurb, sample.
Authors invariably waste dozens of hours in the advertising weeds when the real problem was on their book’s page. If the traffic you are sending to your book’s page is good quality – i.e. the right readers – then the problem is invariably with your landing page.
While we are on the topic of conversion, Amazon is far better at closing the sale than any other retailer – it has crunched a gajillion data points and iterated its sales pages endlessly. Which means you should probably start off just pointing ads to Amazon before trying to solve the harder problem of other retailers (or direct sales).
Ignore that advice if you wish – as with any advice that doesn’t work for you – but perhaps keep it in mind if you struggle to get ads to convert outside the Bezosverse. Perhaps there are more fundamental issues you need to solve before attempting more difficult advertising challenges (same goes for advertising full price books over deals, btw).
Don’t forget that things can vary a lot by genre. Not all best practices are universal across every single book niche. Yet another good reason to test everything at a lower level before making bigger bets.
Do remember that most common problems have well-established solutions – at least in a meta sense. For example, if your ads aren’t getting enough impressions, it’s usually an issue with bids (or maybe budget). If your ads are getting impressions but no clicks, it’s usually a problem with your ads themselves (targeting, image, or text). And if you are getting clicks but no sales, then it’s usually a problem with your landing page.
These are all just rules of thumb, but they have endured since I started in online advertising in 2004 – holding up remarkably well across different platforms too. It might not be right 100% of the time, but it’s true often enough to be useful and should – at the very least – save you precious time when trying to diagnose issues with our ads.
Don’t succumb to gambler’s fallacy. Whole cities have risen from the desert because of this, bankrolled by our desperation to dig ourselves out of a hole, by digging in the same spot which dug the hole in the first place. Another $100 isn’t going to flip an ad from bad to good. Please note this fallacy is easier to avoid if you follow Rule #1.
P.S. Writing music is in Irish this week with Ronan O’Snodaigh and Tá'n t'Ádh Liom.
Broomfield Business Park, Malahide, Co. Dublin, Ireland
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