Author | Marketer | Speaker

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Breathing new life into books with official hashtags

Update: Welcome, Domino Project readers! I'm honored that Seth Godin chose to highlight this idea , and I love the response I've seen on Twitter. In fact, let's try something: If you would like to tweet about this post, please use #htagbooks and follow me (@be3d). Let's innovate together. [blackbirdpie url="http://twitter.com/#!/JonTheGeek/status/61576828988567552"]

The other day I tweeted out an idea, and quickly received a burst of encouraging responses. I was on to something. The idea I shared was that all books should have official hashtags so that people can discuss what they're reading as they're doing so. This would serve both authors and readers remarkably well.

Readers would have access to a sort of whenever-you-care-to-contribute book club, where they could discuss the content, share related links and recommendations, and--perhaps the most appealing feature to me--add people with similar interest graphs to their social networks. Because the niche community would form on Twitter, an existing social network, it would be far likelier to reach the activity level at which online communities become sustainable and vibrant, unlike siloed, built-from-scratch communities like private forums, where the barriers to entry deter many from joining what they see as “yet another” social network.

Authors would stand to gain even more. By facilitating the foundation and growth of these hashtag communities, authors would be tapping into a goldmine of word of mouth, reader loyalty, consumer data, actionable feedback, jacket-worthy praise, and of course, book sales from new readers who learn of an author's work through related activity on Twitter. A fan base like that can't be bought, and can rarely be built.

These official hashtags should be promoted in all pre- and post-launch marketing materials, interviews, appearances, etc. But the books themselves need to feature hashtags even more prominently: at page tops, in introductions, even on covers. By promoting the hashtag so visibly, authors signal to readers that there is a community out there of fellow readers to engage with, and that all they need to join is a Twitter account and this hashtag. After inviting readers, the next step is making sure they won't be showing up to a lame party. Authors should rally their core supporters to start using the hashtag in discussing the book as soon as possible to seed the community with killer content that will make newcomers feel welcome and pique their interest. Make it irresistible for them to dive right into a vibrant conversation, instead of asking them to create the first content.

But I haven't yet mentioned the move that will catapult authors onto another rung of social success altogether: Showing up.  Imagine an author being able to play a central role in the book clubs that have chosen his or her work, to participate in a way that invigorates discussion and thrills attendees. That's the opportunity authors have in the era of the hashtag. For readers to know that their thoughts and ideas will even reach an author is a powerful incentive to participate and keep coming back. If authors take it just one step further and participate themselves, they'll have their readers hooked.

Here's a quick example of how it would work, from the reader’s perspective.

I pick up a book that outlines the creative processes and project management systems in play at ten successful startups. My goal as a reader is to learn from the best, and to implement an optimized creative process at my own workplace. The unique hashtag is hard to miss; it’s on the jacket, at the top of each page, and there’s even a one-page overview devoted to its use before the introduction. Out of curiosity, I search Twitter for the book’s hashtag before I read chapter one. There’s a lively discussion going on about the tips and systems dealt with in the book. I dive in, tweeting my observations, my questions and my criticisms throughout. Responses from other readers fuel this participation, and our shared interest in this topic and book motivates me to expand my social network by following them. The conversation doesn’t stop when I’m done reading. To the contrary, I’ve begun implementing some of the project management techniques outlined in the book, and I’m eager to share the results with the hashtag community. My feedback—both positive and negative—is often met by a response from the author, who offers additional insight and answers the community’s questions as they arise. Needless to say, her participation increases mine, as well as the likelihood that I would recommend her work to a friend or colleague, and the likelihood that I would buy her next book.

This hashtag strategy relies on the same dynamics that fuel social media success in general: two-way conversation, real-time communication and the power of positive word of mouth. As both a reader and an aspiring author, I’m looking forward to seeing how it can enrich the printed word.

Have you seen this done? Please point me to examples in the comments below, and share any additional thoughts you have on the subject.

© 2016 Ian Greenleigh