discussions genre stuff

Raising Expectations

If you follow Seth Godin (web marketing guru and all-round interesting ideas man) already, you’ll have seen his latest post on raising expectations:

Have you noticed how upbeat the ads for airlines and banks are?

Judging from the billboards and the newspaper ads, you might be led to believe that Delta is actually a better airline, one that cares. Or that your bank has flexible people eager to bend the rules to help you succeed.

At one level, this is good advertising, because it tells a story that resonates. We want Delta to be the airline it says it is, and so we give them a try.

The problem is this: ads like this actually decrease user satisfaction. If the ad leads to expect one thing and we don’t get it, we’re more disappointed than if we had gone in with no real expectations at all. Why this matters: if word of mouth is the real advertising, then what you’ve done is use old-school ad techniques to actually undercut any chance you have to generate new-school results.

It seemed an appropriate point today, because the book industry is guilty of this. We all like to raise expectations, to cover ourselves in hyperbole, in order to sell ourselves (as I keep saying – this is an industry). Blogging was always about word of mouth, but I wonder to what extent the blogosphere actually does that in 2011? There are giveaways, exclusives, general pimpage with spectacular regularity. There are banner ads and exclusive ARCs being handed out.

Where does word of mouth end and advertising begin? Do more considered reviews – rather than reactionary – help out more?

And then there’s the counterpoint: hype. In the past I’ve been the target of hype – some organic emergence from the blogoshpere – that has, on occasion, backfired (though I’m grateful for all coverage, of course). Word of mouth in this case has done what Seth calls ‘decreased user satisfaction’. That Nights of Villjamur isn’t the Second Coming has rather let me down, I feel.

But I guess all of this – word of mouth, advertising, reviews, hype – it’s all what makes the blogosphere a pretty interesting and lively place.

By Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.

10 replies on “Raising Expectations”

Godin is also a dork.

I’d write more, but you’re old news, and frankly, I’m only spending time on this blog out of a misplaced sense of loyalty.

Don’t worry, I’ll be back when your next book is coming out. Hopefully someone will give me some free shit to love you again at that point.

Note: I would post on Twitter but I know we both hate that.

There is a fine line between hype and word of mouth and I think it’s defined by whose mouth the words are coming from. A lot of hype comes from people who are either tied to the book’s success or who are repeating things they heard from someone who is.

Take Bacigalupi’s darling The Windup Girl for example. No offense to Night Shade, but they did a terrible time marketing it. No one was talking about how good it would be before it came out, and if they were it was because they had read Bacigalupi’s short stuff and recognized his potential. The only people saying “This is a must read book” were people who had read it.

Now conversely, take a look at The Passage, I am Number Four, or even Way of Kings, all of which I would consider to be “hyped” novels of the past year. These books were sold as “must reads” weeks or months in advance often by people who had never read them. This creates false word of mouth (a.k.a. hype) and inflates expectations leading to “decreased user satisfaction” – even if the book is good, it’s not as good as you were lead to believe.

I think the solution to this is responsible recommendations and considered adjectives. Don’t say that Book X is the best book of the year (even if it is for you). Don’t say it’s perfect. Say that you think a book is worth reading. If anything, less information is more as it allows the next reader to form their own opinions.

Patrick the Yeti Stomper makes good points, but I would add that sometimes hype can emerge from legitimate word of mouth, if we aren’t careful. If enough people like a {book, movie, TV show}, and {blog, talk, write, tweet} about it, even if they don’t individually over-inflate it, user expectations can be raised too high, simply by the sheer volume of praisers.

My friends and I have noted this phenomenon on the film rating aggregate site “Rotten Tomatoes”, which gives a % rating based on the number of overall positive reviews. If you see a movie that’s in the 90’s (90+ percent positive reviews), you assume it must be an awesome, must-see movie, and sometimes it is. But sometimes, it just means almost everyone kinda liked it or thought it was decent.

The obvious solution to this is to find reviewers that you trust and tend to agree with, and read their opinions in detail.

Thanks for the comments there. Patrick – I tend to agree with you, though I can’t ever see publishers backing off that trend. If anything, they’re more heavy with the sexy marketing talk than ever before.

Guildenstern – you know, I actually tend to like Rotten Tomatoes as a guide. Aggregate review sites give a decently broad perspective, whereas your Amazon reviews tend to be gut-customer reactions.

And as a customer, I loathe customer reactions for dealing with any form of art – for example, I recently subscribed to LoveFilm, and their user review star ratings are nonsense (despite the many hundreds of reviews per title). It’s very frustrating.

@Mark Charan Newton – I don’t see publishers going away etiher, it’s their job to sell books. It’s up to the bloggers and the readers to stop listening to them and identify legitimate sources of information. Paid megasites like io9 are not the answer, they only offer publishers an additional voice with the benefit of a degree of separation. You will note that the movies that they are selling are either well reviewed or never reviewed.

@Both – I too like (and mostly trust) Rotten Tomatoes. The sheer number of critics means that the underrating and overrating (due to personal bias or whatnot) will be mostly negated. I have yet to see a movie with 85%+ on Rotten Tomatoes that I regretted watching.

The best source is going to be an aggregrate of qualified reviewers. A single source is biased and no qualification allows for ignorant chaos (Amazon reviews).

It’s down to the individual though. If I get sucked into the hype and get disappointed then that’s my fault. I think people, especially the younger social media generation are getting better at filtering conflicting information.

I’ve recently bought Rivers of Blood because both Liz de Jager and Amanda Rutter have raved about it. I trust their opinion and know I tend to like the same things. I trust Paul Smith’s opinion but we like slightly different things, hence I’m less likely to take up his recommendations. We build our own hype filters and some of us are better than others.

You also have to remember that we are in the gladiatorial combat of entertainment here, where everyone is Emperor raising or turning our thumb. The casual reader isn’t interested in a detailed analysis. It’s either brilliant or a pile of shit. Nothing inbetween. Those are the terms for anyone who wants to enter the gladiator’s ring be they author, actor, sculptor or painter.

And frankly I think hype is good. It shows excitement, and yes, some people might be disappointed the reality didn’t meet the expectation but how boring would things be if no-one got passionate about things.

@ Patrick and Mark: I didn’t mean to imply that I don’t like RT. It is a go-to site for me to screen my list of movie choices. But on occasion, I’ve been let down by highly rated movies, or at least been underwhelmed. Could be a failure of taste on my part, though 🙂

I tend to put most of my faith in discussion boards. The westeros board is a harsh but usually very reliable source and while there are a few bloggers in there, there’s also everyone else’s opinions. I think boards are where the real word of mouth is, so maybe it’s only a matter of time before publishers start throwing ARCs and parties for boards.

In this case Mark, is your next book not going to be “the best one yet” but rather something more positively neutral like “Continues to excel” 😉

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