Blogs, 'Bookcasts' Enliven Literature at Powells.com

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Using content to promote commerce has been a prevailing theme at Powells.com since it went online in 1994. For the past seven months, the book retailer has dug ever deeper into that philosophy by debuting features like blogs and "bookcasts."


Since then, unique daily visitors at the Web site have grown from about 55,000 to more than 70,000. Its blog pages, after being implemented in November, are being viewed by around 20 percent more visitors month over month. And for the last three days of February, overall traffic at www.powells.com was higher than any day during the holidays in December.


"That was kind of stunning because February is not normally a busier time of year," said Dave Weich, director of marketing and development at Powells, which is a 35-year-old independent retailer with six Portland, OR-area storefronts.


Weich said that the blogs and his firm's bookcasts, which are downloadable audio files featuring authors, have aided the traffic lift and will continue to blossom this year as viewers grow more acquainted with the formats. But a more likely contributor to the recent growth, he said, has been Powells.com's steadily improved blend of content across the site while appealing to a wider demographic of book lovers.


"For a long time, we had struggled to establish a nexus for our content," he said. "Part of the challenge throughout all of our years of managing this content has been, 'How do you create a hub where people can actually find the content that they are looking for?' The blog, in some ways, helps us meet that challenge."


Powells promotes the blog throughout the site, including a banner ad that's in rotation at the top of the home page. Biweekly e-mail newsletters to 320,000 subscribers pitch both the blog and its parent Web site's ever-changing applications. Since redesigning Powells.com last summer, the site has seen various adjustments like more-targeted locations for the forums that carry dozens of author interviews.


Recently added to the site are the bookcasts, typically 10- to 15-minute audio files showcasing young writers like John Hodgman, the satirist who penned "The Areas of My Expertise," as well as literary legends such as Salman Rushdie and Toni Morrison. Readings and other comments by them are usually recorded from their stops in Portland on book tours and speaking engagements. To broaden the appeal of the bookcasts, rock stars Patti Smith and members of the band Queens of the Stone Age have read from some of their favorite selections.


"Music has MTV, for instance, and our world before recently didn't have anything in media that adequately linked books with fun," Weich said. "The bookcasts are enjoyable in of themselves, and I think they're gaining an appreciative audience."


In addition, on the Monday after Thanksgiving, Powells began a blog featuring a writers series that started with Susan Orlean, a New Yorker columnist and author of several books including "My Kind of Place: Travel Stories From a Woman Who's Been Everywhere." Every week, another author steps into the forum, including Kevin Baker, who lately released his book "Strivers Row."


The writers contribute a few paragraphs of content daily during their weeklong residency, and Powells compensates them with a sizable gift card as well as the built-in publicity of the appearances. Alongside the blog appears a picture of the author and a link offering their latest book in hardcover, paperback, a "books on tape" cassette/compact disc or a compact disc of MP3 files.


In another content-oriented effort, an e-mail goes Mondays through Saturdays to 19,000 subscribers in a book-review-a-day program that includes an article written by a critic from The Christian Science Monitor, The Atlantic and Esquire, among others. But for Saturdays, someone from Powells writes the review.


"The staff reviews sell more books and get more feedback than the national magazines or newspapers," Weich said. "That shows that our customers take us seriously. Also, they recognize that we are not critics but fans like they are. I believe that our reviews or recommendations hit a little closer to home."


Meanwhile, most hardcover books range from $15 to $25 at the site, which brings in an average order of $30 to $45. Last year, Powells reportedly totaled $57.6 million in sales, and it hopes to build on those numbers with -- what else -- more content. At the end of March, customers at the site will be able to write their own book reviews.


"Shoppers who go to sites like Powells are not regular mall types of shoppers. They are avid book readers with distinct interests in literature," said Jack Aaronson, CEO of multiple-channel marketing agency The Aaronson Group, New York. "They want a community in which to learn about new books, to communicate about new books, to see what their kind of people are reading and what the experts are saying."


Christopher Heine covers CRM, analytics and production and printing for DM News and DMNews.com. To keep up with the latest developments in these areas, subscribe to our daily and weekly e-mail newsletters by visiting www.dmnews.com/newsletters
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