Will They Make It A Wave or Just A Ripple?

Is it a major quake that will create a tsunami of change in the e-book market? Or is it a squib that is heard by the closest neighbors but which the rest of the world doesn't notice? Earlier this week, Barnes & Noble announced, as part of a corporate fiscal report, that the company's "Board of Directors authorized management to separate the Barnes & Noble Retail and NOOK Media businesses." In other words, the NOOK platform will become a separate business, spun off from the larger company. The change in the NOOK platform could be just what it needs to finally be a strong competitor to the Kindle platform. Or, it could be just a meaningless move in the platform's slow march toward following the Sony reader into the dim history of also-rans. It depends on how they manage the change. And when I say "manage the change" I mean break away from the plodding and ineffective "marketing" shown by Barnes & Noble today.

Photo credit: pippalou from morguefile.com

A Solid Starting Point

The "new" NOOK company will start off with some things strongly in its favor. It's not like a startup business that lacks customers, products, suppliers, etc. There is already a reasonably diverse selection of hardware (dedicated e-reader devices as well as tablets), and — as is true for the Kindle platform — you don't even need to use their hardware to read a NOOK book. You can download free reading software for the device of your choice, whether that means a mobile app for your phone or tablet, or software for your laptop or desktop computer. Even if NOOK decided to give up on the hardware and just focus on digital content sales, the infrastructure for that is already in place.

Challenges Ahead

However, competing isn't easy, and catching up to the market leader is really tough. Amazon has made some wise strategic moves over the years, and many people go to Amazon first when doing online shopping. There is a perception that "Amazon has everything" (product-wise), and I don't think it makes sense for the NOOK platform to even try to compete against that. It needs to stay focused on books, and in that area it can, maybe, take significant market share away from the Kindle platform. To do that, the new company must take a serious and honest look at things that are done well on the Kindle but not done well (or at all) on the NOOK.

Book Presentation

One such thing is customer reviews. Yesterday, when I was discussing this on Google+, I took a look at three "best-selling" books enjoying front-page positioning on B&N's site. Amazon consistently had more reviews for each book, sometimes by a big margin. (The books were: Hard Choices with 142 (B&N) to 1050 (Amazon), The Silkworm with 25 to 69, and Top Secret Twenty One with 57 to 267. All review counts subject to change, of course.)

This difference in the number of reviews is partly due to presumably higher traffic on the Amazon site, but I don't think that's the only cause. I think much of it has to do with the higher-priority Amazon seems to put on reviews. On the B&N site, reviews are way down the product detail page, as if added as an afterthought. Even the count of reviews at the top of the product detail page is just a bare number in parentheses, whereas Amazon labels the number as "customer reviews." That label not only clarifies what the number is, it prompts customers to add their own. Amazon shows its marketing intelligence by putting customer interaction at a high priority. B&N shows its myopic, old-school, corporate-marketing-background perspective by mismanaging this vital element. This is what the new NOOK company will inherit, and it's a problem they will need to fix.

If you analyze the page design — say, for Top Secret Twenty One — on both sites, which one draws you in more? On the B&N site, the book doesn't even have a full description. But it does have prominent above-the-reviews positioning of the author's photo and bio. This seems focused on the idea of selling to people who will buy anything from the author, which is a rather last-century approach. Amazon's page design appears oriented toward getting people interested in that particular book. That's not rocket science, but it does seem to be marketing savvy that B&N lacks. This is a weakness the new NOOK company must resolve if it wants to be competitive.

Long-Tail Volunteer Advertising

Another piece of the marketing puzzle where Amazon has clearly been a leader, and where Barnes & Noble is not even a distant second, is in the affiliate program. It's easy to find the Amazon Associate (affiliate) program via the link on the home page, it's easy to become an Amazon Associate, and it's easy to use. Look at my links to Amazon in this blog post, and you'll see that every one is an affiliate link. If you click one and decide to buy something, they'll pay me a token amount for having helped them advertise. I'd love to do the same for Barnes & Noble, I really would.

In the B&N bungling way, their affiliate program is not even easy to find. There's no link on the home page. There's not even a link on the sitemap page! I finally found a link by following the "All Help Topics" link... but I didn't want "help," I just wanted to find the affiliate program, so that wasn't a logical click path. Once I found the link (under the "Business Services" heading — accurate, but perhaps not where people would look), it wasn't clear how to join. The page talks about benefits of joining, but it took me a long time to notice, up in the right corner, an "Apply Now" button. Apparently their site designers are completely unaware of how that corner is largely ignored, and just as unaware that other content on the page draws the eye away from that most critical call to action. But, fine, I eventually found it. And clicked it. And thus I was told: "The Barnes & Noble Affiliate program is now a private invite-only program."

Are you kidding? Oh, and that page confirmed my earlier suspicion that their affiliate program is run through LinkShare. Based on past experience, I have zero interest in joining LinkShare again. So, what did I find? Instead of being competitive with Amazon's Associate program, the Barnes & Noble affiliate program is a complete dead-end. What a disappointing waste of time! This is what the NOOK company is inheriting. This is a perfect example of the "marketing" the NOOK company needs to kick to the curb, and fast, if they want to really compete.

Hope for the Future

I assume, or at least hope, that the new NOOK company will get a brand-new Web site that actually works. If I'm viewing a Web site and I hit the Back button in my browser, I expect to go back a page. That works fine on Amazon. Not so on the B&N site, where I repeatedly got "stuck" on a page. I had to long-press the Back button to view the list of prior pages, just to go back one page in my browsing history. That isn't competitive, it's flat-out broken.

Competition is good. I sincerely want Amazon to have competition. I'd be happy to direct potential buyers to a worthy competitor. So far, the NOOK platform has not been worthy. I hope it becomes a worthy competitor when it is free of the mess created by Barnes & Noble.

About the Author
Stuart J. Whitmore is an author of fiction and nonfiction, as well as a photographer, technology developer, and more. If you enjoy reading his blog posts, you might also enjoy reading his books. Take a look at the books by Stuart J. Whitmore today, and download your copy of one that looks interesting to you!