Social Media Success Story: 7 Students, 500,000 WBN books

M.S. in Publishing Students Peraza, Cox, Flavin, Olivares (back row), and Werthan, Narasimhan and George formed a social media committee for WBN.

To the literati of the world, April 23rd used to have special meaning as the day Shakespeare was born and Cervantes died. This year, the date took on even more significance as longtime book lovers and new readers alike participated in a nationwide movement that is likely to become as addictive as a juicy novel. On April 23rd, World Book Night (WBN) debuted in the U.S. after a successful launch last year in the United Kingdom. All over America, volunteers from all 50 states handed out books to non-readers and reluctant readers in an effort to promote literacy. “Givers,” selected through an application process online, passed  out 500,000 free paperbacks in churches, bars, children’s shelters, public transit systems and senior centers—even on beaches. (One innovative “giver” put copies of Patti Smith’s Just Kids inside Ziploc bags and doled them out in Monterey Bay.) Now, who better to promote this kind of national literary love fest than the students in the Master of Science in Publishing: Digital & Print Media program at NYU?

It all began last October when Andrea Chambers, Director of the NYU Master of Science in Publishing: Digital & Print Media, heard about the plans for World Book Night. She asked Carl Lennertz, the recently appointed Executive Director of WBN, if the M.S. in Publishing students could be of help. When Chambers told Lennertz about the courses in marketing and social media in the graduate program—and how savvy students are in these areas—he agreed to put the NYU Publishing students in charge of the social media campaign for WBN. The Publishing Student Association (PSA) spearheaded the effort, and Laura Flavin, PSA Vice President, helped select a committee consisting of Lavanya Narasimhan, Melodie George, Erin Cox, Alicia Olivares, Laura Peraza, and myself.

Beginning last fall, the committee worked with Lennertz to create awareness of the event through Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Pinterest, and Instagram. We met weekly to monitor these platforms and discuss what was working and what wasn’t. Our budget of zero to market World Book Night merely fueled our creativity as we extensively brainstormed new ways to promote the event. For example, on Facebook we not only conveyed general information about the event but also asked readers to share their favorite read or the World Book Night books they were most excited about. On Twitter, we actively followed independent booksellers and book publishers to extend WBN’s overall exposure. As of April 13th, the World Book Night America Facebook account had over 7,000 “Likes,” and our Twitter account had more than 2,200 followers.

As the event neared, so did the deadline for the final thesis (or “Capstone”) presentations, and graduating students Flavin and Narasimhan were working feverishly on their schoolwork. Peraza and Cox took on additional responsibilities to make sure all platforms were covered at all times. Cox managed the Facebook page and Peraza undertook the remaining social platforms. Peraza also created numerous images to help promote World Book Night such as pairing WBN book jackets with tweets from fans. These were then available on Tumblr and Pinterest and linked to Twitter and Facebook, allowing people to share via the social media platform of their choice to add to the buzz about the event.

In the last few weeks, we all became so excited because we were able to see just how much our help really meant to the cause. We also got an enormous boost from the givers themselves as they used social media to share their stories and ideas for the event. Seven days before WBN, we received hundreds of tweets and images of givers with their boxes. But it was really their innovative thinking that excited us. “[One] person decided to include a reading list within the books so that people could continue to discover new authors,” said Peraza. “Another put her email account inside each book so readers could tell her their reactions to the work.”

“Givers” handing out books in front of the New York Public Library.

For me, the morning of April 23rd was a surreal experience, as I think it was for all of us. I couldn’t believe that after six months of being on this project, the day was finally here. When I checked Twitter in the morning, I was elated to see that World Book Night was trending in New York. Both Twitter and Facebook were exploding with people commenting on the event, and this only increased. By the end of the day, our Facebook page had over 10,000 fans. People were also mentioning us on Twitter an average of 35 times every 10 minutes. By the end of the day, #wbnamerica was featured in the “Discover” part of Twitter. Our Twitter followers increased by almost 1,000 in the days surrounding the event. WBN’s Pinterest followers doubled on April 23rd, and between April 23rd and 24th, our Tumblr followers increased by 50 percent.

In New York alone, there were several World Book Night events. One was sponsored by Young to Publishing, a division of the Association of American Publishers. Ten givers stood on the New York Public Library steps and handed out books. The gathering started off slowly, but quickly picked up momentum. “We watched as people’s attitudes shifted from skepticism to careful interest to actual participation as they walked along the row of WBN givers,” said Cox, who, with Peraza, was on hand to cover the event for all the social media platforms.

Further downtown, Narasimhan went to the event at Barnes & Noble’s Union Square store. Special guests included Anna Quindlen, the columnist and novelist, and Buzz Bissinger, author of Friday Night Lights. The event was a good way to usher in the first year of World Book Night in the U.S. “It was a great open forum for givers to come in and share their stories. I hope that, in the years to come, more venues and cities will be able to have an event like that,” said Narasimhan.

As for the givers, both Flavin and Narasimhan were successful in giving all of their 40 books away. Flavin headed to Washington Square Park to hand out Zeitoun by Dave Eggers, while Narasimhan went on the #6 train to give away The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. Narasimhan also handed out books in Union Square. Flavin described her night as truly impactful. “Zeitoun has such an important message and is an all-around wonderful read, and being able to share it with others left me feeling like Superwoman. Or Batgirl. It was invigorating and joyous and I wanted a second box of books so I could prolong the experience,” she said. For Narasimhan, the highlight of the experience came from being one of many givers. “My favorite part was running into other givers. Everyone was so enthusiastic and proud to be a giver. It was a really great affirmation of the whole event,” she said.

Overall, the group was elated to see the great success of the first annual World Book Night America. As Peraza said, “Can’t wait until next year!”

by Hannah Werthan

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