Building Online Communities for Teen Readers

In Guest Contributors by Guest Contributor

By Publishing Trends

In creating online teen book communities, US and European publishers have upped their game, in more ways than one. Going beyond a single, clunky message board aimed at teens, these sites combine multiple social media channels by featuring online member profiles, discussion forums, virtual bookshelves, review archives, and even chat capabilities. These websites offer readers a game-ified experience of popular YA titles, essential in an age where digital engagement is key to finding and maintaining an audience. The trick then becomes how to tap into those audiences and offer services and programs that invite participation, not only enticing audiences but maintaining their interest as well. Each publisher’s site encourages participation in different ways, but when comparing all the different teen web communities, two factors become exceedingly important to distinguish one from another: identity and incentive.

Who Do You Think You Are?

When building any community, identity is a crucial factor in finding appropriate membership. While a site like J.K. Rowling’s Pottermore has a built-in fan base, creating a cohesive identity for more diverse content requires a defined target audience. A site like HarperCollins’s Inkpop, for example, focuses on aspiring writers. Using a crowdsourcing model, Inkpop has members upload excerpts from their own YA fiction projects so that others can give feedback and rate their writing. If a story is one of the top 5 ranked projects by the month’s end, it receives a personal critique from a HarperCollins editor. Though the actual membership is not necessarily a teen demographic, allowing the target YA readers to vote for their favorite works allows the YA content offered through the site to be more democratic and gives teen audiences the ability to show support to new authors in a visible way.

For most other publishers, however, online teen communities are more focused on already published books. Teen girls are the primary demographic for Hachette’s Pick A Poppy, where a fledgling community of over 11,000 members discusses popular Hachette/Poppy series like Gossip Girl and The Clique. Users can access book profile pages, read excerpts, and connect through chat features, discussion groups, and blog posts. Outside of promoting Hachette titles, the site also serves as a general hub for teenage girl discussion (topics in the forum range from Justin Bieber to dating advice to fashion).

No Adults Allowed

Though most online teen forums don’t separate teens by gender, they do often establish their target audience by limiting membership to teens only, closing off the community to anyone who is not within the age requirement (for most sites, around 13-19). While still not entirely foolproof, ensuring that only teens are using the site helps parents feel secure, which then allows teens to interact in an environment independent of adult users. And by keeping the age range above 13, US sites avoid the COPPA (Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act) restrictions.

These interactive teen-only forums create a solid sense of community, especially when bolstered by incentives that put books and common interests at the forefront. With Buzzers, Random House’s teen book site, Buzz Bucks serve as currency and incentive for readers to participate in all aspects of the site, from writing reviews to entering contests. After accruing a certain number of Buzz Bucks, members can access the online store and use their Buzz Bucks to choose from a selection of Random House titles. Past choices have included Michael Scott’s The Sorceress and Lauren Kate’s Fallen. Similarly, German reading community Vorablesen uses book incentives as a way of driving member participation. Every week, new book excerpts (which include titles for adults and teens) are posted on the site, and members review the excerpts in order to be entered into a drawing for full copies of the books. The more reviews members write and the more active they are on the site, the closer they get to the coveted status of a critic, which makes them eligible for books, special invites to chats and readings, and prize packages.

Free is Key

Rather than offering books to a select group of members, Simon & Schuster’s Pulse It uses free book incentives as the foundation for building its community. Every month, Pulse It allows all members to read a YA title for free online through their own e-reader. From there, members take part in discussions about the book, writing reviews, posting on message boards, and participating in contests and sweepstakes where they can win prizes and have access to extra content. By encouraging reading a book in its entirety from the start, the community functions more like a book club, generating discussion by letting members choose the book that most interests them and having an easy-to-access, streamlined way to communicate about it. Building relationships through books also helps create a strong community amongst peers.

“The community we’ve created has developed into one of trust and respect, where members can freely talk about books as well as many other topics that are discussed on the site,” says Lucille Rettino, Director of Marketing for Simon & Schuster’s Children’s Group division. “We have heard from numerous members that they are thankful to have a site like Pulse It, that is an accepting and safe place online where they can talk about their feelings and concerns.”

Teenage Gatekeepers

Whereas much of the structure and content for programs like Pulse It and Buzzers come from the publisher, Penguin’s UK community, Spinebreakers, goes a step further in creating a true teen-driven community by organizing an editorial team comprised of teenage members. These nine editors control the content of the site, much of which is provided by the network of teenage contributing members. Aside from just posting material about books, contributors also have the opportunity to share creative writing of their own, creating a space for self-expression and artistic support.

Though all of these communities are structured differently, the focus is always on finding ways of providing book content for YA readers and then giving them the forum and incentive to share their thoughts. Even authors can become advocates for these forums, collectively aggregating their fans to widen community outreach. “Authors help spread the word about these sites and their books by linking to them on Facebook and calling them out on Twitter, expanding the readership, enthusiasm, and activity,” explains literary agent Laura Dail, whose YA authors include Sarah Mlynowski. Not only do these forums benefit from author support, but authors also benefit from having an all-inclusive interactive marketing tool they can use to promote their titles and communicate with their fans.

By providing this fully immersive experience where teens are able to communicate with their peers, authors, and publishers, reading becomes interactive, constant, and, most importantly, social. If these websites can encourage teen communities to grow into communities of avid adult readers, these forums will be an important model to watch.

This story is courtesy of Publishing Trends and is excerpted from the program guide for Children’s Publishing Goes Digital conference taking place at the Frankfurt Book Fair on October 11, 2011, 9:00 am – 1:00 pm, Hall 4.2, Room Dimension.

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Guest Contributor

Guest contributors to Publishing Perspectives have diverse backgrounds in publishing, media and technology. They live across the globe and bring unique, first-hand experience to their writing.