A correction has been appended to this column
Two years ago Simon & Schuster published Toronto-based author Gregory Levey's book "Shut Up, I'm Talking" (it comes out in paperback next month). Naturally, he put up a Facebook fan page for the book. Unnaturally, he ended up getting hundreds of thousands of fans.
Levey's Facebook fan page makes perfectly clear that his book is, well, a book. Specifically, a witty memoir of his unlikely promotion, at 25, from a law-school internship at the Israeli Consulate in New York to speechwriter for Ariel Sharon in Jerusalem. (The book's full title is "Shut Up, I'm Talking: And Other Diplomacy Lessons I Learned in the Israeli Government." Per the jacket copy: "Embracing the Israeli practice of finding humor in difficulty, Levey offers a thoughtful, irreverent perspective on Israel and the Middle East, ultimately concluding that the Israeli government is no place for a nice Jewish boy.")
And yet hordes of distracted Facebook users mistook the title of his book for nothing more than an entertaining meme -- one they related to and wished to "fan," particularly if their friends had already fanned it. This past Monday Levey published an essay, "How I Accidentally Got 700,000 Fans on Facebook." Given that Levey's experience offers a rather telling lesson about the depths (or lack thereof) of "engagement" on Facebook, I called him in Toronto to talk more about what he calls his "absurd" social-media adventure. We also traded e-mail. What follows is a lightly edited and condensed Q&A:
Dumenco: Don't know if you saw this, but a company called Syncapse recently tried to calculate the average value of a Facebook fan to a marketer, and came up with $136.38. So your fan base could theoretically be worth $91,945,213.90 -- which is maybe something you can casually bring up on dates.
Levey: That's definitely something that I would casually bring up on dates if I wasn't married. Now that you've alerted me to it, though, I will do my best to introduce that figure into any arguments I have with my wife about finances.
Dumenco: Seriously, though, I'm wondering: Other than having a good story to tell, have you been able to attribute any uptick in sales to your Facebook fanbase? I mean, I get that most of your fans are entirely clueless about the fact that you've even written a book, but surely some subset actually gave more than a passing glance to your fan page, noticed the book cover and got intrigued enough to order a copy?
Levey: It's hard for authors to accurately track sales of their books in real-time, so I haven't been able to notice any uptick. And like you say, most of them don't know it's a book at all, so I doubt there has been much of any. I wonder, though, what the effect of me sending out a message to them all asking them to consider buying the book would be. I have held off from doing that, but if even half of one percent of them were to buy it, that would be a really meaningful number.
Dumenco: I think you definitely should. In fact, I think you owe it to yourself -- and your, uh, fans. And then I think you should roll out a line of "Shut Up, I'm Talking" merchandise for the non-reading -- or social-media-skimming -- public. Like, "Shut Up, I'm Talking" T-shirts and tote bags. And maybe a stuffed animal with a string that, when you pull it, makes it say "Shut up, I'm talking" in an adorably gruff voice.
Levey: Excellent ideas. Actually, a friend of mine has suggested that this whole experience presents all kinds of interesting possibilities, even beyond marketing snarky stuffed animals. Theoretically, he points out, someone could start a Facebook group called something like "Hannah Montana Rocks!," wait for it to grow to a million or so fans, and then just start sending out white-supremacist literature.
Dumenco: Yikes. You know, what really strikes me about your experience is that it exposes the tenuousness of "engagement," which media and marketing people are, of course, obsessed with. Your faux fanbase suggests that for many people, Facebook has become such a burden and a time-suck that they're only able to devote a fraction of their shattered attention spans to it. They're reacting to friends' updates and clicking "like" buttons and joining fan pages like Pavlov's dogs -- it's becoming mechanical, thoughtless. The opposite of "engaged."
Levey: That's my reaction, too. And given that, although it seems like it's not that hard to get a huge list of automatons, it's probably harder than ever to get even a modest-sized following who are actually engaged and interested. Attention spans are just too short and fragmented, particularly among certain demographics. I teach communications to university students, by the way, so I may have a bit of a chip on my shoulder.
This is troubling for anyone trying to promote a product, but I think it is especially daunting for authors trying to get the word out about books that are a few hundred pages long when the preferred reading length these days is 140 characters.
Dumenco: Wait, are you saying your book is a "few hundred pages long"? What the hell were you thinking?!
Levey: Yeah, making the book longer than one sentence made up entirely of words like "ROTFL" was a serious strategic error on my part, presumably stemming from literary vanity. Also, I regret not using more emoticons.
Dumenco: Well, your next book, How to Make Peace in the Middle East in Six Months or Less Without Leaving Your Apartment, is out from Simon & Schuster in September. Given the presence of adorable birds on the cover, I'm presuming your how-to for shut-ins involves using Twitter?
Levey: I don't think there's too much Twitter in my new book, but there is definitely Facebook -- through which I communicated with a former Mossad secret agent, who now surprisingly has a Facebook account. And there are other online communities in the book too, like Second Life, where I went to investigate rumors of a "virtual suicide bombing." The internet really is an odd place.
Correction: Due to a misplaced comma, an earlier version of this story attributed the somewhat less absurd value of $9 million to Gregory Levey's fanbase.~ ~ ~
Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" media columnist for Advertising Age. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.
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