Mini Guide: How to Use Promo Sites More Effectively

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Ah, promo sites.

Perhaps nothing gets the yeah, those suck now treatment more often in the indie world.

Like most things in this business, their demise has been vastly overstated.

Yes, there are a ton of crappy promo sites. Once-effective sites  have dropped off over the years, replaced by new challengers. Other sites were never good to begin with. To that end, I sort through the wheat and chaff over on my curated promo site page so that you know what’s working right now.

But there’s a second problem beyond knowing what works.

It’s how to actually use the promo sites effectively as a part of your marketing mix. Too many authors dismiss promo sites as ineffective after one or two bad runs. Which isn’t surprising: the results are awful if you don’t use the right strategy.

And that’s what this mini guide is for. Within, we’ll cover:

  • Strengths and weaknesses of promo sites
  • Three key rules for using promo sites effectively
  • The two biggest mistakes authors make when using promo sites
  • How Amazon’s algorithms work
  • Two in-depth examples of how you can use promo sites
  • How to evaluate a site’s effectiveness

By the end of the guide, you’ll understand exactly how to maximize the effectiveness of promo sites (and when not to use them, as well).

Sound good? Then we’ll begin with their strengths and weaknesses.

Strengths & Weaknesses

To use our marketing tools effectively, we must know their characteristics. After all, a hammer is only a bad tool if we treat it like a screwdriver. And, just as with any other traffic source, promo sites have distinct strengths and weaknesses.

STRENGTHS

  1. Easy to use. Promo sites have zero learning curve: just fill out a form, pay the bill, and you’re good to go.
  2. Low cost per sale or download. We’ll talk about how to calculate this later in the guide, but on a per download or sale basis, promo sites are usually the cheapest source of advertising available. This is especially true when you’re running a box set at $0.99.
  3. Controllable. You can pick the exact days to run most promo sites. This allows you to more predictably organize your marketing firepower to increase your chances of triggering Amazon’s algorithms.

WEAKNESSES

  1. They don’t scale. There are probably 10 – 15 sites that you can use effectively, even if you employ the best practices discussed in this guide. That means the maximum you can generally spend on promo sites is $800 – $1500 (excluding BookBub and depending on genre). For additional paid advertising, you’ll have to look to Facebook, BookBub, or Amazon PPC Ads.
  2. Discounting. While some sites offer ad packages for books priced above $0.99, running your book at higher price points isn’t recommended. To use promo sites most effectively/profitably, you’ll have to run your book for free or $0.99. This doesn’t make sense in all circumstances (e.g. if you’re launching at full price), which means that promo sites can’t be used when you’re not offering a discount.
  3. Less targeted. While most promo sites have genre lists (e.g. fantasy or romance), they often don’t split these out into more granular sub-genres. Thus, if you write in a specific sub-niche and blast your book with promo sites, this can lead to wonky also-boughts and confusing Amazon’s algorithms because of the broader targeting. Note that this is only a problem if your book hasn’t sold many copies and thus doesn’t have much sales data for Amazon to rely on when recommending it to other customers.

With these strengths and weaknesses in mind, then, let’s cover three rules that will help you get the the most juice out of your promo sites.

Three Rules

There are three simple rules to using promo sites effectively:

  1. Use them for launches or to support BookBubs/Kindle Countdown Deals. This goes hand-in-hand with rule two (stack them). The more firepower you can mass at once, the more visibility you can get on that book. This, in turn, helps the tail, where the real money is made. The tail is the sales period after your promos end. And if you get your book high enough (for long enough), you can have Amazon sell your book long after the last promo site has run. When you use them as part of your launch marketing, you also tap into Amazon’s new release visibility.
  2. Stack sites to hit critical mass. This is a tried-and-true technique. 1 = 0 for most of these sites when used in isolation. Put another way: most sites will lose money and are a waste of time when used in isolation. However, 1 + 1 = much more than the sum of their parts due to Amazon’s algorithms, especially when you combine them with other traffic sources like your newsletter and pay-per-click ads.
  3. Don’t use a site more than once every six months. Optimally, to minimize the decline in second/third/fourth run sales, wait a year before using a site on the same title again. This does not apply to Bookbubbut they’ll only run the same book once every six months, anyway.

The first two rules revolve around Amazon’s Algorithms. The goal is to hit critical mass, sustaining a lot of sales for a long enough period for the algorithms to perk up, take notice, and start recommending the book to the rest of the Amazon ecosystem. To achieve this, I go much heavier with the stacking than you might normally see, generally backloading all the sites on the final two days of the promo to maximize their impact.

This is because I have control over the scheduling and know that, if I stack up all the promo sites, I’ll have a certain number of sales essentially locked in for those final days. Ad platforms like Facebook and BookBub can be extremely effective during a limited time promotion…but they can also leave you scrambling if you can’t quite get the ads dialed in before things end.

Stacking everything on the final two days not only pushes me closer to the necessary critical mass, but it also acts as a safety net against other advertising sources performing poorly.

The third rule – don’t use a promo site more than once every six months – has an additional wrinkle, in that the first time you use a site will be by far the most powerful. Thus, if you’re planning a promotion, you have to weigh when you want to use this “first shot” for maximum effectiveness. If a site generates 50 sales on the first run, expect it to produce 20 – 30 sales on a second run for the same book. Use that first promo blast wisely, because none of the subsequent runs will match it.

You can mitigate the second run decline by advertising your book at a different price point. This means running the book for $0.99 the first time, then six months (or more) later, you run it for free. The decline in effectiveness will be much more muted, because even though you’re reusing the same site, you’re hitting a different part of their subscriber base.

BookBub is exempt from this rule; sales and free downloads hold much steadier from run to run, although there can be some drop off, depending on genre.

The Two Biggest Mistakes

The biggest mistake I see authors make when using promo sites is simple: they’re trying to turn a profit using the sites alone.

Unless we’re talking about a BookBub Featured Deal, however, promo sites are rarely directly profitable. The real goal, as we touched on above, is to use them as firepower to slingshot your book up the charts and thus activate Amazon’s algorithms. While it’s wonderful to see your sales graph spike upwards, buying sales at a premium is not a smart way to run a business.

If you fail to take the algorithms into account, 99.9% of the time your book ends up right where it started 1 week after the promo concludes (e.g. the cellar). And you lose money.

Not a great outcome.

The second mistake is more of an overarching strategy issue. Authors view launches, promos, and other marketing endeavors as one-off events. Yes, profit is important, and we all have to keep the lights on. But even the most successful books and promotions fade with time.

Thus, you need to roll out each promo with the goal of building your platform long-term. The real payoff in this business comes from compounding: methodically building your backlist, newsletter, fan base, war chest, and other resources brick-by-brick over the months and years until your career hits an inflection point:

Treating each piece of marketing in isolation leads to short-term thinking. If you don’t build with the future in mind, then any promotion you run now, no matter how effective, will have little effect on your career a year from now.

We don’t want that.

We always want to be building toward something bigger.

So let’s dive under the hood of Amazon’s algorithms to make sure we’re maximizing the effectiveness of our marketing efforts.

Amazon’s Algorithms: A Quick Guide

Amazon’s algorithms like to see three basic things, in order of importance:

  1. Sales volume/velocity. I repeatedly refer to this as critical mass. Basically, Amazon likes books that sell a lot of copies in a short period of time. They interpret this as a sign of popularity. This is by far the most critical factor.
  2. Sales consistency. Amazon’s algorithms do like lots of sales, but they also want to recommend products that have actual legs. Their algorithms interpret longer sales trends as organic buying activity, and are much more likely to recommend your book if you can sustain your sales over multiple days (5 – 7 days is the time frame I recommend).
  3. The sample of people who buy your book. Amazon makes a concerted effort to recommend your book to the people most likely to purchase it. Thus you want to make sure you’re targeting readers in your genre with your ads, rather than shotgunning your book out to everyone with a pulse. Getting a few sales from readers outside your core genre won’t have an impact, but getting hundreds will confuse their recommendations.

The algos also favor new releases, so if you can combine these three factors with a just-launched book, you can further increase the effectiveness of your promotional efforts.

Your aim in appeasing the algorithms is to generate a tail. A good tail will produce the majority of your profits, as your series continues to sell from the visibility you generated from the promo. With a little luck, you can even get sticky – which is when your book stays at a high Amazon rank and continually sells without additional marketing. This is rare, but can obviously be quite lucrative.

Generally speaking, you’ll have to keep some advertising (Facebook and Amazon ads) on your book post-promo if you want it to maintain a decent rank. This isn’t strictly necessary, but if you have additional funds, this can help you extend the tail and profits.

All this talk about algorithms boils down to a simple approach. Structure your promos and traffic sources to produce an upward trending sales curve over a 5 – 7 day period. Cap things with a bang so you’re coming off the promo at (or close to) your peak rank.

 

Putting It Together: A Launch

Concepts are all well and good, but how does this break down in practice?

To answer that question, I’ve put together two hypothetical examples demonstrating different approaches you can take with the promo sites. Note that while the stated budgets are relatively high, you can scale these examples down (or up) based on your current funds. Never spend more than you can afford; going into debt will not help you long term.

Our first example is for a 7 day launch with a budget of $2,500:

I talked about backloading the sites above. In this example, however, you’ll see I’ve started with the smaller sites on Day 3, then ended with the heavy hitters/a bigger stack as the promo progresses.

In a situation where the promo sites are going to carry more of the marketing load (e.g. maybe you’re not running ads or you don’t have a newsletter), then you’ll have to spread them out a bit more to create that upward trending sales curve and consistency. Simply blasting them all on the last two days wouldn’t work.

Here, we could put all the promo sites on last two days, given the rest of our firepower. But perhaps some of our dates weren’t available (they generally will be, but not always) or we were worried that our Newsletter on Day 3 was going to be too weak to carry the sales load.

What I want to demonstrate here, rather than a rigid template, is that you have flexibility as long as you adhere to the main principles. I get quite a few questions about people worried about setting things up right.

As long as you’re trending upward over the 5 – 7 days, and ending with as big a bang as possible, you’re good to go.

You’ll note that, while this guide is about promo sites, they’re actually part of a much larger marketing ecosystem. You rarely use them in isolation; traffic sources like your newsletter, social media accounts and so forth help create that upward sales trend. Just slot them in according to their firepower – if you expect 5 sales from your Facebook Page and 15 from your mailing list, schedule those in where they fit best.

You can’t predict exactly how many sales you’ll get from any source, so just estimate. It’s okay if there’s a dip on Day 3 or 6; we just want to be generally trending upward and end with a bang on the last day.

Note: if you have a Bookbub, you generally want to schedule it on the next to last day of the promo, rather than the very last day. Why? Because 15 – 25% of your sales/downloads will come the day after (e.g. if the BookBub produced 30,000 downloads, you can expect 5,000 – 7,500 downloads the next day). These additional sales/downloads will generally make you more money than putting the Bookbub on the last day and coming off at peak rank. BookBub’s downloads are largely discounted by the Amazon algorithms (otherwise the Top 100 titles would be nothing but BookBub titles), so exiting the promotion at your highest rank is less critical than banking those next day spillover sales/downloads.

Putting it Together: A KCD

Let’s say you’re running a Kindle Countdown Deal (KCD) in conjunction with a free run. This is for a hypothetical 5 day free run + KCD. We have Book 1 available for free and books 2 & 3 at $0.99/ea with a budget of $1500.

We’re consolidating the promo sites on Book 1 (which is free). To get visibility on the other books, the PPC ads here would go to the Amazon series page, where readers can easily purchase all three books without navigating to multiple pages.

  • Day 1: promo sites ($50), newsletter/social media, Facebook or BookBub testing ($25)
  • Day 2: Facebook or BookBub testing ($50)
  • Day 3: Facebook or BookBub testing ($75)
  • Day 4: promo sites ($100+), Facebook ($100+), BookBub ($200+)
  • Day 5: promo sites ($200+), Facebook ($150+), BookBub ($300)+, thank you newsletter

By running Book 1 for free and Books 2 & 3 for $0.99, we generate instant sellthrough. Usually there’s a lag between when people pick up the free book and when they go on to purchase the others (if they do at all). With the discount, we encourage them to pick up all three right away – banking that immediate revenue and making it more likely that they start reading the series (since they have more books taking up space on their Kindle).

The other reason we run the other two books at $0.99 is visibility. They can draft off the massive visibility produced by the free run (it’s entirely possible to stack up a bunch of promo sites and get 5,000 – 10,000 free downloads without a BookBub) and see their own paid sales ranks rise significantly in the process.

To help maximize this visibility, the promo sites here are consolidated during the last two days. With a free run, you’re less concerned about the algorithms on the free book (though you’ll take any visibility they provide, obviously). The algorithms care much more about paid sales than free downloads. Thus, your primary goal is using that massive visibility to push the subsequent books in the series.

By pushing Book 1 hard on the final two days, we’re optimizing the ranks of Books 2/3, ensuring that they come off the promo close to peak rank.

As a side benefit, you’ll also get some spillover sales on Book 1 when it returns to paid from people who click the link in the promo site email the day after, find the book interesting, and buy it anyway.

Not really related to algorithms, but more a practical matter when it comes to using free as a tool: free is a volume game. The more free copies you give away, the more opportunity you have for sellthrough. You can generally expect 1 – 2% sellthrough from a free run. So if you push 2,000 free downloads, that’s 20 – 40 potential copies of Book 2. But if you push 10,000, that’s 100 – 200.

A Note

You can do everything “right” and still have an anemic tail. Amazon’s algorithms are a black box, which means that no one knows exactly how they work. We can derive certain patterns and use them to our advantage, but anyone who claims ownership of a miracle formula for getting sticky and riding the algorithms to author nirvana is full of it.

Thus, an important reminder: never spend money you can’t afford to lose. And always keep some in reserve for another promo, so you can live to advertise another day.

We’re building for the long-term. No promo can make your career. Nor will an appropriately funded promo that flops set you back too far. But if you manage your money poorly, and go all-in one too many times, you will eventually break. After all, the survival rate for a career Russian Roulette player is zero.

Don’t take that approach with your business. Be methodical and use your dollars wisely.

Evaluating a Site’s True Cost

Let’s say you’ve run a few promos and you’re comfortable with how they work.

But you want to add new sites to the mix.

How do you assess what works and what doesn’t?

Many authors simply compare the sticker price of promo sites to evaluate their cost.

This is understandable, but it’s also wrong. You want to compare sites on a cost per download or sale basis so that you’re evaluating their true cost. After all, a $300 site that produces 20,000 downloads (1.5 cents a download) actually costs much less than a $30 site that produces 20 downloads ($1.50 per download).

Before we jump into the process, it’s important to mention that testing sites is not a profitable exercise. You will lose money (the actual example in the section below produced a net loss of around -$500). As we discussed in the earlier parts of this guide, stacking promo sites is critical to using them successfully; when you use them in isolation, they lose their potency. When we stack up a bunch of sites, however, there’s no way to determine their individual effectiveness. I’ve done the hard work for you with my curated list of promo sites, but occasionally there will be a new site (or site not on the list) that you may want to try.

And knowing whether you should use said site in the future demands isolating its results.

The step-by-step process:

  1. Take a backlist title priced at $0.99 or permafree. Make sure its daily sales/downloads have been stable, and that no other advertising is currently running to it. This trickle of daily sales/downloads the book receives without advertise is called your baseline.
    • If your book is priced above $0.99, you’ll need to drop the price, then wait for the sales/downloads to stabilize at the new price to assess its organic baseline.
  2. Book one site per day, leaving a day or two between each ad (preferably two) so their tail downloads don’t bleed into one another.
  3. Log the # of downloads or sales on that day and subtract the baseline to get your adjusted actual downloads or sales. For simplicity, only log sales or downloads from Amazon.
  4. Calculate cost per sale or download by: (cost of promo site)/(adjusted actual downloads or sales)

Note that this calculation and process are exactly the same regardless of whether you have a permafree or $0.99 title.

Optimally, you’ll want to keep all elements of the book the same as you test the various sites: the cover, the blurb, the categories, keywords, and so forth. That’s because adjusting pieces (mainly the cover and the blurb) will change your book’s conversion rate (e.g. the percentage of people coming from the promo site who end up buying). A more appealing cover will generate more downloads; a less appealing one will reduce the number of downloads.

After you’re finished, you assess the effectiveness of the various sites simply by comparing the the cost per sale or download.

For an actual example of this evaluation process, keep reading.

Evaluating Promo Sites: An Actual Example

I tested these sites during the Spring/Summer/Fall of 2018 with my urban fantasy book Lightning Blade. It had around 195 – 205 reviews at this time, and featured the same cover during the tests; the Amazon description, however, varied. The book had run on many of the promo sites before; where this was its first time running, you’ll see “first run” noted in the column.

The process:

  1. Lightning Blade was permafree.
  2. I ran a single site per day, leaving a day or two between each ad.
  3. Only Amazon downloads during the actual day of promotion are included (e.g. these numbers don’t include tail downloads on subsequent days).
  4. For reference, I’ve included a 2017 Bookbub run, FreeBooksy run on another urban fantasy book (Soul Storm), and results from a few other genres for the sake of comparison.

What’s Next?

A quick summary:

  • Plan all promotional campaigns with the long-term in mind; short-term profit is fine, but will prove ephemeral if you don’t translate that into fans, subscribers, and skills.
  • Promo sites generally have the lowest cost-per-sale out of the paid advertising options available to authors.
  • Combine your promo sites with other marketing venues to create mega stacks that help you hit critical mass.
  • Use them in conjunction with launches or BookBubs for additional algorithmic firepower.
  • Create an upward trending sales curve over 5 – 7 days, capping things with a big sales bang.
  • Backload the promo sites and the majority of your ad spend/traffic on the last two days of your promo window to come off the promotion at peak rank (or as close to it as possible)
  • Compare sites’ cost per sale or download (cost of the promo site/# of sales or downloads) to calculate their true cost.

While promo sites are a critical part of your marketing arsenal, there are many more ways to sell more books and further enhance your promo efforts. Check out the Ultimate Guide to Book Marketing for more ideas, including:

  1. How to optimize your back matter to increase sellthrough from Book 1 to the other volumes in the series.
  2. How to get a kickass cover and write an amazing blurb to increase your book page’s conversion.
  3. How to build your mailing list and turn readers into fans.

And plenty more. In the meantime, go sell some books.