Have you read that 25-year-old book, “Message in a Bottle,” from Nicholas Sparks? The 22-year-olds are raving about it.
Actual, physical books of all ages are falling into the actual, physical hands of an expanding young market, due to the popularity of one group on the mini-video platform TikTok, called #BookTok. And it’s apparently a lifeline that bookstores and publishers are grabbing.
Barnes & Noble, notably, reported a 14% gain in book sales in 2020, the year #BookTok launched, according to The New York Times. Now, the bookstore chain and #BookTok are partners; Barnes & Noble’s website includes a dedicated #BookTok page featuring the most popular #BookTok books. Other chains, including Books-a-Million and Half Price Books, also are taking a page from #BookTok.
Ditto for the publishing giant Penguin Random House, which entered into a promotional partnership with the TikTok platform #BookTok in September.
Which signals a message to other storied retail sectors: If digital communities can save bookstores, can you bottle the formula for yourselves? And if so, which communities make sense?
It Was A Dark And Stormy Night For Bookstores, But Then …
With more than 100 billion global views as of mid-January, #BookTok is one of TikTok’s most popular hashtags, the social platform reported. As an evident result, teens have been flocking to brick-and-mortar Barnes & Noble stores, filming clips of themselves with books and then buying them – sometimes 10 a month, according to Bloomberg Business. We’re talking hardbacks, too.
Many of the #BookTok video makers have become book influencers, and Barnes & Noble was quick to recognize the opportunity.
In step with its partnership with the feed, Barnes & Noble carved out space for popular #BookTok titles at its 600 or so stores. The bookstore chain also launched its own group on TikTok, @BNBuzz on TikTok, which counts nearly 125,000 followers.
Among efforts by other booksellers: Books-a-Million (BAM!) features displays of #BookTok hot sellers in its brick stores and dedicates a web page to “The Most Popular #BookTok Books,” as does its subsidiary, 2nd & Charles.
Half Price Books, too, has integrated #BookTok videos and picks in its store displays, its marketing emails and on its website through a “#BookTok Must Reads” page, said Kathy Doyle Thomas, president of Half Price Books.
“We have seen an increase in sales for many of the books that are featured,” Doyle Thomas wrote in an email. “The book community is a tight-knit group that is always looking for a great next book to read. TikTok/#BookTok is helping readers discover new authors. We love that.”
TikTok has done its part to boost the book business, as well. Over the summer, it introduced #BookTok hub, an outside-the-app global community for book lovers. Among the hub’s features: the #BookTokChallenge, which encourages users to read new books and share their thoughts (aka grassroots promotions).
Retailers, Don’t Miss The Fable In This Noble Tale
The #BookTok phenomenon demonstrates the raw power of digital communities. If a group of young readers gushing over a romance novel can influence the operations of a national book chain, what can other digital platforms do for other retail sectors?
Here’s an outline of some key opportunities:
Livestreams, auctions and Whatnot. In 2022, Insider Intelligence reported that livestreams, those influencer-hosted videos featuring products for purchase in real time, will draw an audience of 163.4 million U.S. viewers in 2023. For a time these streams have lived disparately on YouTube, Instagram and TikTok. But then the independent livestreaming company Whatnot entered in December 2019, expressly to connect the buyer-seller community in digital auctions. Categories include toys, retro video games, music cassettes and watches. Whatnot sales tripled in 2022 after a 20x gain in 2021, and some now predict live shopping will become the next frontier of e-commerce. One source told Elle magazine that the conversion rate of products with video reviews is 40% higher than those without, so it’s plausible that mini clips might become the standard on brand sites.
To young shoppers, social feeds are like malls. The lion’s share of Gen Z and millennial shoppers, 80%, have purchased products on social media feeds, according to Influencer Marketing Hub. Further, half of Gen Zers think social platforms are better than online searches for learning about new products (like books, maybe?). As a result, social feeds are a legit retail sector. In 2022, sales via social media were predicted to exceed $45 billion, Inside Intelligence reported, with more than half of adults hitting the “buy now” button. However, there’s one significant barrier – one-third of consumers worry the goods aren’t legitimate. This might explain why 43% prefer to shop directly with retailers than on social feeds. Retailers that represent themselves in feeds, and show they back the products, can bridge that gap.
Use the platform to prove authenticity. There is one potential villain in this story: influencers who seek payment in return for rave reviews. Retailers, brands (and authors) that adopt formal policies against such arrangements would likely be better trusted at a time when more consumers suspect reviews. Back in 2021, the World Economic Forum calculated that fake reviews influenced $791 billion in annual U.S. spending. The Federal Trade Commission is in fact considering new guidelines to curb the issue, and Meta (Facebook and Instagram’s parent) introduced a new Community Feedback Policy in June 2022. It may be time for social platforms and e-commerce to consider an industry standard for authenticity – think the Good Housekeeping Seal.
This Is Not The Climax; This Is An Anthology
Lastly, when considering any of these opportunities, retailers and brands should keep a level head. The social marketplace is expanding faster than a retailer can plan and build a store. And while the investment in a social platform may cost less than bricks, a misfire can damage a company’s reputation.
TikTok and #BookTok are proving that social partnerships can profit both buyers and sellers, because the partnerships ensure accountability. They help establish a set of checks and balances and best-practice guidelines.
These guidelines will help determine what’s next, because #BookTok is likely an early chapter in this trend. More groups will emerge. More shoppers will become active in hopes of becoming influencers. It can happen anywhere.
Who knows? Vinyl records have taken off in the last few years. Maybe VHS tapes will be the next viral hit? Blockbuster still operates a store in Bend, Oregon.
This article originally appeared in Forbes.