How Penguin Random House mastered influencer TikTok for 7X book sales

When you imagine the sort of companies who are successfully taking to TikTok, one that sits in a 600 year-old industry such as publishing might not spring to mind. However, even before the emergence of ‘BookTok’ in 2020 – where (teenage) influencers are racking up billions of views – Penguin Young Readers, a division of […]

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July 07, 2022 Categories

When you imagine the sort of companies who are successfully taking to TikTok, one that sits in a 600 year-old industry such as publishing might not spring to mind.

However, even before the emergence of ‘BookTok’ in 2020 – where (teenage) influencers are racking up billions of views – Penguin Young Readers, a division of leading book publisher Penguin Random House were building out their brand on the platform through their subdivision Penguin Teen, which targets YA readers.  Since joining the platform in October 2019, Penguin Teen have mastered this social network and the role influencers can play.

‘Last Night at the Telegraph Club,’ a Young Adult Queer Romance novel by Malinda Lo, was selling well upon release in January 2021. However, an influencer campaign planned by Penguin Teen unlocked the full sales potential of this novel. Following two videos which have gathered close to one million views, over 250,000 likes, and 5500 shares, book sales increased by seven times.

Penguin Random House Associate Director of Social Media Alyssa Castaneda, and Associate Director of Digital and Social Media Marketing Felicity Vallence share their own story of TikTok success, breaking down their strategy, the role of influencers, and scaling this success across multiple teams.

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Building an Audience on TikTok

When Penguin Teen first joined the social platform in October 2019, it built its social media on meeting their readers wherever they were and communicating with them. Their audience was gathering on TikTok, and Penguin Teen wanted to be a part of that conversation. Their timing was perfect. ‘BookTok’, which exploded in 2020, has seen teenage influencers posting videos featuring quotations from the likes of Emily Brontë and Charles Dickens that record billions of impressions.

For more recent publications than Wuthering Heights, TikTok (and influencers) can drive conversation, attention, and book sales. The two videos posted by influencer ‘@moongirlreads_’ for ‘Last Night at the Telegraph Club’ reached close to one million impressions and one thousand comments; book sales proceeded to increase sevenfold. Building a comprehensive strategy that generates this level of engagement and conversion isn’t easy – it takes time, patience, and resources.

Patience is a virtue

It takes time to build up an audience on social media. Whilst they are now realizing massive impact from their content, Penguin Teen is only able to do so thanks to their patient approach. Vallence explains that in October 2019, their strategy was not to sell, but to listen and respond.

“In 2019, ‘Teens on TikTok’ became a repeated phrase that we saw in media and consumer reporting. Naturally, we were looking to find our teen readers in places where they are most likely to interact and engage. That’s why it became a priority for us. Our first and primary goal was just to meet our audience, not to sell. We don’t ever want to be just having a one-way conversation with our readers, so we had to be patient and take the time to build up our audience.”

“It’s just like we say to our authors who are open to posting on social media strategy for their book launch. If you’re going to do this platform, and you would like to see success from it, it’s a commitment of a year or more. You must commit to joining the community, being a participant, supporting other people supporting the community’s goals and aspirations. This is how you get to know your audience, and your audience gets to know you – it takes time.” Associate Director of Digital and Social Media Marketing Felicity Vallence.

Becoming a meaningful part of the conversation

Since 2019, Penguin Teen has recognized the importance not just of joining the conversation but doing so in a way that adds value and is audience appropriate. Vallence elaborates:

“Our mindset shifted from being a part of the community to realizing our privilege and our influence as a publisher in that community. Readers can be more playful about the content they’re creating and can be bit cheekier. As the publisher, we have a responsibility to behave a certain way in a social landscape. Also, we’ve had to realize our place in that conversation again, and not enter conversations we weren’t invited to. When we join in, it needs to be at the right time and in the right way.”

TikTok is a team game: Commit people and resources

Vallence explains that any social media platform – especially one as exponential as TikTok – requires commitment and resources from the whole team.

“Right now, it is still the dominant force. When other potential channels arise, it’s a balancing act. Resourcing is so crucial to us. We need to have the right level of dedication of time and energy for any platform to succeed. We don’t want to join a platform half-heartedly and look lazy. So, we stay focused on our strongest performers and getting them right.”

“We have a team about five or so people. Whilst we have a central TikTok lead, we all know that it can’t just be down to one person. So, we do all take it upon ourselves in our team to do research the conversations our audience are having: ‘Scroll and search’ as we call it.”

“We ask, what trends are emerging? What’s the theme of the day? What are people really connecting with? Has romance has been what everyone’s talking about this week? Or is it vampires? We can’t know these things unless we’re a part of the conversation, so we all have to participate as a team. If it’s just one person, they can’t build this picture on their own.”

Harnessing influencer potential on TikTok

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With brands predicted to spend $15bn on Influencers in 2022, and TikTok taking up an ever-bigger share of investment, Penguin Teen knew to be successful on this platform meant building a careful influencer strategy.

Putting the audience, not the influencer, first

TikTok is an audience-led platform. As Vallence discusses above, their approach began with understanding their audience. This also applies to their influencer strategy. The journey to selecting the right influencer would begin with understanding who the book’s target audience. Vallence breaks down Penguin’s Influencer strategy and discusses why it was so crucial in driving sales for Last Night at the Telegraph Club.

“The right book to the right person is a key tenant of our influencer strategy. The book itself is a queer, Asian American historical fiction story. This was a unique collection of factors. We knew what the book was about, and who it was appealing to. We had a clearly defined target reader. We worked backwards from here to pair the book with an influencer who connected with both of those identities and could say: ‘This is a story about my community that’s being told in a way that I am so proud to see. The author has the experience and has done the research to create something that represents my community.’ In short, the influencer had to be a genuine target audience member.”

Choosing passion over popularity on TikTok

Vallence goes on to describe the importance of choosing such an influencer.

“When we’re working with TikTok creators, we don’t look at the number of followers they have. We aren’t looking at macro-influencers with a huge follower base, but with no interest in our books. We look at their passion. If they’re passionate about the book(s) we are publishing, we know they will be authentic with their recommendations. For ‘Last Night at the Telegraph Club,’ we picked a key influencer, who identified with the book on several levels. Their passion was real.”

“That’s the real key, both in our content and who we work with. We want to make sure that we’re asking people to talk about books they actually genuinely enjoy. Everyone online can spot the fake influencer who claims to love something they don’t. No-one buys it. So, we always want to collaborate with people who are genuine about what they’re talking about.”

Collaborating with audience experts

Moreover, Vallence notes that Penguin Teen can also turn to experts on the desired audience of their product – the author of the book – to understand if the influencer was someone who would be an authentic audience member.

“We send a list of influencers to the author. We ask if there is anyone missing from the list that they would recommend, or if they’re not comfortable with anyone who may not fit the target reader’s profile. It must be a collaborative process.”

Creating a framework for knowledge-sharing

For an organization with as many divisions and teams as Penguin Random House, creating the right structure and culture is a vital part of scaling successes beyond one team to be companywide. Penguin Teen has both contributed to, and benefited from, a set of frameworks that allow any division within Penguin Random House the freedom to explore their own social media and influencer strategy, underpinned by core best-practices and principles for success.

Building a centralized team

Associate Director of Social Media, Alyssa Castaneda, explains how and why these playbooks for success have been so crucial to Penguin Teen and Penguin Random House.

“All teams look and operate differently. We had to understand what knowledge we should be centralizing to ensure consistency. The consumer marketing team sits across the different divisions so we can talk to each division and have the structures for conversations with division leads about how platforms are changing, and whether our strategies are working. This space gives teams the chance to elevate and highlight the magnificent work that’s being done. We can then take this knowledge and filter it through to the other divisions.” Associate Director of Social Media, Alyssa Castaneda

Playbooks for influencer & social media (TikTok) success

Castaneda also describes the importance of creating clear and contextual playbooks that the centralized team can distribute to each division.

“To feed this information through, and to create a consistent plan for our teams, we built two playbooks, one for social media and one for influencer marketing. Together, they cover all social media marketing strategy. It provides a framework for each layer: The mix between paid media earned media, shared media, and organic media; the platforms themselves; and the content that social media teams are creating for said platforms.”

“It’s a planning exercise to go through as you’re building a social strategy. For example, if you were evaluating which platform to be on… first, you start with your audience. Who is your core audience? Who do you want to reach? Who is your target on social media? Does it match the audience that you want to reach? Or is there another one that you want to reach? That should then tell you which platforms you should be on. In turn, this tells you the type of content you should be creating. These types of guided questions exist for each section.”

“We give the context of how to be successful as well as the questions and the guidance as you go through. Within each of those sections in our playbook are case studies or examples. In there, we highlight Penguin Teen as an example of success. Not only are there best-practices, but also contextual support on how teams have previously implemented them.”

Looking Ahead

Penguin Teen joined TikTok at the perfect time. With new social media platforms on the horizon, Vallence discusses Penguin Teen’s thoughts for the future and exploring new communities.

“Of course, we’re keeping an eye on what the next rising platform is, and when the right time to join is. I think that can be easy to jump early on something that everyone’s talking about. And then maybe find yourself with a great content hub that no one’s watching.”

“We also must be aware of spaces that are just for readers and being wary of joining them. Discord is an extremely popular place for youth orientated conversations, but it’s more of a forum that would feel a little disingenuous to join at the moment. It’s current conversational style, and communication form between the chats is very much still centred around peer to peer. As a brand being in there would feel a little like we’re intruding on people’s private conversations, so it may take a little more time for the platform to mature and become appropriate for us to meet with our audience.”

This is Penguin Teen’s social media strategy at its core: Putting the audience first ahead of any platform or influencer. With the playbooks in place, Penguin Teen have the framework to meet their audience on the right platform, at the right time. For now, this is TikTok: But who knows where the words of Malinda Lo or Emily Brontë may end up next?


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