Half Price Books Builds Customer Engagement Virally

As book sellers close their doors and the market for paper-based books shrinks, Half Price Books is opening five to six new locations a year thanks to low-cost customer engagement initiatives. For the third straight year the retailer has hosted an online tournament of fictional characters that has garnered millions of votes on social media and upped the brand's cool factor.

Based off of the NCAA basketball brackets the retailer has pitted 64 fictional characters against each other in an online popularity contest that become a viral sensation and helped bring awareness to the brand. The low-cost marketing effort began in 2012 with the Tournament of Villains, followed by the Tournament of Heroes in 2013, and the Tournament of Sidekicks in 2014.  

The competition was so stiff that in 2013 dedicated fans employed online bots to help ensure that Zena the Warrior Princess took the top prize —over 3.7 million votes were cast. The brand employed bot blocking software in 2014, yet still collected over 2.3 million votes, with Zena's sidekick Gabrielle taking the top spot.

"2.3 million votes was huge for us," EVP and Chief Strategy Officer Kathy Doyle Thomas said at RIS News' 2014 Retail Technology Conference. "The contest was engaging and we were able to position ourselves in a fun social way. Now next year we just need to come up with a contest that a Zena character doesn't win."

Half Price Books has turned to the character contest and other social media initiatives to help grow customer engagement through low-cost methods. The brand is focused on growing its customer base, especially among millennials who are increasingly turning to eBooks in lieu of traditional paper. In August 2012 the retailer focused its efforts on growing its likes on Facebook, increasing them by 162% in a little over a year and a half.

Thomas sited four main benefits of social media during her "Marketing in the Age of Disruption" session: cost efficiency, brand engagement, PR/advertising, and the ability to reach the next generation of book buyers. Thomas and her team are willing to try anything once, because as she said they have nothing to lose. Social media is a low-cost alternative to traditional outreach and the occasional swing and miss can be offset with homeruns like the fictional character contest.

"Sometimes my team brings me an idea and I tell them I don’t get it, and they tell me I don't have to get it," Thomas joked at her status as the older statesman. "If it doesn't work that is okay. The goal is to have as many employees involved and engaged as possible."