There is nothing so universally delightful as a good story. A good story invokes emotion, keeps us hanging on the edge, and encompasses our thoughts. As a child, I took to reading fairly quickly and threw myself into the world of literature. Reading about fantasy worlds sparked creativity and led me to write my own stories. Going to the library was a family weekend event. As a proud library card owner, I’d check out all of my own books and made sure to return them on time for fear of those dreaded late fees. Each library visit would yield a literal pile of books that I stacked up neatly on my bedside table. As the weekdays went by, I read through the stack and brought back the completed reads on Saturday morning. It was habitual.

While going to the library was great, there was nothing so special as going to the bookstore. The tall displays and the smell of new ink and paper were intoxicating. As a youngster, I’d explore each section, recording mental notes to remind me if I should stop by again to pick up something off of the shelves. Due to this roundabout method, every visit to the bookstore wound up lasting way longer than an hour – this caused my mother frustration, but I HAD to make sure I wasn’t missing anything. Buying a book was symbolic, and each purchase had to be made in good conscience. To this day, these bookstore visits are treated the same way. Although much fewer and far between, the magic feeling I get whenever I step into Barnes & Noble still sparks. This experience is extremely familiar to my fellow bibliophiles, as the love of books is something that somehow escapes definition but needs all the words in the world to describe. In this blog post, I will be discussing how to create an engaged digital community and describe how Barnes & Noble (B&N) can work to create and maintain their social media audience.

The Saga of Barnes and Noble

It was 1873 when Charles M. Barnes decided to start his very own bookstore in the city of Wheaton, Illinois. Wanting to expand his father’s legacy, William Barnes moved to New York to establish Barnes & Noble with G. Clifford Noble. In the midst of the Great Depression, the bookseller opened its flagship store Fifth Avenue at 18th Street in New York City. Known for selling textbooks, medical volumes, and trade books, Barnes & Noble became a fixture for selling literature. As time went by, and the company changed hands, the bookseller made many strategic acquisitions and changes in order to become the modern “information piazzas” of America.

As video games and technology have become people’s preferred method of pastime, Barnes & Noble fought to keep their heads above water. By integrating Starbucks cafes, offering WiFi, and expanded digital product offerings, the business was able to keep book-lovers and the casual customer engrained into their brick and mortar stores. The nimble moves of the organization allowed them to flex with society’s changes in downtime preferences without sacrificing their integrity or forgetting their hero – books.

Online, Barnes & Noble has a functional website and has several social media profiles, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and a dedicated Twitter customer service handle. While they are doing a great job creating consistent content, what they are lacking is an online community. To me, this is ironic because for centuries books have created and dictated communities. Think of how in colonial America, only the affluent could afford books and schooling. Think of how housewives would create book clubs and revel in the heat of romance novels. As Barnes & Noble is arguably one of the national authorities of literature, they should be trying to maintain their loyal community – especially as Amazon pulls customers away with the ease of online purchases.

Creating a Community

In his book The Social Code, author Patrick Hanlon illustrates how to design and attract social communities. Although utilizing business principles that have proven to be successful can work in building a dedicated audience on social media, Hanlon attests that seven critical elements are needed in order to create a belief system. These elements are a creation story, creed, icons, rituals, sacred words, non-believers, and a leader. Let’s take a look at how Barnes & Noble can implement these elements to create their own community.

The Creation Story

The creation story, as defined by Hanlon is the beginning of the brand narrative. Where did you come from? Who are you? In the case of Barnes & Noble, their rich 146 years of history is an aspect that many of their consumers don’t know about. Providing their audience with more background of their history will show that they’re truly an influence. Context and content mean everything and if they can share more of their story, the more they will embody a wiser, more human presence.


A creed is a defined statement of why a community exists. This ties together the individuals and unites them under one umbrella. For an organization, this could be a mission statement or strategic plan. Barnes & Noble’s mission statement is “to operate the best omni-channel specialty retail business in America, helping both our customers and booksellers reach their aspirations while being a credit to the communities we serve.” Through this statement, the bookseller declares its commitment to its fans, partners, and local communities. Whether the interactions be in-person customer service or online purchases, B&N strives to be a person’s first choice.


From the beginning of time, humans have used icons in order to identify objects, ideas, or feelings. For brands, this could be their logo, corporate colors, packaging, or radio jingle (c’mon, how many times have you sang the Stanley Steemer commercial?). For B&N, they should utilize their logo and classic green color as much as possible on content so that viewers can differentiate their content. They should also make sure to utilize their branded hashtags #BNDiscover, #BNBookHaul, and #BNBookClub, appropriately.


A ritual is a process of steps that are repeated in order to start or complete a task. In a previous blog post, I’ve discussed how rituals are essential in order to maintain focus. Maintaining focus is exactly what B&N needs when creating their community. As a part of their online rituals, B&N should make it their priority to educate about literature and the importance of reading, advertising the latest and best of books, discuss and respond to consumer commentary, and driving people to participate in their other offerings like their book clubs, community events, contests, and podcast. In short, their rituals should be focused on inviting people in through casual education (launches, DYKS, etc.) and hyping their value-add promotions.

Sacred Words

I don’t know about you, but when I think about sacred words, the first thing that pops into my head is “Dinner’s ready.” When creating communities, sacred words – or lexicon – is critical. An example of lexicon would be when you order a “tall flat white americano” at Starbucks. Communication and keywords make all the difference when deciphering if someone is a real community member or a wannabe. For B&N, I envision their lexicon to center around friendly, literary banter. Acronyms like “TBR” or terms like “book-bosomed” could be interjected in posts, creating a real sense of love around being a book nerd.


As any belief system or community knows, there will always be non-believers ready to tear down what you hold dear. While annoying and destructive, the counter authority of non-believers reminds you what exactly you DO stand for. For B&N, the audience of non-believers has been increasing due to technology addiction and the deprioritization of literature. People who claim books have no value or do not have interest in reading are the polar opposite of what B&N’s community needs.

A Leader

A community needs a person or force behind it in order to keep momentum and accumulate new members. In the case of B&N, I believe that the leader is not a singular person, but instead the book-lovers themselves. Without their passion and drive to keep books alive and flourishing, B&N could have fallen under just like many other book retailers.

Defining Community Management Guidelines

In order to make sure the community you’ve created stays satisfied, it is important to define community management guidelines so that your team can appropriately respond to and navigate comments, issues, and FAQs. Below, let’s look at how B&N can set up their guidelines:

  • Clearly defined roles for responding: At any one time, B&N should have between 5 – 10 people on stand by to respond to and address community engagement 24/7, specifically on Twitter and Instagram. As B&N is located across the United States, time zones vary and the team should be split on the coasts to assure coverage. Responses from community managers should be energetic, helpful, and positive. Use of emojis is not frowned upon, however, care must be taken when addressing complaints as that could read as unprofessional. Community managers should also take the liberty of reaching out to users who have tagged them to ask if they can feature/retweet/share their content on the corporate channels, as UGC is important to the social media strategy.
  • Defined approval process: To make sure that each piece of content is compliant with B&N’s internal stakeholders, the social media content calendar should be completely approved at least two weeks ahead of time so that the community managers can see where there might be questions, and find the appropriate places to direct commenters. There should also be a quick version of the approval process just in case something slips through the cracks and needs to be addressed immediately. Here, 24/7 monitoring would help keep negative instances at a minimum.
  • Crisis response plan: As any corporation should know, a crisis response plan is crucial. It is highly unlikely for consumers to berate B&N over the products, as not everyone has the same taste in books, B&N should take precautions to respond to people complaining about their store quality, staff, and even corporate actions. By ensuring that a plan is in place, a company can feel more comfortable that a negative reaction will be handled in a professional, streamlined way.
  • Accessible FAQ document: To help users and your community managers answer questions, an online FAQ document should live on your website. See here for a potential FAQ document B&N might utilize.
  • Use the defined brand voice: In every interaction, B&N community managers must use the tone that we identified above. Responses should be energetic and must exude positive energy. Being grateful to their customers and being personable is extremely important to B&N as a brand.
  • Response times: On each social media page it is in B&N’s best interest to list response times. Currently, only their Twitter customer support page lists when managers are active and that is only between business hours of 8.30 AM – 5.00 PM EST. Although the majority of engagements could be responded to within a day, it is always best practice to respond within a few hours or fewer. To start, I’d implement the Facebook Messenger chat to open upon page visitation and state how long it usually takes for a response. This is an easy way to let people know they’re being listened to and when to expect an answer.
  • Involvement in all business areas: It is important for community managers to have oversight of the business. Aligning with marketing teams, corporate communications, and partners is crucial as this will give them the context they need in order to appropriately address events on social media.
  • See how the competitors do it: Currently, B&N’s largest competitors are Amazon and Wal-Mart. While the competitors do have a massive social media following, they aren’t doing anything special on their social media that B&N needs to catch up to. Instead, B&N should be using their unique position as a bookseller first to create an engaged community. While Amazon has been snapping up people with offerings like their Kindle and, B&N still has the authority regarding books because their people make the buying experience and community different.

Closing This Chapter

Overall, B&N has an extremely rich history and has been led by some innovative people that flexed with changes in society and retail. Social media, while extremely important, hasn’t quite been at the top of their list. While they have been creating some consistent content, their community management left much to be desired, especially as people asked pointed questions.

By implementing community management guidelines, B&N will be able to take their social media channels to the next level while feeling more secure about how they will communicate with their fans. In the future, I hope to see them take the friendly attitude and knowledge their sales reps in the brick and mortar stores have and use it online. This simple addition to their social media strategy could allow them to create a more dedicated audience and keep them “safe” from the clutches of Amazon and Wal-Mart for the coming years.

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