At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic circa 2020, there came the rise of virtual book clubs. With the strict adherence to social distancing rules, many started virtual book clubs in schools, libraries, or even just among friends. These virtual book clubs work in a similar way as those from Oprah Winfrey and Reese Witherspoon.
But here’s the most intriguing thing that came out of the pandemic: businesses that are not necessarily bookish in nature also started their own virtual book clubs. One such company is MUD\WTR, a coffee brand that launched its book club back in January with self-help book sensation Atomic Habits by James Clear as the first title. There was even a Q&A for their 1,467 members and guests after the session.
“We came up with the idea of a book club when planning for a big campaign in Q1 2023. The idea was around ‘healthy habits create healthy minds’ and my task as community manager was to find a way to make this come alive for our community. I knew from research that our community loves to read, and I used to work at a bookstore, so that helped,” says MUD\WTR’s Community Engagement Manager Britney Haddad. “We’re more than just a product — we’re about encouraging people to rethink their habits. When making positive changes in your life, it helps to surround yourself with people doing something similar, and our book club did just that.”
Chico’s, a clothing brand, also took a leaf out of someone’s book. The clothing store for women relaunched its Chico’s Book Club in March with the first title No Filter: The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful, a collection of essays by model Paulina Porizkova. The book club’s rules are more lenient (they want you to do it on your own terms), and most sessions can be done online or in-person.
These brands pivoting toward bookish territory definitely sparks some intrigue and so it raises the question: what’s the deal?
Celebrity book clubs especially boomed in the earliest days of the COVID-19 pandemic, and it’s not just Reese who’s interested in making books in again. Since virtual book clubs, by a celebrity or otherwise, are all the rage, they became a business itself. Several women entrepreneurs — though not as famous as Reese — launched their own book club apps. And there are even companies that specialize in setting up book clubs for companies. In this venture, they offer packages that take care of the logistics of the book club, such as developing an app, sending books to the members, and recording statistics.
MUD\WTR and Chico’s aren’t the only brands that tried every trick in the book to stay ahead of the competition, though. Big brands such as TikTok, where BookTok originated from, had launched its own book club in 2021. Apple, which is not too focused on books, strangely started Strombo’s Lit, which is managed by Apple Music host George “Strombo” Stroumboulopoulos. The books in there are based on his curation, though it feels a lot like a celebrity book club under Apple’s banner. Netflix also didn’t pass up the chance with its very own Netflix Book Club. This is a specialized book club that focuses on books that are going to be adapted or have been adapted as a TV series or film on the streaming platform. Members partake in discussions about characters, page-to-screen plots, and differences between the literary and the screen version among other things.
Even actor Gwyneth Paltrow has a book club for her controversial Goop lifestyle brand.
In some industries, meanwhile, brands took it to the next level by starting an in-person book club, which shares similarities with a book signing event. In the United Kingdom, a coffee shop called Leaf Café has its own Club Literati. Every four to six weeks, the members meet at 8 p.m. There’s a fee of £5, which covers a drink, cake, and snacks as well as discussion about the book. Members also receive discount off the month’s featured book.
Another coffee shop in the UK called Café Murano also has a hands-on book club where members meet on the last Sunday of each month. It’s a paid one, though, and tickets cost £85 that include a two-course meal, wine, cocktail, and snacks. There is an interview with the guest that recounts their career path, the inspiration for their most recent work, and among other things. In addition, there is a Q&A where members can ask questions and purchase books to have them signed.
Celebrity book clubs usually revolve around one person and rely on the celebrity’s popularity. Readers flock to them because they trust the celebrity’s taste in books or because they’re a fan of the celebrity. The brand is the celeb itself, and they usually have sophisticated marketing initiatives like an active app, weekly podcast, or media interviews. They might also have promotional stickers for book covers, like those of Reese and Oprah. The book’s success will largely depend on how big the celeb is.
On the other hand, brand book clubs focus on companies and their customers. The goal is to attract more customers to the brand, promote the business itself, and so forth. In the case of a coffee shop starting its own book club and having a literary fiction as its first title, literary fiction readers would be interested in checking out the shop’s products, turning them into potential customers. This kind of book club is another opportunity for the brand to foster engagement that doesn’t feel like a lot. But in contrast, brands might not have an app or a podcast as the promotional campaigns are only modest at best.
“In my experience, virtual book clubs are becoming increasingly popular among brands because they provide a unique opportunity for customers to engage with the brand in a meaningful way,” says Dave Conway, co-founder at Roowaad.com, a platform focusing on helping entrepreneurs launching their startups. “Virtual book clubs offer a platform for customers to interact with each other, share their thoughts and opinions, and discuss the books they are reading. This gives brands an opportunity to gain insights into their customers’ interests and preferences, as well as to build relationships with them.”
Conway adds that virtual book clubs can be used to promote a brand’s products or services, or to create a sense of community and belonging among customers. By creating a virtual book club, according to him, brands can also increase their visibility and reach a wider audience.
Meanwhile, according to Émile, an account manager at Search Ranker and Head of SEO at Prosomo, “it’s actually a BIG branding strategy.”
“They need to build trust and loyalty around the brand. What’s better than being in a deep relationship to do that? A book club is all about exchange and communication. About what you felt, why you liked it, or not, communicating around others’ emotions, etc., which are the criteria to create a bond,” he says. He reiterates that it’s actually a branding principle, which can be modeled with CBBE or Customer Based Brand Equity, a model for business strategy.
Like the brands aforementioned, these book clubs can be done online or in-person, though most do it virtually these days. In the case of local restaurant or café-led book clubs, members can be hyperlocal, which allows them to do in-person meetings over coffee and snacks.
Most brand book clubs hold sessions once a week or a month. There are no hard-and-fast rules, and it really differs per book club. There are some that host lunch or coffee while doing discussions, while there are others that mostly meet online via Zoom.
A big brand is expected to have bigger membership count, so they would often only do stuff online. Whereas local businesses would have the capability to host in an intimate setting.
But whether brands sustain momentum for their book clubs is another story. MUD\WTR has recently put its virtual book club on hiatus, its Director of Communications Elizabeth Limbach told me. Netflix’s Book Club pick hasn’t been updated since May 2022. And there might be others out there that put their book clubs on hold.
The isolation brought by the COVID-19 pandemic breathed a life through celebrity book clubs. And this trend transcended to brands big and small, national and local, and in-person and online as they started to create their own book clubs to attract potential customers. It’s such a low-cost effort to build trust among customers compared to staging big-budgeted marketing campaigns.
Because of these brand book clubs, many would definitely develop a passion for reading, revitalizing an ailing industry. And that’s one for the books.