How to Leverage Online Events into Shining on Your Local Business

If you believe in the American Dream, you may also hope to someday write the fabled Great American Novel. (Hey, who wouldn't want to read a book about a guy who spent the best years of his life watching How I Met Your Mother and surfing the Internet between Red Bulls?) And if that's true, you've likely made it an annual tradition of meaning to, then forgetting to, and then regretting having not done NaNoWriMo.

That funny-looking word stands for National Novel Writing Month, which this just so happens to be. Launched a decade ago, the Internet-based creative-writing project challenges its participants to crank out an entire novel over the course of November. That breaks down to roughly 1,677 words a day -- which seems insurmountable enough on its own, much less when you could be enjoying turkey, stuffing, Black Friday, and Cyber Saturday.

That said, Chicago is a hotbed of enthusiasm for NaNoWriMo. Within the overarching international online event, there's also ChiWriMo, a smaller chapter that organizes meet-ups, write-ins, and other ways to forge a community for an event that only exists online. Arguably the epicenter, though, or at least the loudest beater of the war drums for NaNoWriMo in Chicago is Open Books. The River North establishment is Chicago's first nonprofit literacy bookstore, and while it's not the only place to offer aspiring novelists a quiet place to write, it's easily the loudest proponent of NaNoWriMo. Indeed, in this month's remaining weeks, it's hosting no fewer than three write-in sessions. (Though people are encouraged to come in and write whenever they want -- these dates are just designated for large groups to meet and offer moral support/commiserate on each other's raging wars against the blank page.)

But at the core, what Open Books is really doing is cleverly finding a way to attach a local business to something that by its very definition isn't local: the Internet. I gave Open Books Founder and Executive Director Stacy Ratner a call to discuss why she started doing this and how it's applicable to other business owners in unrelated fields.

So, I saw on Twitter last week that you're letting people come in and write for NaNoWriMo at Open Books.

Stacy Ratner: Yeah, we've done a lot of things for NaNoWriMo. I have to start by saying that I am a total love-person about NaNoWriMo. I've been doing it for nine years now. I can't imagine November without it. So when we opened the book store, one of the first questions was, "How can we get NaNoWriMo in the store?" Right? Because it was all the things that I love in one place together. We actually opened in November of 2009, so we got to do it right away, which was great.

We've done everything from write-ins in the store through a 24-hour marathon on the last day. Last year actually we tried to do a group-novel writing on Twitter. We didn't get much novel written. [Laughs.] But it was a good idea.

That's something else to talk about too, is the different approaches you've done to align yourself with the event. But to start off with, what's the book you're writing this month?

Stacy Ratner: Well, this year I'm writing a novel about a medieval prince whose grand wiser advisor dies and while he is doing the overnight vigil in front of this guy's tomb, he realizes that one of the carved statues in the chapel is missing.

Oh no!

Stacy Ratner: I know, it's a very big thing! So the book is about him figuring out where it went and why it's missing. And it turns out to be kind of a scandalous, religious answer, because the statues are supposed to be all very proper monks mourning their dead king. One of them is in fact a statue of a pregnant woman. And so obviously she had to go. She couldn't be in the lineup.

So your launch happened to coincide with NaNoWriMo. How did you devise taking advantage of that to help get word out about your store and also to help get people in your store?

Stacy Ratner: The first thing about Open Books, which of course you know, is that we're a non-profit for literacy. That's our whole mission. The store is to get people to spend money to support our programs and to spread the word about our cause and what we do. So, any avenue that we can find to tell people that we exist and why we exist is important. NaNoWriMo was a great way to do that because it's a whole collection of people in and around Chicago who obviously have an interest in writing but didn't necessarily know anything about literacy and why it's a crisis and why we should be doing something about it. So, the chance to reach a whole community of like-minded but maybe not aware people was a big thing. And the thing about NaNoWriMo that makes it so great is you can do these very casual events. We're not talking about a big fundraiser where you have to sell tickets and provide food and all those kinds of things. It really is just come and be social with other people who are also trying to write a novel. And while you're there you can learn about Open Books and how you can join the bigger cause.

What are some other things you guys have done each November?

Stacy Ratner: It's gotten progressively bigger and interestingly more focused this year. We started with, even before the store was open, when we just had a small office, having weekly write-ins. We didn't even have enough space for everybody, so we had inflatable blow-up furniture. That year, 2008, was the first year we did an all-night write-in marathon. I think only five of us stayed for the whole thing. Once you've survived that a small group of people, you want to do it again. It has that weird "survivor" effect.

So, the next year everyone was asking, "Are you guys going to do the all-night marathon?" It turns out nobody else wanted to host an all-night marathon. There weren't that many venues in the city interested in having people do that. So we kinda got known for that. The next two years we had like 40 or 50 people come over.

The thing that strikes me is that it's a really cool idea. I'm surprised you said nobody wanted to do it when people were clamoring for you to do it again. It's a shrewd way of forging a legit community that will have warm-fuzzies for you when it's really just some thing that only exists on the Internet.

Stacy Ratner: Oh, totally. Meeting people in real life who are posting these immense word counts on the site... it's a very exciting moment. And there's a great sense of community. Whenever someone would finish their novel in one of our write-ins or marathons, we would all jump up and down and scream and hug and ring bells. Because writing a novel can be a very isolating experience.


Stacy Ratner: Writing anything, as you know.

Or reading, for that matter. But if you're a business owner and there are different causes like this, and maybe as a non-profit it's slightly different for you, but what are the advantages of hopping aboard an event like this as opposed to weighing in on the library budgets?

Stacy Ratner: All of that is hugely important, too: library budgets, longer school days, all the things that we worry about. We take that very seriously. But the thing about this is it's hitting in an entirely different group of people. Because the person who says, "You know what? This is the year I'm going to write a novel," is maybe someone who is all day involved in construction or dental hygiene or something where the library budget is not a part of their consciousness. It's just not that important. But if you're coming together around a shared impossible endeavor like writing a novel in 30 days, you're basically open to new ideas. You're open to learning about something you didn't know about. You're taking a chance. So, it's a very receptive audience that way, which is great, because we can talk about the library budget and the longer school day all day, and we do, but we wouldn't have the opportunity to talk to this group of people if we didn't have NaNoWriMo or something like it to bring us together one month a year.

To me, that seems much better than people going to the Starbucks near Open Books to be seen writing.

Stacy Ratner: [Laughs.] Right, in public.

What advice would you give to other people in other arenas thinking of taking advantage of these types of digital events to help draw attention to themselves. It sounds like you're in favor of courting an audience you wouldn't otherwise?

Stacy Ratner: That's one of the first big things. Another big thing is to make sure whatever the online event is you're playing with has some kind of a connection to you. If we were, for instance, doing workforce development for food processing or something, I'm not sure this would be a great event for us. But there was an event up until last year called Blogathon, which was basically a 24-hour blog-for-charity event. You chose your charity and basically would get sponsored like you would for any other -thon. But you blogged every half-hour for 24 hours, and that was it, and you got to choose your own charity. It got to be actually quite big. Several hundred-thousand dollars total in charitable pledges. I did that for a number of years. Then the people who organized it decided to put it on hold.

That was a great event because no matter what your cause was, there certainly was someone blogging about something closely related to you because you could choose your charity. People were doing animal shelters, AIDS, and they were doing hunger relief. Basically, an event like that, almost any business could have been a part of.

This is a two-pronged question: How do you keep up on events that you might want to get involved with, or is it problematic to align yourself with an event that even you haven't heard of? Because if you haven't heard of it, why should you expect anyone else to have?

Stacy Ratner: [Laughs.] The first easy answer that springs to mind of course is Twitter. That's where it can gain credibility. If enough people that you trust who are in your followed and following circle are talking about an online event, that's probably a sign that it's something you should check out. I suggest this because I come from the mindset of starting things, but if there's not already an online event that's interesting for you, why not start one?

What happens if you throw an event for the first time...

Stacy Ratner: And nobody comes?

Yeah. I'm imagining a sad grade-schooler waiting for people to come to his birthday party, and he's just sitting there in his party hat. How can you avoid being that kid?

Stacy Ratner: [Laughs.] I think the answer there is "don't give up."

Has that been the trend for you with NaNoWriMo? More interest every year?

Stacy Ratner: Absolutely. It's like anything else: It's not big the first time you do it necessarily, but if it's a good idea and you are passionate about it, eventually you will convince enough other people that it'll be great.

I think that's the key thing here: If it's a good idea and you're passionate about it, it'll succeed. Because I think the temptation with social media is that people back-burner it, and expect people to care when they don't put in any effort.

Stacy Ratner: No, that's totally right. I think the basic messages are just: passion, interest, and tie the online and offline interest together.

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