How to use online sales data for effective market research

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Marketing and promoting products is a tricky game that can require every ounce of cunning and skill – especially in a crowded market like book publishing.

And while most publishers tend to focus on their own tried and tested methods for driving sales, it doesn't hurt to keep an eye on the competition at the same time.

Consider a scenario in which another publisher's title suddenly starts outselling your own. If you know that your title is just as good, if not better, how are they doing it?

In fact, I should take a step back and ask, "How would you even know if you're being thumped by the competition?"

Take a look at the following graph, which shows the average sales rank (and sales estimates) for "The Hobbit" over December:

Sales rank graph showing spike in sales
Sales data courtesy of

This graph is a plot of The Hobbit's sales ranks over time. You can interpret a lower sales rank as an increase in sales - i.e. a rank of 1 means that product is selling more than anything else.

As you can see, some time around the middle of December, the book experienced a significant spike in sales that continues to be sustained into the new year.

As a publisher of a competing title, wouldn't it be useful to know what happened to push the average sales rank of the book from around 1000 to about 300, virtually overnight?

What if I altered the graph to show the U.S release date of the film "The Hobbit: The desolation of Smaug", like this:

Sales rank graph showing sales coinciding with promotional event
Sales data courtesy of

It's becomes pretty clear that the latest hobbit film was released over the weekend, and sales of the book spiked soon after.

Ok, so not everyone can release an epic blockbuster film to promote and market their books, but you get the idea right?

What if instead of a movie release, the sales spike had been caused by a spot on a TV or radio show – or some other form of promotion that was within your own reach?

Without doubt, understanding where your competitors' marketing efforts are paying dividends can be a significant piece of marketing intelligence for your own campaigns.

This type of research doesn't have to apply only to dramatic events that lead to huge sales spikes like the example used here. You can also track a basket of competing titles over time to see how your titles compete within their own niche.

For example, I tracked a bunch of NY Times bestsellers to see how their sales figures compared to each other – i.e. does being on the NY Times bestseller list mean your sales are equally high or not?

This graph shows the sales ranks and estimates for the top five bestsellers "Combined print and eBook fiction" on November the 10th (you can see the list at NY Times bestseller list):

Sales rank graph comparing the sales of books appearing in the NY Times bestseller list
Sales data courtesy of

There are some pretty interesting trends here. For a start, at the time the list was published, the books were ranking in a fairly tight range - no doubt due to the exposure from appearing in the NY Times.

Over time though the novel "We are water" drifted off a bit.

"The Husband's secret" looked set to follow the drop in sales, but started making a comeback around the 20th of December. Anyone know what they did to turn things around?

What's not apparent on this particular graph is just how well "The Goldfinch" is selling. To see that, we need to graph it on its own:

Sales graph showing high level of sales for The Goldfinch
Sales data courtesy of

While sales of "The Goldfinch" have been persistently strong, you can see that around the 5th of December, sales went into hyper drive as the sales rank of the title dropped from around 25 down to an average of 1 by the end of December.

In short, this book is an absolute phenomenon in terms of the sheer number of sales it is amassing – the sales estimates from RankTracer suggest that it's selling in excess of 10 000 units every few weeks via Amazon alone.

The point being that tracking and comparing the sales of your own titles to those of your competitors can bring incredibly powerful insights into your niche market, and help gather marketing intelligence that can increase sales dramatically.

Since Amazon is generally a fairly significant contributor to a title's overall sales, and it is inexpensive and easy to track books sales via RankTracer, there is significant insight to be gained for relatively little cost and effort.

I'll finish by posing the following question:

Does anyone know what "The Goldfinch" publisher/author did (or was it something Amazon did?) around the 4th-5th of December to send their sales into hyperdrive?

Share your thoughts on how tracking online sales can provide insight into marketing and other decision relating to online retail and eCommerce in the comments.