DIRECT SALES: Never Mind the Big Etailers?
While no publisher can realistically abstain from the online retail behemoths when it comes to book selling, there is no reason why selling directly to consumers cannot be a viable option, especially if publishers work to build relationships with readers. In the tips below from five different publishers on how they have found success with direct selling, certain themes recur: building trust with readers, smart audience targeting and cultivating an overarching brand sensibility.
Chief Operating Officer
Since its beginnings as a bookshop in Berkeley, Calif., some 40 years ago, Shambhala has built a loyal following of readers who trust the publisher to release quality books on spirituality, health and psychology.
Knowing the customer is about more than sales data. "Shambhala actually was a bookseller before it was a book publisher, so it both had a sense of who consumers were that were buying books, as well as what books consumers were willing to buy," Jacobs says. Targeted marketing efforts are based on actual buying patterns, he says, rather than surveys or other types of market research.
Put options in front of consumers. From the beginning, Shambhala put insert cards into each book sold, inviting customers to sign up for a catalogue mailing. "The mailing provided two benefits. It did sell books direct, and it was a very effective target marketing [vehicle]," Jacobs says, facilitating bookstore placements when subscribers would ask for titles at their local store. Seem old fashioned? Shambhala still publishes a successful print catalogue; they mailed 850,000 of them in 2011. "Catalogue advertising is the best targeted marketing to introduce a new book to audiences that might be interested," Jacobs says.
Shambhala also engages in extensive and successful email prospecting efforts. A digital version of the company's catalog allows readers to "look inside" books and add items directly to a shopping cart for easy purchase, as they would on Amazon.com. Shambhala has built an email list of more than 200,000 addresses. "Everyone on our list gets at least one email a week," Jacobs says.
Seek new prospects. "Prospects are 56 percent of our new business," Jacobs says. They are gained both through insert cards in books and from database companies, which provide target models based on transaction information provided by Shambhala. "These are people we couldn't reach any other way," he adds.
Cultivate website visitors. Because of their direct marketing efforts, between 10 and 12 percent of total book sales go through Shambhala's own website, a percentage any book publisher would envy.
Sell at events. Especially for niche publishers, events can be an important channel for direct selling. Shambhala sells quite a few books at conferences, some of which they also participate in to find attendees and speakers who might want to become authors.
Develop yourself as a brand. It's hard for book publishers to do (especially in the trade space) because so much marketing focus is around individual authors, but Shambhala has successfully positioned itself as a trusted brand for legions of devoted fans who are more likely to be newsletter subscribers and website visitors.
Shambhala-produced travel packages and events with authors and consumers capitalize on brand loyalty—"…they [come] because it was Shambhala doing this," Jacobs notes—and help to strengthen connections. So does a focus on quality: Shambhala puts a lot of effort, money and time into its books, positioning itself as a boutique publisher.
Direct selling efforts are also marketing efforts. Jacobs talks about two levels of direct-to-consumer selling: direct sales through a website or catalog, and customers driven to other online sellers. While these orders are not as easily tracked as direct website sales, Jacobs notices a spike in sales of certain titles sold through sites like Powells and Amazon just after catalogs are emailed or shipped, which he considers a sort of quasi-direct sale, since those purchases are likely directly tied to the publisher's efforts. "[It's] direct, just not direct through our site," he says.
Pay close attention to ROI. Some of Shambhala's direct selling initiatives have succeeded in reaching new audiences but did not produce the hoped-for payoff. The company tried breaking out "sub-niches" and sending targeted catalogs to them, as well as putting scaled-down versions of its catalogues in a magazine as a tip-in, but neither of these efforts justified the extra cost. "It saved us the postage and the cost of the list," Jacobs said of the magazine tip-in, "but we did have to pay for the ad space, and it did not seem to generate enough sales for us to continue to do that."
Social media is great, but not proven as a direct sales tool. Social media such as Twitter and Facebook "requires a great amount of resources, but it's really questionable how to measure the effectiveness of it," he says. "Shambhala has over 25,000 likes but we're not sure how that translates to sales. Are they potential customers or just looking to win a contest [on Facebook]?
Vice President of Marketing
National Geographic knows a thing or two about direct sales, having gotten into the book business through direct sales of books to its members. The organization has diversified its sales channels since the 1990s but still sees a significant amount of book revenue from direct sales. Having a strong distribution backbone is key, Vincent says. "But there are so many new and exciting ways to reach the consumer now."
Direct sales require a direct approach. Like Shambhala, National Geographic's direct sales success is rooted in direct marketing efforts, especially direct mail campaigns to association members receiving National Geographic magazine. In the last few years, catalog and website sales have become increasingly important, as has direct-to-consumer contact through social media, Vincent says.
Cultivate relationships—and earn trust. "A major reason for our success is that as part of a diverse publishing and media company, we have a large customer database and a long history of being in customers' homes," Vincent notes. "We have a huge marketing database full of customer purchase behavior and demographics, and a stronger understanding of our ultimate consumer than the average publisher would have. We also, of course, have this fabulous brand, so we have 'permission' to contact our consumers directly because of who we are and our long-standing relationship with so many of them."
Offering direct sales is about providing choice. Retailers are not "the enemy," Vincent notes, and in cultivating direct-to-consumer selling, publishers should see the effort as a means to provide choices, not to drive consumers in a particular direction. "We just believe that it is important to contact each individual customer (or potential customer) via their preferred method," Vincent says. "For some customers, that's traditional brick-and-mortar, for others, that's through social media, and for others that's through direct mail and email."
Leverage cross-media assets. National Geographic successfully markets across various products and platforms.
Research and adapt. The organization is seeking to better understand what its organizational membership model means to consumers in the 21st century, and how marketing efforts should evolve in response.
Publisher & Editorial Director
Ogden has made targeted, cross-media selling into an art form for its legions of devoted magazine readers (its best known titles are Mother Earth News and Utne Reader), capitalizing on its position as an authority on sustainable living, rural technology and the do-it-yourself lifestyle. Leveraging its trusted brands, Ogden cultivates book sales through sophisticated direct marketing efforts. According to Welch, the bottom line is to "make sure your content builds trust and rapport with your audience and then make sure it's offered to them in every medium they desire."
Understand sales diversification holistically. "The diversification of our sales channels is just part of the overall diversification of our media," Welch says, as cross-channel book sales are mirrored in cross-channel (print, website, email, events, mobile, video and radio) marketing and subscription efforts.
Target with contextual advertising. "We've found great value … placing book advertising adjacent to related content," Welch notes. "Topical e-newsletters also provide highly valuable sales channels for books; as do dedicated e-mails, especially when they are targeted to people who have subscribed to specifically related e-newsletters." An example would be books sold as a Mother Earth News "Recommended Product For Wiser Living," featured in e-mails sent to subscribers of the magazine and related newsletters.
Engage the audience. Welch calls audience engagement the "key element" in book promotions, an effort that takes into account both the medium by which people are reached and specific subject matter. Again, context is critical. "Our ability to target our promotions to very specific, passionate audiences is improving with each passing month."
Understand your audience's passions and why they look to you for content. "If you're interested in organic gardening, then Mother Earth News is a more logical place to shop for books than Amazon, at least for a particular sort of enthusiastic consumer," Welch notes. "High-quality branded content builds trust and affinity, which in turn gives the books we promote an associated credibility. Of course that means both our content and the books we promote have to meet those standards for affinity and quality, too."
Sell books as part of a wider range of products. Publishers are uniquely qualified to target consumers with multiple related products that complement each other. Much more than a website algorithm telling you what people who bought your book also bought, a publisher's specialized expertise can be brought to bear in bundling or cross-promotion. For Ogden Media, this means approaching consumers with the right mix of products (including print, web, e-commerce and events) tailored to a particular interest. "Since our brands are projected across all these media we believe customers are more confident in our products and, therefore, more likely to acquire content from us than elsewhere," Welch says.
McSweeney's is known for being relentlessly original in the choice of magazines, books and other offerings it puts out under its name. Like Shambhala, it built a coterie of devoted followers into a large base of fans who expect something special with each new release, whether fiction, poetry, satirical tomes or—just in time for the 2012 holidays—a lushly illustrated volume of sheet music.
Get creative with your website. McSweeney's has found engaging ways to get website visitors interested in buying books. "We have a lot of fun putting together various 'bundles' of books with common themes, and trying to come up with the right gift combo," Krefman says. "The bundles tend to sell very well." McSweeney's gets creative with website design and copy to make the bundles especially intriguing, he adds.
Offer a unique product. "If you're selling direct online, you're always competing with yourself via Amazon. Anyone who can open a browser knows that cheap books are at Amazon, so we try not to cannibalize ourselves there, and, rather, offer unique things—signed books, books with a bonus poster, a T-shirt, or anything we can think of," Krefman says.
Tailor marketing to audience preferences. McSweeney's has a monthly newsletter and, while tempted to send out direct messages more often, has found that more frequent emails tend to be opened and clicked through less frequently. Instead, it offers a free daily humor website, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, which drives a lot of traffic back to their website and its e-commerce offerings. "[The humor site] tends to bring people in, and then, hopefully, they try and figure out what else we do," Krefman says.
Trick out your website. It may seem obvious, but there are many publishers trying to do direct sales while failing to update a clunky, out-of date website. Like any type of e-commerce, direct book selling must be made simple, intuitive and pleasant, and publishers must continuously try to make the user experience better. "We completely rebuilt our store website," Krefman says. "It's been a huge challenge for us, and while it's better than it was before, it's nowhere near perfect. It's like we traded in our '87 Honda for a sturdy but not flashy Ford. Hopefully we'll put a gaudy spoiler and rims on it soon."
Rodale has long been known for dovetailing its book offerings with magazines, digital media and events. The company's legacy as a pioneer in organic farming, health and wellness, as well as its research center in Pennsylvania, creates an authoritative brand underpinning the products it sells.
When strategizing for direct-selling, emphasize collaboration between magazine editors, web editors and book editors, Perrine says. "Book editors who routinely work on Men's Health, Women's Health or Prevention books, for example, often sit in on the editorial meetings of those magazines, and the magazines' editors and publicity directors attend our book pipeline meetings. You get the most brand power behind your books when you know that you're speaking to the same customer with the same voice, regardless of what medium you're in."
That collaborative spirit also extends to book promotion. "We're able to leverage our brand websites and social media outlets—whether through newsletters, homepage features, or via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.—to alert readers to the release of a new book we know will appeal to their interests," Perrine says. "Our reach is truly incredible—we have 37.8 million loyal customers in the U.S. and Canada who follow our brands and eagerly await our latest book offerings—and it provides us with a truly unique platform for selling books and spreading the word." BB