Until his knee gave out a couple of years ago, I used to run regularly with a Big Six C-level executive. In about 2007 I told him I thought all the big publishers needed, but lacked, a complete and thought-through email list compilation and marketing strategy and policy. I suggested we could help his company by looking into that and designing one. (Consultants dream up ideas like this that require both outside expertise and extra hands and feet because that’s how we get work.)
My pitch got me nowhere.
In the intervening years I have become increasingly convinced that collecting names and using them right is now mission-critical for all publishers and most critical, and most difficult, for general trade publishers. And from what I can see, it isn’t getting the attention it should from anybody. (I’ll be delighted to get comments telling me I’m wrong, but I’ll bet they come only from very small publishers or thoroughly vertical ones.)
This is not my field. I know a lot about the traditional book supply chain, with first-hand experience dealing with every part of it. But my knowledge of direct response principles, starting with list-building and maintenance, is mid-level amateur. So I did what I would have done if my running buddy had responded positively to my suggestion that we help: I engaged a very smart person I know is a real expert on direct response to help me learn and think through what publishers need to learn and do. This post and at least one more will share that knowledge.
The smart person is Neal Goff, owner of Egremont Associates, most recently the CEO of My Weekly Reader Publishing. Neal has been applying direct marketing expertise in executive positions at Book-of-the-Month Club, Time-Life Books, Prentice Hall Direct, and Scholastic Library (formerly Grolier) Publishing for large chunks of the past three decades.
I started out with Neal declaring my assumption that publishers can make use of names they gather in at least three ways:
1. They can sell books to them.
2. They can use them for marketing, to spread the word about a book.
3. They can enlist them to be part of a community, interacting with you and others you gather, for the collective value (informational, monetary, curative, content-generating) the community can provide.
For openers, I asked Neal: if we want to help a publisher, where would we start?
Before he would tackle that question, Neal wanted me to understand a couple of very basic things about what is needed in a marketing database.
Obviously, we want to build a database that has all the consumers (millions, so the database has to be able to handle lots of them) we’ll be tracking and all the information about them by which we will ultimately want to “select” their names in the future. Neal emphasized that the most valuable information about them will be derived from their “actions” (when they click or buy or request information), much more than from our own (when we mail or post or offer.) And what we most want to know about those actions is summarized as “RFM” — recency, frequency, and monetary value — plus affinity, which is the similarity between what we’re selling and what they’ve bought before.
Recency refers to “the last time they did something.”
Frequency refers to “how often they’ve done something” (particularly when they do something positive, like buy a book from us).
Monetary value refers to “how much they’ve spent with us.”
Tracking affinity may require some work. Our fulfillment system knows exactly what they’ve bought from us title by title, but this information won’t be terribly useful if, every time we do a promotion, we have to go into our database and select the names of our book-buyers, one title at a time. That information has great value, though, if we aggregate our customers into meaningful groups, like those who bought a photography book or a military history title or a romance novel.
This means that transactiondata is critical. Neal explained that most publishers, particularly trade publishers, don’t necessarily have easy ways to capture individual customer transaction data in a marketing database. That may require a bridge of some sort to be built between your fulfillment systems, which capture the data necessary to complete transactions, and your marketing database, in which you want to aggregate fulfillment data in order to make it more useful selecting names for future outreach. That includes the affinity grouping described above and also such information as how much a customer has spent with you in the last six months.
Knowing that, one is equipped to start thinking about gathering names.The first step is to round up all the names you already have and put them together in one database, capturing the data you have about them in a consistent way. The next step is to establish procedures for collecting more names. All of this should be done with future selection criteria in mind which requires you to start thinking immediately about what the meaningful segments within your customer base are likely to be.
Every publisher already has a lot of names. People who have purchased from the publisher previously will have provided contact information, for confirmation purposes at least. People will have contacted the publisher for customer service, inquiries, or to sign up for newsletters or alerts.
But, often, the publisher will not have requested the necessary “permission” from the consumer to use their name for email marketing contact. (Seth Godin has been making this point for a very long time. He invented the term “permission marketing.”) The task of collecting and collating the names that are already in the house’s possession will provide a painful lesson in how much good customer information has been wasted because permission to contact was not secured when the name was collected. That lesson needs to be applied to the publisher’s future efforts.
Neal explained that you want to set yourself up to get permission from people as early as possible. On all purchase and customer service forms, when you collect email addresses, you have to include the option for people to choose to stay connected to you. You invite your contacts to check a box saying “keep me informed of other books you publish ‘on this subject’ or ‘by this author’ or ‘which will be of interest to me.'” You want to word your permission statement so that it doesn’t scare your customers into thinking you’ll be spamming them all the time, while at the same time keeping the wording broad enough that you don’t unwittingly cut yourself off from future marketing opportunities.
He also pointed out a paradox. The higher you set the permission hurdle, the fewer people you’ll get to give you permission but the higher the quality of that group will be. So if you make people “uncheck” a box to prevent permission, you’ll get more permissions. But if you make people “check” a box to grant permission, you’ll probably be more successful engaging the ones who grant it.
This took me back to a belief I held even before Neal started explaining the basics. Most publishers’ efforts to harvest email addresses have been weak and underthought (which isn’t surprising if there is no active plan to use the names). Can publishers create better reasons for the book’s consumer to engage the publisher? Can the publisher offer free additional content, for example, or notifications of updates (most likely to apply to non-fiction, of course), or a web site that offers additional value at which registration might be captured? Capturing the name and email address of somebody inquiring about a book or even one purchasing a book is all well and good, but wouldn’t those who signed up after already owning the book be that much more likely to be candidates for future engagement?
So where a publisher has to begin is to gather the names they already have, which are buried in nooks and silos around the company, tag them for where they came from and by the kind of “permission” to use them that exists, and work out how to add the additional contacts made with those people, especially including all transaction data, to the database.
In the next post based on Neal Goff’s direct response knowledge, we’ll talk about using the names, including how to act on Neal’s point that many things are “testable”, and that every customer outreach presents a valuable opportunity to test something. And we’ll explain why even though sending email is “free”, mailing to your free list too often or with bad execution can actually cost you money.
Here’s an unrelated postscript. We’re putting together a database of enhanced ebooks because we think the world needs one (at least temporarily.) Our newest teammate, Chesalon Piccione, has been doing the work on this and has posted on the E2BU blog about her efforts and what she’s learning by looking at the aggregation. It will take us a little while to wrestle the database itself into something postable, but we’re working on it. In the meantime, if you’ve got an enhanced ebook project, send Chess an email ([email protected]) and let her know so she can include it. A list of the data points we need is in the linked post.