Doc Martyn’s Soul: Herd Marketing

With traditional book-selling outlets getting harder and harder to find, the D2C call has been getting increasingly louder. Just recently, for instance, Digital Book World posted a piece about the important role that a publisher’s website and shopping cart plays as a means for increasing D2C sales. Historically, university presses have been reliant on third parties to sell our books despite knowing that a large chunk of our audience is people we can target directly and despite our having and supporting our own websites and shopping carts. Our web presence is incredibly important, but there are other ways we can increase our reach and provide consumers with information about better, more precisely targeted books to purchase and enjoy. These other ways involve sharing marketing efforts in ways that may seem counterintuitive at first.

If University Press A publishes in the field of anthropology, then its natural competitors would be other university presses that publish in anthropology. In theory, all presses publishing in anthropology are fighting to sell their books to the same group of anthropologists. Standard thinking would lead each of these presses to distinguish itself with better books from bigger-name authors and then market the books better than its competitors. I wonder whether this approach isn’t inherently misguided. Instead of competing for this somewhat narrow group of customers and holding data about them close to our chests, we might, in fact, be better served by working together. The efforts of each press to market its products are limited by one factor or another: size of press, budget, sales reach, website, and so on. Many things can be done to improve or expand a press’s efforts to reach more people and to sell more of its book over the competitor’s. All university presses do these things on a regular basis and usually can incrementally increase sales. Rarely—if ever—are they able to dramatically do so. But if two (or more) university presses could join marketing forces, the potential is there to exponentially increase reach and therefore sales. University Press A has a marketing reach of 10,000 customers; University Press B has a reach of 10,000 customers. They publish in the same subject areas so there would naturally be some overlap in that reach. But in all likelihood each press would significantly increase its potential customer base. Even with an overlap of just 5,000 names, both presses would add 50 percent to their customer bases. There is no way to add 50 percent more relevant people to your customer base in one fell swoop through traditional marketing efforts.

Digital Book World’s piece on the importance of individual shopping carts was aimed at showing that having a different mentality about selling books could lead to large rewards. Youngme Moon, in her book Different: Escaping the Competitive Herd, argues that simply continuing to follow the herd leads to failure. Joining marketing forces with our competitors will blow up the existing paradigm, or, to tweak Moon’s subtitle, can create a more competitive herd of joined forces that would be so different you instantly escape competitors that don’t join in.

This “herd” of university press marketers would share their customers, their broad and specific marketing efforts, their sales contacts, their exhibit space, and so on. Individual presses would retain their own information because releasing confidential customer information is just going to cause too many issues. New customers developed by this herd marketing would be available far more widely to the members of the herd, of course. Sales reps could be informed of suitable partner books from other presses. Exhibit space could be purchased at discount because of larger spaces taken (and the same with the furniture). Advertising would be cheaper and used more, for the same reason. Emails, social media campaigns, and direct mail could all reference “also of interest” titles from other presses. The herd mentality would allow all members to thrive because they wouldn’t constantly be competing against each other—the law of the Serengeti, if you will. By adopting this approach we can break down the barriers between publishers and customers and we can offer more of what our readers want without the inconvenience of them having to track down that content. By coordinating with the marketing efforts of our competition we can broaden our horizons and find new customers. We won’t diminish our own brand identity or following because we’ll still have our own branded marketing efforts distinct from the herd’s marketing, and even then the herd marketing would be branded primarily by the individual press doing the campaign.

We don’t even need to limit our herd marketing to the confines of the university press world. There is value in approaching small and mid-sized indie publishers as well. These presses have contacts and customers that we do not. We should build as many of these bridges as we can, to any press that publishes in our areas, and we should walk across those bridges with as many books as we can carry.

Walking together in a herd may seem counterintuitive at first. But that’s the point of looking for a different way of doing things. Typically we strive to stand out from the group. Joining a purposefully created herd is a different approach to marketing and will, in effect, achieve that uniqueness we so crave. Additionally, there are only really two university presses that can claim sufficient size and revenue to not actually need the benefits that the herd might bring. The rest of us, from largest to smallest, will always be looking to increase our marketing and sales reach, particularly in the D2C world. Paradoxically, the herd mentality will help partner presses stand out from the crowd and increase their reach, visibility, and sales direct to consumers beyond our wildest dreams.

-Martyn (@martynbeeny)