Doc Martyn’s Soul: Four Ways to Break the Rules of Marketing

What’s the most innovative marketing campaign you’ve seen for a university press book? What does innovation look like for university press marketing campaigns? I’m guessing you’re struggling to think of something in particular. The average campaign consists of email blasts, ads in journals or the New York Review of Books, and a display at a scholarly conference.

In her book, Different, Youngme Moon wrote about innovative companies that try new ideas in marketing their products. She argued that great marketing comes when marketers are prepared to break from the crowd and do something that makes people pay attention. Originality sparks interest, and interest begets sales. More recently, Ryan Holiday pulled back the curtain on how to manipulate the media into giving you the attention you want. In his book, Trust me, I’m Lying, he says, break the rules and you will make the media have to cover your product/story, no matter what it is. Two different books with different messages and methods, but they point in the same direction: don’t be content with doing what everyone else does.

I think the size and flexibility of university presses should mean that we don’t have to follow the crowd and should encourage us to break the rules of marketing books that we all take for granted. The rules, as I see them, are: take ads in journals that include as many books as possible; take exhibit space at scholarly conferences; send emails to previous buyers and relevant academics; create seasonal and subject catalogues. Now let’s see how we can break those rules.

1. Take ad space where others don’t. Journal ads are fine; so are conference program ads, but that’s just it, they’re fine. What about unusual ads? Sponsorships, billboards, sides of cars or buses are all advertisements that university presses don’t normally take. Craft the ads you do take to truly suit the audience. Simply rehashing the same ad with the same blurb and book cover image is tired, old, and follows the rules. Look at what everyone else does and then take an oppositional stance. It sounds easy, but I know it’s not. Still, advertising in different places with a different aesthetic or message is going to jump out and make people take notice.

 2. Exhibit space at conferences is something you just can’t mess with. We’re going to take that space and that’s all there is to it. Except, why not do something different with that space? Look at a scholarly conference exhibit room. Every university press looks just like all the others but with a different banner. Stack ‘em high is the motto; books everywhere; no consideration of aesthetic. But consider the retail world. If you walk into a designer-brand store on 5th Avenue in Manhattan you are faced with a small inventory of high-priced items where every piece is placed according to retail science. The approach is minimalist and exclusive. Simplicity and elegance reign. Now, contrast that with Wal-Mart, for instance. Exclusivity and minimalism are hard to find. The different approaches serve different audiences, obviously, but there are lessons to be learned from the former that can be used to break the rule of exhibits. Minimize the clutter in the exhibit space. Focus on the books (and authors) that will impress. Place books with care and attention. Make your booth the place to be both for authors and for attendees. Less books, more fanfare.

3. Emails, ah emails. It’s so easy, right? Stick a little bit of info about a book into an email, add the catchy subject line, “New Books in Subject X from University Press X,” and send it off to previous subject buyers, scholars in the field, lists you’ve rented. Simple. That’s the rule we need to break. Email marketing is its own science. Subject lines matter. Content certainly matters. Incentives and call-to-actions might actually get you what you want. Craft email subject lines with the same care you put into book titles. Decide which audience you’re aiming for and tailor your email subject, call-to-action, and content to that audience. It takes more time, but it’s worth it. Honestly, I hardly ever even open the “New Books” emails any more. I know what they’re going to say and how they’re going to look so the effectiveness of the email is lost immediately. I didn’t even click on it! We can use technology to pinpoint emails to specific people with specific needs. We have access to data on our customers and on potential customers that will allow us to offer them things they might truly want or need. Of the four rules here, breaking this one has to be the easiest.

4. Catalogues are tried, trusted, and effective in many ways. They serve different purposes depending on whether they are the seasonal or subject catalogues and I’m certainly not arguing here that we need to do the basics any differently. However, we’re at a point where we can create catalogues on the fly, for whatever purpose, for whatever audience. We can create a catalogue for one person, for a thousand; for a specific audience or for a broad one. If my data shows that there are twenty people on my customer list that have purchased a roughly correlated group of books over the past year or two I can create a catalogue with exactly the right combination of books to appeal to them. They don’t have to weed through subjects in which they have no interest. Every book in their personal catalogue will be about things I know they like. We can even create them with individuals’ names on them—in print and digital. We all take seasonal and subject catalogues to conferences even when the catalogues we take are partial fits for the audience. Instead, produce conference catalogues specific to the subjects discussed at the conference. Look through the program and put together a catalogue with books from your list that tie directly to the panels and/or theme of the conference. Just as with the email rule we need to break, this one is a little more labor-intensive, but the value of providing customers with information that applies directly to them cannot be overstated.

Breaking the rules isn’t always easy. These marketing rules have developed organically because they have worked, but they’re old, out of date. Taking those rules and finding ways to break them and do things differently is exactly the approach that will make a marketing campaign stand out from the competition. Standing out for positive reasons creates attention and better sales. Be different, break the rules, and see what happens.

-Martyn (@martynbeeny)