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The Potato Chip Story: Pick the Medium; Package the Message

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Dialogue Press is about to celebrate its fifth anniversary as a small publisher. My wife and I started out with a few part-time employees/contractors and one title, then added a second title, did some consulting/packaging and ghostwriting, and now teach classes and offer other services for small press/self-publishers and novice authors.

Before we started this, I was a full-time management consultant, specializing in business planning, marketing strategy, and innovative marketing solutions. Clients spanned the full spectrum from small startups to Fortune 100 corporations, consumer and industrial companies, B2B–you name it.

Considering that my roots go back to brand management at Procter & Gamble, Frito-Lay, and International Playtex, you might think that I got into publishing with all the marketing knowhow we’d need. Well, the background certainly came in handy, but, as we learned early on, publishing is different enough from other industries that significant retooling of strategies and tactics is necessary in order to succeed.

More specifically, we learned that (1) marketing fundamentals always apply–good marketing is good marketing in any industry; (2) some issues are so peculiar to publishing that you might never understand them if you don’t have someone to explain them; and (3) translating solid marketing principles from other industries into publishing could take quite a while if you don’t recognize the differences up front.

That’s when we decided that if we were going to get into self-publishing at all, we would need to learn the ropes from the ground up, do everything ourselves that we possibly could (at least the first time), and decide only after we’d gone through a cycle or two whether self-publishing was really the right way for us to go.

What Didn’t Work

Our first book–The Potato Chip Difference: How to Apply Leading Edge Marketing Strategies to Landing the Job You Want–was targeted at mid- and senior-level executives who found themselves in the job market, either by choice or circumstance. Our timing couldn’t have been better. The first printing arrived within weeks of the bursting of the dot-com bubble, and there were plenty of out-of-work executives who didn’t know where to turn.

The problem was how to reach them and let them know about The Potato Chip Difference. We had distribution at major bookstores and online booksellers (through Ingram and Baker & Taylor, Amazon’s Advantage program, etc.), but we recognized that distribution alone doesn’t sell books any more than distribution alone sells soap.

Local publicity helped, but not enough. We targeted newspapers, cable television, and radio in selected areas and set up author appearances at libraries and bookstores, but before long we realized that there are too many markets in the United States for this approach. We did a great job in metro New York, the west coast of Florida, Chicago, and a few other places, but that was time consuming and expensive, and it still missed the majority of our real target audience. We wanted the broad exposure throughout the country that brand-name consumer goods get.

Fortunately, experience with these limited opportunities taught us valuable lessons that eventually led us to a better approach.

The Booklet-based Strategy

First, we learned that a new book isn’t news even though a new car might be. Hundreds or thousands of new books come out every week, and every author wants a share of the available air time and print space. We needed a hook that would grab editors’ attention and create a compelling reason to move our materials to the top of their piles.

Further, we were reminded that our book’s main title, The Potato Chip Difference, while memorable and intriguing (we hope), doesn’t really tell what the book is about without some additional amplification (as provided in the subtitle), and that readers need a lot more information to understand a particular book than they need to understand a particular shampoo.

That’s when we had what turned out to be a stroke of genius for getting publicity for a book: we created a small booklet–12 pages, plus cover–titled 10 Stupid Things Job Seekers Do That Guarantee They’ll Be Looking for Work Again Soon. It focused on the traditional steps most job seekers take and explained why those were exactly the wrong things to be doing. Of course, the booklet suggests The Potato Chip Difference as the place to find some alternatives more likely to accomplish the desired objective.

The booklet was a big hit with editors. They liked the arresting title (even though it’s long), the list approach, the easy sound bites it generated, and the simplicity and intriguing nature of the quick-fix action items. We got lots of ink with the booklet, including sidebars with the “10 stupids” (as we called them), and even serialized versions in key newsletters–10 weeks’ worth of ink, in some cases.

We also offered the booklet for sale on our Web site ($2.50, plus $.50 shipping and handling), and we gave it away free when people purchased the book directly from us. For quite a while, we were selling almost as many booklets as books! (We don’t know how many booklet-only customers came back to buy the book.)

On the second printing of the booklet, we sold ad space on the back cover to one of our partner search sites, since they wanted to reach the same target audience. The ad revenue covered all our printing costs, and they got great publicity at a fraction of what it might otherwise have cost them in traditional media.

This Way to a Major Marketing Coup

But the best was yet to be. One editor’s positive experience with the booklet led to what ultimately proved to be our most effective marketing tools–articles and columns in newsletters targeted at our primary audience: job seekers. She asked if we could develop a series of articles about job-search strategies for her weekly newsletter.

Unlike most markets, job seekers don’t have media targeted specifically to them. You can’t just go out and purchase an ad in The Job Seeker’s Weekly. That publication doesn’t exist. And it’s extremely inefficient to buy ads in general publications; you have to pay for everyone who reads them, not just those who happen to be in the job market. Since only about 20 percent of people are in the job market at any one time, that means you have to pay for five readers to reach one in your target audience–not a very smart thing to do, and certainly not a way to maximize the effectiveness or efficiency of your marketing budget.

So the solution for us was to partner with the major online executive job-search sites catering to our target market. They all have newsletters (weekly, biweekly, or monthly) and need a continuing flow of solid, relevant content. And they are all reaching exactly the people we’re trying to reach.

We generated about 85 different articles–noncommercial–on the subject of job-search strategy and provided them at no cost to the search-site newsletters, requesting only that they identify the author, mention the book title, and link to our site. Many of them also put the book on their recommended resources lists, though that wasn’t a requirement.

The results were truly exciting. Every day after an article appeared we found orders for books waiting in our email inbox. And the sales were all at full revenue, with the customer paying shipping and handling charges.

And at the same time these direct sales were peaking, our sales through Amazon.com spiked, and we were ranked in the top 10 in our category for more than a year. It was really an exciting ride.

We are now in our third printing and still generating sales with the same approach, albeit at a somewhat lower level. The book is as relevant as ever, but it’s becoming old news to the editors, and they are ultimately the gatekeepers in this business. They need new news on a regular basis–even though the old subject matter is still new to their customers, most of whom have never heard the story before. (Job seekers are typically out of that market for three to four years after they land a job, as the average tenure with the same employer is approximately 40 months.)

We took a few months off to complete a ghostwriting assignment and tend to the basic consulting business (where clients were wondering if we’d lost our marbles), but we now have a second title on the store shelves, and we’re about to launch a marketing campaign that builds on what we learned with title #1. We hope it will help with your next titles too.

Michael Goodman is a veteran marketing/management consultant, author, and now publisher. Through his Dialogue Marketing Group, Inc., he applies basic marketing principles to business issues for clients worldwide. He can be reached via email at dialogue@optonline.net. His two recent books have their own Web sites: www.potatochipdifference.com and www.rasputinforhire.com.

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