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Branding + Word of Mouth = Profits

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Even if you’re a small independent publisher or brand new start-up, you can–and you should–establish a unique identity (a.k.a., a brand) for your company, just as larger companies do. And then, no matter what your company’s size, you should start using “word-of-mouth marketing” to promote it and your books.

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing two long-time friends whose personal story shows how well those tactics can work. Alan Freedman and Irma Morrison started their entrepreneurial, self-publishing venture in 1981 by establishing The Computer Language Company (CLC) and publishing The Computer Glossary. Their goal was the same then as it is today: “to demystify the jargon of computer science and technology and make it accessible to all.”

Now, 20 years and nine editions later, the Computer Language Company has sold more than 250,000 print copies of The Computer Glossary and its current title, the Computer Desktop Encyclopedia, altogether, and more than 500,000 CD-ROM copies via the Internet. Alan and Irma have hired one full-time staffer who calls companies, organizations, and associations and sells licenses for the online version of the encyclopedia. CLC’s product is recognized internationally as the definitive source for computer and technical definitions, explanations, and illustrations. The Glossary has been published by three commercial publishers (Prentice-Hall, AMACOM and, most recently, McGraw-Hill), and the entrepreneurial pair couldn’t be happier with the results.

Alan Freedman is the editorial arm of the CLC. His credentials begin when he was 12 and his mother enrolled him in “automation school.” He was an early participant in the personal computing industry and today he keeps up with technical literature, searching the Internet, reading papers and technical newsletters for new words to define and illustrate in the ever-growing, never-ending encyclopedia business. Irma Morrison, Alan’s partner and wife, has been responsible for sales and marketing, although she’ll be first to tell you that’s not the right term for what she does.

Being a book and direct marketer, I had lots of questions to ask about how they achieved their success. I was shocked to learn that these profitable publishers have almost no promotional literature, no direct marketing campaign, no publicist, and no formal marketing plan! What is their secret?


These Boots Were Made for Branding

In addition to being a publisher, Irma is also a dental hygienist. She started selling and marketing for the CLC without any formal knowledge of the business world, sales, marketing, promotion, direct mail, negotiation, sale of rights, publicity, or advertising. She has learned all of those skills on the job. But Irma already knew a lot about how to make people feel comfortable: “This is a very important skill,” she points out, “especially if you’re going to put your fingers into other people’s mouths!” And Irma is quick to note that she does not refer to her customers as “customers.” They are “my friends.”

Early in her sales career, Alan bought Irma a beautiful briefcase that she dutifully carried to every business meeting. The case was filled with copies of their book and seminar literature. The seminars, which Alan conducted, sold the book and the book sold future seminars. It was a profitable circle of activity. But Irma decided that to be successful, she needed to become memorable in the minds of her customers–i.e., to establish a brand.One thing she did was wear cowboy boots. “I wore them because they were comfortable and because people remembered me for wearing them,” says Irma. “People always noticed my cowboy boots, and it was a natural conversation door-opener. And when your feet are comfortable, that’s an added bonus!” To this day, some customers will call and ask, “Are you the lady with the cowboy boots?”

She also never wore suits to business meetings. “I dressed casually and treated every person I met not as a business client but as a potential new friend. And I thought of them in that way as well. We didn’t have ‘business meetings,’ we had ‘conversations.’ And we both came away feeling very positive about each other and the products that the Computer Language Company had to offer. A few days after my conversations with my new friends, the phone would ring and orders would be placed. I’d say thank you and we’d chat some more. That’s how it all began. There was no pressure, no negotiations, and no ‘hard sell.’ The sales and orders followed as a natural extension of this process.


The Customer as Sales Rep


Today Irma still wears her cowboy boots, but she does not need to go and visit “business friends.” She talks with callers by telephone. Some days the phone rings 25 times and some days it rings only once or twice, but almost every call results in an order or a site license sale. And Irma is always making new friends. When I asked what she had done to generate so many incoming calls, she said, “Nothing!” But I discovered some subtle word-of-mouth marketing at work, making one customer after another happy and satisfied. When Irma receives a call, her enthusiasm and energy jump right through the receiver and into the ear of her customer. Her warmth is contagious and customers respond with orders and credit card numbers. “Every time someone calls, I say to myself: ‘What can I do to help this person?’ “ And it’s that sincere helping focus that has kept people coming back edition after edition.

“You’re now an official sales representative for the Computer Language Company.” This is Irma’s favorite line for satisfied customers who call to order additional copies or the latest version of the CD. Irma appoints these happy, satisfied customers as “official, non-paid sales representatives” of the CLC and encourages them to go out and tell all their friends about their products. And you know what? They do! And the calls just keep coming and coming.

Irma’s contagious enthusiasm isn’t limited to the phones. She brings her warmth and distinctive style to e-mail as well. The CLC URL is listed both on the book cover and on the CD-ROM along with a message that encourages people to visit to obtain information about the latest update to the encyclopedia. Great pains have been taken to extensively register the URL with all of the major search engines. The Web site has a secure e-commerce ordering capability and also lists the company’s 800 number. And by following a cardinal marketing rule–listento your marketplace–theCLC also provides for immediate user feedback on its site. Visitors can ask a question, request a definition for a new term, or simply comment about their experience using the product. Irma responds to all these messages and adds a personal comment to every e-mail inquiry. It could be a note about the customer’s location or name or anything else that will break the ice and get the e-communication moving.

“Yes, it takes time,”

confirms Irma, “but every satisfied user goes on to tell others about our products and the whole thing just keeps mushrooming. You have to keep at it, however; I always notice when I take a vacation or slack off on the phones for a while… there is a direct correlation to the number of incoming calls I receive over the next several weeks.”

Another thing Irma says often on the phone is“Yes, you better believe we have a new update!” Currency is a big issue in selling the CLC’s product line and every incoming caller wants to know if a new version is available. To keep up with the demand for the most up-to-date version, the CLC is now offering version 14.4 of its CD-ROM product and site licenses ranging from one to thousands of users.

“My market is always shifting,”

says Alan Freedman. “Books are no longer where it’s at. CDs and Internet downloads represent my future. The book has become my promotional vehicle. It’s in all the stores and tens of thousands of copies are on shelves throughout the world, but I look at books as advertising for the real sale… that of a CD or a site license. My customers demand currency, and the only way to give it to them is on a frequently updated CD or Internet download.”

When customers call the Computer Language Company, they can still buy a book. However the customer is always encouraged to buy a site license so they will have access to the very latest “up-to-the-minute” definitions.


What Have We Learned?

The Computer Language Company’s 20 years of successful and profitable publishing offer a number of important lessons for PMA members:

About Branding:

• Publish qualitatively for a niche market.

• Be distinctive and memorable.

• Establish your unique identity.

• Reinforce your style, your personality, and the content of your list in everything that you do.

• Wear cowboy boots (or your version of this).

About Word-of-Mouth Marketing:

• Be friendly.

• Be full of energy and enthusiasm.

• Be courteous and polite to customers.

• Ask satisfied customers to tell others (they will).

• Monitor the shifts in the market and shift with them.

• Find ways to truly help your customers and show them that you care.


Robin Bartlett is the Director of Sales and Marketing for the American College of Physicians in Philadelphia, PA. A past member of the PMA Board of Directors, he chairs the PMA University and is a frequent contributor to the PMA Newsletter.

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