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Serving Social Goals with a Mix of Media

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Northwest Media started out 18 years ago in the den of my home, when I worked with a video production partner on creating a training video against drinking and driving.Since we didn’t have the money to rent the equipment to finish the project, I went out fundraising.

At the time, Oregon was in a recession and there was little money going around. However I felt that the realistic video we made should be given to all the high schools to help students become aware of this important social problem. Back then, I hadn’t even thought about publishing books.

 

Steps toward Saving Lives

Our first marketing plan, which involved selling sponsorships, quickly failed. I found out that we were asking for too much money from any one sponsor and that most companies I presented to were not interested in advertising to high school students. So, in our next attempt to raising money, we created the idea of a newspaper tabloid insert, a 12-page newsprint publication focused on Drinking and Driving. This publication was inserted in every daily newspaper in Oregon. I talked fast and hard and sold page sponsorships in that insert to cover the costs of the publication and the video project.

It worked. The tabloid was inserted just before Thanksgiving of 1985. And in the following holiday season, for the first time in many years, there were no fatalities in Oregon (which I still like to think was partly due to our Drinking and Driving insert). At the same time, the number of traffic accident victims went up in states other than Oregon.

 

We showed the project off to additional states. The State of California Traffic Safety Department was so impressed by what we did that they sponsored us for the next three years to create Teenwork Alert. This special tabloid for high school students focused on the problems of drinking. We printed 1.3 million copies and shipped them to more than 500 high schools. Teenwork Alert was a precursor to Getting Ready, our life skills magazine for at-risk youth, which we have been publishing for 15 years now.

 

Books Help Fulfill the Mission

That opportunity led us to a realization of our mission–to be an innovative multimedia company specializing in social learning. This niche has a small, dedicated retail market, mostly social service agencies like foster care, juvenile justice, etc. It is not a “get rich” market, but it can produce a good steady business. Quality books and products sell in batch-buys to agencies serving the targeted topic population. For instance, our illustrated book Teenage Human Body Operator Manual–designed to teach health to at-risk youth–sells to specialized schools. We have it packaged as a full-length health curriculum complete with a video for trainers in foster care and organizations like the Job Corps. The stand-alone book has some sales through the traditional bookstore.

We were in the right place at the right time with our mission. The electronic revolution swooped up video production and traditional media, and we jumped on the bandwagon. A couple of years back, we decided to launch many of our products into mainstream markets. For example, we just released Off Road Parenting, a combination book and DVD designed to teach parents how to deal with difficult behavior in children and teens. Using the DVD’s remote control, parents can choose a particular age group and view behavior scenarios with a variety of endings. This self-help book took more than five years to make.

 

Funding Comes from Government Grants

How can we afford to make a DVD book that requires an investment of several hundred thousand dollars that we don’t have? Development for many of our products, including Off Road Parenting, is funded by Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) grants from the Department of Health and Human Services that offer up to $750,000 to build a product and study it.

These grants require researching the effectiveness of your new product. While the grants are available to just about any small company three times a year, they’re competitive and not easy to get. Early on, we designed our company to meet the needs of the SBIR grant, and we have now been successfully proposing and researching new products for more than 10 years.

Generally, we have two or three of these grants going to fund our projects. At all times with these grants, our company retains ownership of what we produce and we’re encouraged by the government to sell the products for a profit. Many government agencies offer participation in the SBIR program. You can look up the SBIR program on the Web.

 

Aiming at More Markets

One of our most sweeping SBIR projects is Vstreet.com, an online site for teens on life skills. There, teens can view animated cartoons on subjects ranging from job-hunting to interacting with police; they can watch an ongoing soap opera that deals with teen social issues, or they can chat with other teens in a supervised environment. Several life-skill curriculums in animated cartoon format help adolescents with such activities as purchasing a used car, or inform them on topics like HIV/STI prevention. Another curriculum helping young people with career choices will be added within the next few months.

How do we get Vstreet–an Internet product–to traditional markets like libraries, etc.? Well, that is one of the wonders of technology. Last year, we took a number of the Vstreet.com animated curriculums and transferred them to DVD and CD-ROM. These products already sell to our niche market of social service agencies. Our goal this year is to expand our market to libraries and schools. On a very limited budget, we decided to take advantage of the PMA promotional space in the American Library Association exhibit to see the response to these products.

 

What Spurs Sales

We have a direct sales department that communicates directly with our niche market–foster parents, social workers, and state agencies. Our video products also help sell our publication products and vice versa. About 10 years ago, we produced our first product catalog. We now distribute two 34-page, slick-paper catalogs every year to 80,000 recipients. SocialLearning.com is the online version of our product catalog.

Our print and Web-based catalogs also feature social learning products from other companies in the social service and school markets. Many of these companies, in turn, re-sell our training products–including our books–to their customers. Our success in building up a group of catalog re-sellers was directly tied to publishing a direct marketing catalog.

Now that we have been in business for 17 years, we have grown to become a mid-sized publishing company with over 25 employees and a number of freelancers. Because we have had initial success with our niche market approach, and because we have more 50 products, we may seem like a successful middle-size publishing company to you. Yet when it comes to the world of trade bookselling and multimedia products, we are beginners and learning as we go–including info from some very helpful articles in the PMA Newsletter.

Joining PMA has already helped us save on shipping and liability insurance costs. In addition, the unique mailing services are a great advantage to us. Still we find it difficult to get products such as Off Road Parenting into general bookstores. It’s been a hard road to travel! From distribution to getting reviews, we continue to search for better ways to get our product recognized and sold. One option, which we have not yet explored, is using specialized sales representatives.

But no matter what our daily sales are, it’s exciting when an order for 60 copies of Teenage Human Body Operator’s Manual comes across the fax from Baker & Taylor, or another wholesaler! Each of these sales represents our entry into the new (to us) world of the retail book market!

 

Lee White is the President of Northwest Media, Inc. For more information about the company, visit www.northwestmedia.com, www.sociallearning.com, or www.vstreet.com.

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