The Delectable Data Diet
by Christopher Robbins
There is an axiomatic truth universally understood but rarely followed: You can’t lose weight on a hot fudge sundae diet. But awhile back, I was gaining too much weight even though I was eating only really healthy food. I called a friend who heads a major corporation’s health program. He said, “Christopher, the only difference between someone who eats 3,000 calories of junk food and someone who eats 3,000 calories of healthy food is that one feels better than the other. They are both still fat.”
Ah, the truth was that I was fat (ouch!) because of a particular aspect of my behavior. I was ingesting too many calories, and understanding that helped me create a baseline for a healthier caloric intake, around 2,000 calories per day. I could then adjust my eating behavior accordingly.
What does this have to do with profitably publishing books? Everything.
When I ran Gibbs Smith from 1995 through 2012, I learned that there was a direct correlation between company behavior and the company’s financial results. Price a book outside its market, and distribution suffers. Miss the mark on packaging or promotion, and the returns percentage increases. Stop visiting your gift reps’ showrooms, and the number of books on stores’ shelves will drop. Add staff to increase sales without focusing their efforts appropriately, and overhead costs balloon.
Fretting over results like these, we often keep trying to enlarge our pants instead of figuring out what behaviors we should change. But, as Einstein once said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
I’m going to dish you up a triple-scoop sundae of performance metrics to show you how we manage our behavior for best results at our publishing company, and how you can do the same to make your company more successful.
Scoop #1: Identify the Results You Want
If, like most of us in this industry, you are working to improve book sales, your primary job is to identify the results you want and change your behavior and your company’s behavior to get those results.
I once participated in a multipublisher consultation exploration with Peter Workman of Workman Publishing and Jack Jensen of Chronicle Books, among others. The objective was to identify the key metrics that govern a book-publishing company’s profitability. We found that overhead as a percentage of sales, sales per employee, and backlist sales as a percentage of total sales were the three critical profitability metrics.
That makes perfect sense when you think about it. Leverage your fixed costs, staff, and backlist books, and you’ll improve profit. The job then is to align behavior to do just that. If you run a startup or a smaller company like ours, you might have other key metrics—sales per title, marketing dollars per sales dollar, and so on.
It’s up to you to pick the results you want. Here’s a tip: No one pays anyone to work hard. Everybody—and that includes a book’s customers and distributors—pays people to create positive change. What are your important results?
Scoop #2: Measure
After you have identified the results—aka the deliverables—you’ll need to know where you are. No exaggerations, no hiding even a minor skeleton in the closet. Show all those calories in all their diabolical glory.
For example: What is your current return rate? What is your revenue per title? What are average units sold per title? What’s your marketing cost per sales dollar? Once you have the truth, you can begin to change behavior, tweaking the inputs to get different outputs.
Here’s another tip: If yours is an established company that spends a lot, move your measurements out two decimal places. As you get bigger, hundredths of a percent can mean real money.
At Familius, we graph our results often—sales per day, returns as a percentage of sales per month, orders input per hour, yadda, yadda.
Here’s an example of how we look at this sort of data:
With data about actual returns, average returns, and rolling averages, we can see current, yearly, and trending activity. This information helps us explore what behaviors are leading to these results. “Hey,” you might say. “What about creativity? You can’t really measure my creativity!” Well, as Walt Disney once said, “If it doesn’t sell tickets, don’t call it creativity.”
Here’s an incentive. When performance is measured, performance improves. When performance is measured and reported back, the rate of improvement accelerates. I have actually seen performance improve simply as a result of measuring it. Seriously, try consistently measuring something important in your business, and keep track. Over time, the results will improve.
Scoop #3: Change Behavior
Once you have results objectives and measures of performance, it’s time to begin tweaking behavior to achieve those desired results. Since your current results correlate directly with your behavior, just rinse and repeat if they’re good. If not, remember Einstein’s quote: To get different results, you’ll have to do something differently.
There’s never been a better time to see results as they happen and change behavior to improve them. Using Google analytics, Facebook metrics, and other tools, you can see customer behavior and results immediately and experiment affordably. Then when the results aren’t what you want, you can pivot or change. And when they are what you want, you can increase investment.
Take online marketing via Facebook, for example. Using Facebook advertising, we recently tested ad design and our targeted demographic.
On the next page are two examples of the same ad for a Familius book called A Couple’s Guide to Happy Retirement, which tells you everything and more than you ever wanted to know about how to be happy now that you see each other 24/7—as if that’s a bad thing when 40 years ago you couldn’t get enough of each other. (Another tip: Your market ages, and you can age with it effectively.)
We wanted to test whether there was a demographic of relationship-dissatisfied Facebook boomers out there. We had already read statistics showing that more than half the people in the boomer generation are dissatisfied with their marriages, and that boomers have the highest divorce rate in the country.
With Facebook metrics, we identified age range, marital status, and gender (women), and used these to target an ad to people we thought could benefit from a $17.95 reminder of why they married this bloke in the first place. We then designed the ad that we hoped would get them to click and go directly to the product page and buy our book (see the ad at the top).
We had people do three things with this ad—”like” it, “comment” on it, and click it to go to the product page. Why did we spend pay-per-click bucks to have someone, regardless of marital satisfaction, comment on the ad? Or “like” it, for that matter? Of course, we tracked these results and knew we had made a mistake. We tweaked the ad to make sure people knew that it was a product placement ad and a call to get them to buy this book. Changing our behavior, we put a big “BUY NOW” button on it.
Here’s the second version.
What was the result? By the last day of this very small experiment (and despite an accidental increase in the price), we were seeing people click directly to the product page.
Here are the actual results:
However, we are not sure whether these results correlate with the change of design or whether they were influenced by a change in Facebook’s algorithm. Next behavior change? We have a call in to our Facebook friend to explore the results. The information we get will allow us to change behavior again.
We expect that we will try several more iterations of both demographic and design before we hit on the right one. Remember, we’re after results, positive change, to reach the objective, hit the goal, get there. We’re not trying to spend money, make our authors feel good about their Facebook ad, practice our Photoshop skills, or dilly-dally on Facebook. We’re challenging our behaviors to get better results.
So, what are the results you want? How are you currently measuring them? And, most important, what behaviors can you alter to create positive change?
Christopher Robbins is the founder of Familius.com, a company focused on helping families be happy. He can be reached at Christopher@familius.com.