Direct-to-consumer: Can you change buyer behavior?

Shopping-cart-728408_1920I recently visited a mid-size publisher to discuss direct-to-consumer (D2C) strategies with their sales and marketing leaders. Towards the end of the session I was asked the most important question of the day and it’s something publishers pursuing a D2C solution need to carefully assess: Can we really change buyer behavior?

The point is that most consumers are trained to buy from Amazon. Further, those same consumers don’t want to bother with multiple bookshelves and accounts. Once you start buying from one ebook retailer you tend to stick with them.

I’m an Amazon Prime member and that means Amazon is the first place I look to buy just about everything. Heck, we even “subscribe” to dog food on Amazon for our three basset hounds, so I’m a textbook example of a consumer who’s been trained by Bezos & Co.

My answer to the question was simple: No, you can’t change buyer behavior…unless you can truly offer a compelling reason for consumers to buy direct.

Simply adding a shopping cart to your catalog pages won’t cut it. You’re also not going to make a dent trying to beat Amazon on pricing, so why create a race to the bottom?

In order to change buyer behavior you’ve got to think about how you can offer something consumers won’t find anywhere else.

I told this publisher’s sales and marketing leaders they need to envision a product assortment that showcases items not available on Amazon or any other retailer. I’m talking about short-form content that complements their books, video material that’s only offered on the publisher’s site, and yes, even some full-length ebooks that aren’t distributed through traditional retailer channels.

Samples are another way of creating a compelling D2C solution. Publishers should super-size the samples they offer on their site. Make them longer than the ones consumers can get elsewhere and, when possible, add elements to make them richer as well.

Timing of samples can also be leveraged. Why not make those samples available earlier and exclusively on the publisher’s website? One of the things that frustrates me about upcoming titles is how the sample isn’t available till the book publishes. Why? OK, I know the goal is to have a coordinated launch date so that title rankings will all benefit from a synchronized release. Fine, but let me grab the sample before publication and backorder the title so I don’t forget about it. Publishers, you should offer samples exclusively on your website a month or so before the book actually publishes. Attract consumers and train them to come to you for the sample, not the retailer.

For publishers willing to acknowledge that digital rights management (DRM) only provides a false sense of security, sell your ebooks without this annoying limitation. Also, provide all formats to consumers when they buy direct (e.g., EPUB, mobi and PDF). Leverage services like Amazon’s “Send to Kindle” to push your D2C books onto the consumer’s Kindle bookshelf.

Turn all these services into a club readers can join then focus on surprising and delighting them every step of the way.

I admit this isn’t a model for all publishers. If your title list is wide and shallow, offering only one or two titles each on a large number of topics, you’ll never make this work. But if you cater to a particular genre or subject and your title list has plenty of depth you’ve already got the foundation for a compelling D2C solution.

Also, don’t underestimate the amount of work it takes to build and maintain D2C momentum. You need to plan a steady stream of exclusive content offerings and services, just as a magazine publisher creates an editorial calendar. Don’t assume you flip a switch, offer a few exclusive items and you’re done. This requires an ongoing commitment of dedicated resources.

If you’re one of those publishers with a deep foundational list you have two choices: You can either diversify your channel strategy by investing in a strong D2C model or you can sit back and let the big retailers determine your destiny. I strongly believe those who choose the former will be in a much better position to survive and thrive. 

Direct-to-consumer (D2C) starts with building community, not owning the sale

Directory-881420_640More and more book publishers seem to be focused on building a better direct relationship with consumers. Some of these direct-to-consumer (D2C) efforts are well thought-out while others are nothing more than publishers following the crowd.

How else do you explain so many publisher sites that are simply catalog pages with the option to by print or ebooks direct? What’s the compelling reason for someone to come to the site? Even if they find the site why would a consumer consider buying direct rather than from their favorite retailer?

It reminds me of the old days when everything was driven by seasonal (print) catalogs. The accounts insisted on having enough lead-time to promote titles, so the summer titles were presented the previous fall or winter. The print catalogs were then left behind with the buyer as evidence of the sales call presentation.

Most of today’s publisher websites are nothing more than the digital version of those seasonal catalogs. And since there’s no compelling reason for consumers to discover and explore them, many of these websites are ghost towns.  Publishers create them and then wonder why nobody visits or buys.

Here’s something most D2C-focused publishers overlook: It’s virtually impossible to change a consumer’s buying habits. The larger my Kindle ebook library, the less likely I am to buy my next ebook from a retailer not named Amazon, and that includes an aversion to buying direct from the publisher. It’s that wonderful retailer walled garden phenomenon; and those walls are something publishers helped create by insisting on locking their books inside DRM.

So if that spiffy website is unlikely to generate direct sales why does it exist? If your answer is “to increase discovery”, do yourself a favor and study the results of a Google search for your top titles, series and authors. If your pages aren’t among the top search result links you’re kidding yourself with the “discovery” justification. The top results are the ones getting all the clicks.

Rather than trying to change consumer buying habits and owning the sale, publishers should instead focus their D2C efforts on building community. Publishers own the relationship with authors, so as a publisher, what are you doing to build community around your authors? What are the top three reasons are you giving consumers to come to your website?

Btw, authors are just one component. Many publishers have popular series or dominate a specific genre. What are you doing to build community around that brand or genre?

It’s OK to still offer direct buy buttons on each title’s catalog page but your D2C buy buttons should be offered alongside buy buttons for all the popular retailer sites.  That includes buy buttons for print as well. Let the consumer decide where they want to buy and don’t force them to hunt for your product on a retailer’s site.

If publishers don’t spend the time building this community with consumers, who will? The retailers aren’t going to do it. Their focus is way too broad.

So although most publishers missed out on the opportunity to go direct in the digital era, there’s still plenty of time to establish a strong consumer relationship by using your site to build and foster community. Just be sure to keep your priorities straight and focus on community first and owning the sale second.

Lessons from one publisher’s aversion to ebooks

I recently did something that I haven’t done for more than five years: I bought a physical, print edition of a book. For myself. I didn’t want to, but I had to. The publisher made me do it. The story behind my purchase offers lessons for all book publishers, but especially those who have yet to embrace the ebook market.

I’m a huge baseball fan and when I heard that Hal McCoy, a legendary sportswriter, recently published a book about his career covering the Reds, well, I had to have it. If you take a quick look at that link to the book on the publisher’s website you’ll see they only sell a print edition there. A quick look on Amazon shows that print is the only option online as well.

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That made me stop and double-check the pub date. It’s 2015, after all, and surely every publisher offers e-editions of their frontlist, right? I’ve apparently stumbled across one of the remaining publishers who is still stuck in the 1990’s. 

Not to worry… I figured I’d just run out to one of the many local brick-and-mortar stores and buy a copy there. No dice. There’s not a single copy of this book to be found at any of the local stores.

Amazon offers it at 21% off the publisher’s list price though, and since I’m a Prime member I’ll get it in a couple of days. So here we have a small boutique publisher who is contributing to their own market limitations. In this world of digital abundance they prefer to live in the era of physical scarcity.

Why print-only? It’s hard to assume they haven’t found a viable way to quickly, easily and inexpensively create EPUBs and mobi files. Not only are there a variety of simple tools for this but there are dozens, if not hundreds, of outsource providers willing to do it for a song.

Is it fear of cannibalization? Perhaps. But is that such a bad thing? I’d argue in this case that the number of potential customers who aren’t buying the print edition because it’s not available far outweighs the number of customers who might opt for a cheaper e-version over of print.

Here’s a radical idea: Charge 50% more for the e-edition. So that $19.99 print book lists for $29.99 as an ebook. Even after Amazon applies their consumer discount the publisher still makes more than they do on any print copy sale. Btw, I paid almost $16 for the print edition through Amazon but I would have gladly paid $29.99 for an e-edition, if only they’d offer one.

The publisher wouldn’t have to stick with a permanent digital list price that’s 150% of the print list. Maybe they could just have it set that high for the first 30 or 60 days, for example. The key is to measure the results, see what can be learned from the combination of print and digital sales and adjust accordingly.

Here’s another radical idea: Sell the ebook direct exclusively for 30 or 60 days. After that initial period offer it through all  theother ebook channels. (Yes, I realize this means the publisher has to renegotiate terms with distributors.)

As a consumer I admit that I’m not a fan of paying more or having to go through some crazy DRM process on a publisher’s website when I buy direct. But in this case I’d be willing to live with both of those situations.

At the very least, how about this?: Offer me an e-sample on the publisher’s site so I can start reading the book while I wait for the print copy to arrive. And please don’t lock that sample…make it easy to copy and send to others; after all, it’s a marketing tool for the publisher and the author.

Measuring the negative impact of Digital Rights Management (DRM)

Still think DRM is good for IP owners? Have you bought into all the fear, uncertainty and doubt to believe DRM protects sales by keeping freeloaders away from your content?

If so, I’ve got a report you need to read. It’s one that came out late last year but didn’t get a lot of publicity.