The Folly of Direct to Consumer

by Adam on January 23, 2013

The title for this post is intentionally meant to raise eyebrows, cause people to grab their pitchforks, and raise them over their heads in not-so-subtle exasperation. But, it’s also meant to grab your attention and focus it on an issue that’s getting so much attention in the bookselling business and beyond: direct to consumer sales.

DTC is the holy grail of marketing and sales professionals. And for good reason. If you can control the environment in which your consumers discover and purchase your products (books or otherwise), you can more effectively understand how consumers are attracted to products that you make, why they do or don’t purchase them, and how often marketing efforts lead to sales conversion. At the end of the day, it’s all about data (and potentially larger margins on sales).

The devil is in the details here though and there are so many instances of publishers (and other companies) saying that they do direct to consumer well. But, when you look closer, what do you see? Certainly, they have Facebook fan pages and Twitter followings and all is quite robust and good, but none of it leads back to a direct to consumer sales experience. Instead, they direct back to Amazon, or Barnes & Noble, or anywhere else that is NOT their website.

That may be direct to consumer, but it’s marketing, not sales and it doesn’t equal one penny of value if you can’t prove revenue or conversion with a data-driven approach. Anecdotally, we can all assume that a company that is using social media is more apt to convert customers, but there’s only tangential results that can tease those assumptions out, and even then, you don’t know exactly what drives it and how to build marketing programs that lead to higher conversion rates.

Many publishers are hesitant to invest deeply in a DTC sales program because it’s easier to drive consumers to other retailers and usually the retail and customer service experiences are much more robust. But, I would argue that those pieces of the equation matter less if a publisher can build brand affinity with an audience through DTC marketing programs (see how those two tie together?). It’s easier said than done, but it’s best done not through giveaways and contests on Facebook et al, but through active and engaging dialogues. And those have to be two-way, not just from the publisher directed outward (and not just publisher to consumer. It’s also worthwhile to bring authors into the marketing conversation from time to time too).

DTC sales doesn’t have to be the bugaboo that it’s made out to be, and publishers shouldn’t feel they need to do it all themselves. In truth, small to mid-sized publishers are best poised to do this because they can work with third-parties in many ways. There are smaller distribution houses (such as PSSC in Massachusetts) and even some of the mainstream distributors that are helping smaller houses get into DTC sales. Or, consider finding ways to form partnerships with smaller online retailers who are willing to share data in return for marketing and sales support. All of this could lead us to a point where we can start to really talk about direct to consumer and mean it.

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