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Marketing the Cow with the Cow

When I was writing Purple Cow, I tried to chronicle how successful marketers are putting idea diffusion to work. The idea is pretty simple--find a small group that cares, give them something remarkable and make it easy to tell their friends (the folks who don't care as much).

In thinking about how to market this book, I took my own advice. The first step was to post my marketing plan online, sort of as a reality check and a self-challenge, all at the same time. This is what I wrote

Marketing plan for a marketing book
Loyal readers will remember that I used permission marketing techniques to market my book Permission Marketing. If you wrote to (it still works): free@permission.com, you get the first four chapters of the book for free. I ended up with an astonishing 150,000 plus requests, and it made the book successful.

With Unleashing the Ideavirus, I decided to follow the advice in the book and give the book away for free. (it's still free at www.ideavirus.com). We ended up, by my estimate, spreading 2 million copies around the world that way. As that happened, the hardcover edition went to #5 on Amazon US, reaching #4 in Japan.

So, with My new book, Purple Cow the challenge was to create a plan that represented the ideas in the book itself. In a nutshell:

  • Sell what people are buying
  • Focus on the early adopters and sneezers
  • Make it remarkable enough for them to pay attention
  • Make it easy for them to spread
  • Let it work its own way to the mass market.

So, I started with a topic I knew a population was interested in--new marketing ideas. Books about change are important, but nobody gets excited about change they way they get excited about Jet Blue.

Working with my colleagues at Fast Company, we put an excerpt from the book on the cover of the February issue (In Praise of the Purple Cow). In that article, we mentioned that subscribers and readers could get a free copy of the book if they paid $5 for postage and handling (while supplies last, only in the USA, close cover before striking): Get a Free Copy of Purple Cow....So far so good. More than 650 people signed up in the first 24 hours, and ALL the free books we allocated (about 5,000) will be gone soon after I write this.

The next step was to do something else remarkable and make it easy to spread the idea. So here goes: The book is NOT available on Amazon and NOT available for sale one at a time. The only way to buy one is to buy TWELVE! Visit the Purple Cow web page and you can see how you can buy a set.

Obviously, the goal is to get you to share 11 with your colleagues, further spreading the word.
Did I mention that we ship the book in a real honest-to-goodness milk carton? We do.

So, pretty soon the 4,000 copies we allocated for this bulk offer will be gone.* Then what happens?

Well, my hope is that after seeding the sneezers, the book itself is remarkable enough and Purple enough that other people will want a copy. By then, my big-time New York publisher (who shall be revealed soon) will have books ready for every bookstore in the land.

This plan, which seems risky and chaotic, is exactly the sort of thing I'm recommending for most new products. Small risks, focused audiences, limited mass marketing. Not that risky. But if you're used to the other way, yes, chaotic.

*if you do the math, you can see it was hardly risky at all. With 10,000 copies printed, the first print run is extremely unlikely to lose money, even at the extremely low retail pricing we're using to get it started. You know what's risky? What's risky is telling you my plans in advance, because when they fail (and they do! often!) I look pretty dumb. But here I am, as a public service, marketing out loud.

What Happened
Well, if the whole thing had been a failure, it wouldn't have looked good. What I didn't anticipate (at all) is how much of a success it would be.

The article ran in Fast Company. Within three days, almost all the books were gone. Within 19 days, not only had we allocated all of the 'free' copies, but we had completely sold out of 12 packs as well.

Some companies tried to order HUNDREDS of books at a time, but we turned them away so we'd have enough copies to spread the idea around.

Two months before the book is due out in hardcover, Amazon ranks it in the top 1,900. Not high enough, but a start.

So, what's the message?

Well, the group I targeted at first was the right one. Fast Company readers love new ideas and are focused on them. I didn't have to interrupt them--I already had their permission.

Also, Fast Company readers, like most people, love a bargain. So five dollars for the book's postage and handling seemed like a good deal.

The best part was that after sending out 5,000 copies of the book (in milk cartons!) we managed to make an impression. Apparently the milk carton was remarkable.

I got tons of mail from people who loved the milk carton and wanted to share it with friends. That's where the "buy by the dozen" part kicked in. Since people couldn't buy one or two or four copies, they had to buy 12 if they wanted to share. I priced this at $60, trying to make it irresistible.

The danger of this strategy is obvious. Some people, regardless of how motivated they might be, aren't willing to pay $60 to spread someone else's idea even if they really like it. I could have ended up selling no more books. The idea would have stopped there.

We got lucky. We sold out the bulk copies in just a few days. And the side effect is that those copies are going to people who (hopefully) will tell other people.

Now the real test comes in--will the idea be remarkable enough that THOSE people will go to a local bookstore and pay $19 for a hardcover to give to THEIR friends? We'll see.

Obviously, this approach is applicable to just about any idea-based product, whether it's consulting or clothes. Find the core market. Discover their otaku. Make it easy to sample. Make it easy to share. Hope that it hits critical mass.


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