Marketer of the Year

One great reason to get out of the office is to discover great people and learn from them. While in San Diego this week, I discovered a brilliant marketer with a lot of important things to teach the rest of us.

He was wearing a yellow jumpsuit. It used to be orange, but he’s worn it so much out in the field and washed it so often that it has faded to the color of sunlight, which matches his bleached blonde hair. His name is John Bates, and he’s cofounder and evangelist for Big Words, a college bookstore.

Bates taught me that content, service, and commerce sites are going to come together over the next few years and which sites will win. The winners will be those that are in closest touch with their customers. (Content sites call them readers, and service sites call them clients, but they’re the same thing.)

Big Words started as a textbook retailer but now considers itself a demographic and lifestyle destination for college students, offering everything from scented oils to free email.

“College is about the relationships you make,” Bates said. (That’s wisdom; read it again.) Big Words succeeds because of the quality of its relationships.

Bates learned that today’s college students respond to humor, irony, and the unvarnished truth. (When “The Simpsons” launched, today’s college students were Bart’s age.) Thus an early Big Words tag line was “We promise not to rip you off… as much.” The company has an affiliate program, sends email, has cross sponsorships with like-minded lifestyle sites, and runs banners.

But here’s the key: Big Words gets into its audience’s face. “We have thousands of campus consultants who wear our jumpsuits (they’re orange because they haven’t been washed as much as Bates’s) and go out with a huge blue bag of bouncy balls. They walk around campus and bounce them over to students, asking if they’ve heard of Big Words.

“It’s been stunning how well that works. We don’t make them sign something. We bounce them a bouncy ball, and the child comes out, asking what we’re doing. That’s one of those things that goes with the Internet phenomenon: Give something away, let them enjoy something of value to start the relationship, and keep that going.” The Tell-A-Friend program, in which students get discounts for referring friends to Big Words (the friends also get discounts), helps spread the word.

How did Big Words turn attention into customers? Bates asked students what they needed, then gave it to them. “If you think people are upset over how much they pay for their books, wait until they sell them back for next to nothing. Here we thought the pain was the book-buying experience at $80-120 per book. The true point of pain is selling the book back and feeling ripped off.

“So we gave people really good deals, aggressively better than the bookstore, and said if you take site credit, we’ll give you even more. So 80 percent take site credit. Now we’ve got the book, we can sell it again before we pay out at all, and we can look at the people who took site credit and know it’s future sales.”

Wow, I thought. Get in your target’s face, give before taking, listen, and respond. John Bates (jumpsuit and all) is 2000’s Marketer of the Year.

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