The Remarkable Milk Carton

If you walked by your colleague’s desk and saw a purple and white, half-gallon milk carton sitting there, do you think you’d notice it? Might you ask about it? Seth Godin thinks you would, and he feels so strongly he built the marketing plan for his latest book, “Purple Cow“, around that idea.

Seth’s always a source of good marketing ideas. When I heard about his marketing plan, I knew he was a source for a good column idea, too.

If you’ve never heard of Seth, you’re probably new to the interactive marketing scene. He was founder and CEO of Yoyodyne, an interactive direct marketing firm acquired by Yahoo back in 1998. More recently, he’s become known as a widely traveled speaker and the author of books like “Permission Marketing“, “Unleashing the Ideavirus” and “Survival is Not Enough.” Seth markets each of his books using the ideas he advocates in their pages. In a very Zen way, the book is the marketing and the marketing is the book.

“With this book [Purple Cow] I wanted to do something remarkable,” Seth told me. “That way if it failed, I’d also be making a point about what worked and what didn’t.”

The book is about the need for marketers to be remarkable — to stand out from the crowd and to take risks. After all, the old ways of marketing — like spending millions on TV advertising – just aren’t as effective as they used to be.

Seth started his remarkable marketing campaign in February by leveraging his relationship with Fast Company magazine, where he’s a contributing editor. The magazine published an excerpt from the book, and offered free copies of the paperback edition to the first 5,000 people to sign up on Fast Company‘s Web site. Seth figured Fast Company readers were rabid about new business ideas, and likely to spread the word about his book, so they only had to pay $5 for shipping and handling. At the time, the book wasn’t yet available for purchase online. Seth sold out in four days.

“It was delivered in a milk carton,” he said. “When you got it you said, ‘Wow, this is not an ordinary book,’ because it’s in a milk carton.”

The milk carton got its next chance to shine in Phase Two of the marketing plan. Seth put books on sale on his Web site, but people weren’t allowed to buy just one. They had to buy at least a dozen, for $60. The idea was people would share the extra 11 books with their colleagues, customers and friends. Five thousand sold in 15 days. All were delivered in the distinctive milk carton.

“I decided to do my marketing on the desktop,” Seth said, adding he meant the real desktop, not the computer desktop. But he’s quick to point out the tactic isn’t for everyone. “This would not work for literary fiction,” he said. “I don’t think you can take a coming of age novel that takes place in Tibet and put it in a milk carton.”

Now, you may be thinking $60 is pretty darned cheap for 12 books. How could he possibly make money? Seth says it only cost him a dollar to print a paperback book and put it in a milk carton. (Eighty cents for the book, the rest for the carton.) The whole paperback run, which Seth paid for himself, served as marketing for the hardback edition, published by Penguin two and a half months later.

Why Buy the Cow When the Milk Is Free?

Penguin executives admit they thought Seth’s marketing plan was a big mistake. But Adrian Zackheim, publisher of Penguin’s Portfolio imprint, is a big fan of Seth’s and wanted a long-term relationship with the author. He was willing to accept what the company anticipated would be weak sales for “Purple Cow.”

Porfolio Marketing Director Will Weisser said, “[We thought] in the future, we wouldn’t let him do any such nonsense. What happened is that Seth got these milk cartons out there, and the buzz started building.”

In the months between the paperback offers and the hardback release, demand for “Purple Cow” grew. Seth says despite the fact that he’d given away so many books so cheaply, the hardback debuted at number 33 on Amazon and made the New York Times Bestseller List. So far, 80,000 hardcover copies have been printed. Seth says this title is selling twice as fast as “Permission Marketing.” It’s making a profit, too. Better, the books function as marketing for his public speaking career. He says his fees for four speeches would cover the entire cost of the “Purple Cow” marketing (and he does way more than four speeches in a year).

“The cool part about this thing is that a lot of people are questioning whether you can make living in an economy where content appears to be free,” he said. “It turns out the more you give away, the better you do.”

Although Seth says his aim was to do his marketing on the desktop, using the milk carton, the Internet clearly played a pivotal role. He signed up customers for the promotional offers online, and he told readers of his blog about the book promotion.

“I’ve really come to rely on my blog more and more,” he said. “I can really talk to a lot of people without interrupting them. If I put it on my blog and they see it, I don’t feel guilty,” (as he would were he to send an email).

As much as Seth’s is considered a guru of permission marketing, he’s very careful about using the permission he’s obtained to send email.

“In my case, my greatest asset is my list of tens of thousands of people who want to hear from me. That took five years, not five weeks or five days [to build],” he said. “I don’t talk to them in a way that helps me, but in a way that helps them. There are too many reputable marketers who are harvesting their permission database instead of caring for it.”

The takeaways from Seth’s marketing plan are the same as the ones he outlines in the book. It’s important to be remarkable (a Purple Cow), and to concentrate on reaching those who will spread the word about your product — because they believe in it, not because they want to market for you. Apparently, it’s working. Isn’t that exactly what I’m doing by writing this column?

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