A couple of weeks ago, news broke of the Build-a-Bear mess. (Build a Bear offered customers a chance to pay in dollars whatever the age of their child was. The outcome was chaos and madness and thousands of people lining up to try and take advantage of the promo.) My wife texted me to share a story and commented that the “pay-your-age” tactic was similar to our #PWYW sale, but didn’t seem to be going quite so successfully! One day later, Chuck E. Cheese offered a similar incentive. (For the price of a child’s age, the child could play as many games as they wanted for thirty minutes.) I’m not directly comparing our #PWYW sale because circumstances are different in each case, but there do seem to be connections and things we can take from all three campaigns.
What’s the difference between good and bad marketing? Sometimes, it’s a really thin margin of error. When I read about Build-a-Bear and then Chuck E. Cheese and thought about #PWYW, it struck me how easily each of these examples could have gone differently. With a little more careful planning and a timely reaction, Build-a-Bear could have been the talk of the town with a smart, adventurous marketing campaign. Instead, they quickly became a case study in how not to handle unanticipated demand. Chuck E. Cheese barely caught any flak at all because of the timing of their much-more-limited pay-what-you-age campaign. At CUP, we rode a wave far bigger than expected, but we managed to keep our balance the whole way into the beach.
We can all learn lessons, though, even for something so different from young kids making the teddy bear of their dream as publishing scholarly books for academics and libraries. No matter the original scope or intention, customers love an insanely good deal. For parents, the opportunity to get a $30+ bear for less than $5 was too good to miss. For grad students, our offer to pay whatever they wanted for books that often run upwards of $50, made heads turn. Upset children who had missed out on a bear quickly found solace in Chuck E. Cheese’s timely offer. A bargain (especially a timely one) is going to draw customers in.
I’ve already written about it and won’t pretend that we foresaw the size of that wave coming, but we made sure to react quickly and courteously, when we did realize we’d found ourselves on a monster off the coast of Portugal. When you’re reacting in real time to demand beyond your expectations you aren’t going to get everything right; but basic, sound principles of customer service and sales are going to keep your head above water. Sadly, Build-a-Bear just didn’t use tried and true customer service skills when this happened. Trying to placate irate parents contending with upset toddlers and young children with a gift voucher that didn’t even amount to the same price struck me as a recipe for disaster. The ingredients: bad PR, poor customer relations, and lost sales. When we couldn’t immediately cope with the demand during #PWYW, we sent every individual who emailed us a polite apology for the delay, promised we would address their offer even though the window for PWYW was ending, and then, as quickly as we could, responded with the same protocols we’d used on the actual day of the sale. In other words, we treated each person like a valuable customer, and offered them the same deal they would have got if the demand hadn’t been more than we could handle.
In marketing, there’s always something we could have done better, an outcome no one quite anticipated. But as book marketing becomes more dynamic, more content driven, more necessarily creative and non-traditional, these kinds of campaigns are going to feature more often. We’ll need to be on our toes and ready to handle a “crisis” as it happens rather than take the slow approach that tends to have accompanied much of what we have all done in the past. When customer reaction and interaction happens in real time, and is broadcast and shared in the same way, it’s our responsibility as forward-thinking marketers to react and interact in the same way. We must reflect on our customers, know them, think like them, and provide them with the brand experience they wish for, not the one we could simply afford.
About the author of this blog post: Martyn Beeny is Marketing and Sales Director at Cornell University Press. He thought about trying the pay-your-age deal at Build-a-Bear, but you know, math. You can follow him on Twitter, @MartynBeeny