July 07, 2005
Case Study

How to Get on the Wall Street Journal's Best-Seller List Via Online-Only Marketing & Distribution

SUMMARY: Would you like the next business title you publish to appear on WSJ's and The New York Times' nonfiction bestsellers lists without breaking the bank on ads or even distributing through traditional bookstores? Meet the Eisenberg brothers who sold 17,000 copies of their newest hardcover -- in one week -- via a guerrilla online PR and ecommerce campaign. The good news is you can copy their tactics on a tight budget. But you have to be willing to roll up your sleeves and work for it.
CHALLENGE Bryan and Jeffrey Eisenberg are brothers and co-founders of seven-year-old Internet marketing consulting firm, Future Now Inc. They had compiled years of their articles and columns into a new book and they wanted to get it onto the Wall Street Journal business best-seller list.

They weren't worrying about making money directly from book sales. They wanted the bragging rights of being best-selling authors to add some shimmer to their consulting practice, of course, but their primary objective was to attract a major publishing house to back them in publishing their next book, still in the idea stage.

In the meantime, working with a small independent publisher, they didn't have a conduit to get their book into the major book chains. They would have to sell their book solely online and get the word out without a budget for advertising. The brothers did some research on the intricacies of best-selling book lists and identified three factors that would be critical in meeting their goal.

Factor #1. Sell enough books to cross the minimum threshold of the list

This number depends on such variables as seasonality and the competition. (You don't want to go up against a new release from such hot business authors as ex-GE CEO, Jack Welsh, or Robert Kiyosaki of 'Rich Dad, Poor Dad.') Based on their research, the brothers set 10,000 copies as their goal.

Factor #2. Sell in a condensed time period

The Wall Street Journal looks at sales volume over the course of a week, so the brothers targeted a two-week window (so they'd have a second chance, if needed) between May 9, the book's official launch date, and May 22.

Factor #3. If the sale didn't go through an ecommerce site that reported to the WSJ, it wouldn't count

The WSJ counts books reported by Amazon.com and BarnesAndNoble.com. The business list also includes figures from 800-CEO-READ. So, the brothers planned to funnel every possible sale through those three online outlets.

Could they use guerilla Web tactics to get on WSJ's best-seller list without an ad budget or traditional bookstore distribution?

CAMPAIGN Although the campaign itself had two clearly defined phases -- pre-launch and post-launch, with May 9th as the launch date -- Jeffrey Eisenberg points out that the marketing campaign started with the design of the book, entitled 'Call to Action: Secret Formulas to Improve Online Results.'

-> Step 1: Make the product "buzz-worthy"

Without advertising to create an image for the book, the product had to be able to speak for itself – and withstand the scrutiny of the online personalities to whom the brothers would send review copies. The brothers "built" the book with the following attributes:

* Heft-value: "We decided to produce a hardcover book rather than a softcover or ebook because a hardcover really sends a different message," Jeffrey Eisenberg says.

"It's significantly more expensive to produce, from the paper stock to the embossing on the cover, but it shows."

The oversized hardcover weighed in at 326 pages, which would be seen as inherent value. About 80% was repurposed content from the brothers' past articles. For the remaining 20%, the Eisenbergs asked other known thought leaders in the field to contribute short tips.

* Provocative cover: With a rust-colored, mottled background, the cover features a gothic image of a gloomy bird (maybe made of metal) with wings outstretched perched beside a stack of old books. (Link to cover shot below.)

"It wasn't intended to mollify or be visually soothing," Eisenberg argues. "People have to feel an emotional connection if they're going to talk about something. Most marketers miss their greatest advocates because they play it too safe. If nobody hates it, nobody will love it."

* Bargain price: The Eisenbergs set the cover price for the newly published book at $13.95, "lower than any 326-page hardcover book has been priced in over 30 years."

-> Step #2: Launch prepublication campaigns

The Eisenbergs wanted word-of-mouth momentum to peak around the book's launch date of May 9th, so they started executing the campaign about three weeks before the launch in mid-April when the first run of books was printed.

In that time frame, the brothers made two important moves that allowed them to go into the launch with presold orders. (You'll find out why this mattered, later.)

Preselling Secret #A. The best bang for your bulk

The Eisenbergs sold a bulk order to WebTrends, a vendor in their field with whom they had a pre-existing relationship. They shipped the books in time for WebTrends to distribute copies to its own clients and prospects at one of the biggest online advertising industry trade shows of the year, which just happened to take place in late April.

Eisenberg hoped the book's buzz would begin when show attendees noticed a few of their peers carrying around an oversized hardcover book with an odd cover that no one had seen before. "It was important to create the impression of scarcity," says Eisenberg. "That creates a perception of value."

Preselling secret #B. The triple (volume) play

Next, the brothers ran a three-for-one offer from April 10 to May 1 "for the sole purpose of selling as many books as possible," says Eisenberg. "We encouraged purchasers to gift the other two."

The "ridiculously low" offer, which has been used by other authors to stoke their sales volume, was as much designed to get people talking about the deal as to move the books.

Next they focused on two types of high-impact PR tactics:

PR Tactic A: Give good content away

"If you really want to get people talking about you," notes Eisenberg, "don't be afraid to give good content away." They did that in five ways:

o Bloggers -- The Eisenbergs sent hardcover copies of the book, a couple of weeks prior to its official release, to a handpicked list of about 100 Internet media people and influential bloggers. "Some people, like Seth Godin, use their blog just like a newsletter," says Eisenberg, adding that only about 20 of the people on the list were bloggers.

Note: unlike many authors in their niche, the Eisenbergs shipped actual books, not PDFs, because influential recipients who wouldn't take the time to download a file might find a minute to scan the book. Plus, with its attention-getting cover and size, 'A Call to Action' would certainly stand out on someone's desk and look valuable to anyone sorting the mail.

o Releases -- From May 11-31, the brothers wrote a series of 15 press releases, which they distributed online via PR Web and PR Newswire. Each was based upon the content of the book itself, not just the fact that the book was newly released. Each release had a very different headline and theme. (Link below to sample releases.)

The Eisenbergs hoped trade press and email newsletter editors would run the content in whole or as the better part of an article. In turn, that article will have more impact (not to mention publication space) than a brief merely noting a new book has launched.

o Planted articles -- They wrote new articles for a select few email newsletters, including Agora's 'Early to Rise,' in return for a notation about their book with the byline.

o House newsletter -- Although this doesn't qualify as PR per se, the Eisenbergs used their own email newsletter, sent to clients, fans, and prospects, to introduce the new book and extend the three-for-one offer.

o Sample PDF -- In a similar vein, the Eisenbergs gave away a complete 23-page chapter of the book on the book's Web site. The copy invites visitors to "Download a few sample chapters to preview" with a hot link.

PR Tactic B: Use the phone (relentlessly)

A lot of Internet-oriented marketers tend to forget the phone, but the Eisenbergs used theirs shamelessly in the heated weeks before May 9.

They called repeatedly to make sure their 100 book recipients had gotten and seen their copies. (One hadn't because a colleague had seen it first and grabbed it off his desk.) They assured the online media and bloggers that it was their option to write about their new book, or not. But, if they were going to write anything, the Eisenbergs asked, please do so right around May 9th.

-> Step #3: The killer app: control ALL the orders

To make the best-seller list, remember, about 10,000 copies of the Eisenbergs' 'Call to Action' needed to be sold within a week or two by the three online sites The Wall Street Journal counted.

The Eisenbergs designed a Web site for the book, which was the only place on the Internet that the three-for-one offer was available. But, because sales from the book's site wouldn't be counted by the best-seller lists, the site was designed to capture the orders, including individual credit card numbers and addresses, but not fulfill them. The ecommerce function was unplugged, in essence, for the duration of the best-seller list quest.

Next, the Eisenbergs and their team manually entered each of these orders to Amazon, BN.com, or 800-CEO-Read. (The decisions on how, when, and how many orders were submitted to the online sites were made by a bookselling consultant the Eisenbergs hired for this project.)

This was voluminous and tedious work. Although BN.com and 800-CEO-Read allow bulk orders, the Amazon orders were put through one customer at a time (for three copies each).

"We treated Amazon the way SEO marketers treat Google," Eisenberg observes. "We don't know exactly how Amazon reports their sales, so we made educated guesses based on their history."

After the three-for-one deal expired and the book was available directly from the eretailers on May 9, the Eisenbergs continued to fulfill the orders from their site through Amazon, BN.com, and 800-CEO-Read through May 22nd to make sure every book would count. In addition, they added hotlinks to sales pages on Amazon and BN.com so visitors could go there directly rather than ordering from the authors if they so chose.

Step #4: Keep momentum going

Although the Eisenbergs had a good head start, they needed to continue vigorous book sales for the duration of the two-week campaign. This was critical since the sales were generally coming one at a time after the promotion ended.

Their post-release tactics included:

- A contest in partnership with a well-known industry email newsletter (MarketingSherpa) that ran May 16-30. Five books were given as prizes.

- A bulk sale of 75 copies to Buytelco for a contest on Webmasterradio.fm

- In their newsletter, the Eisenbergs posted articles "from the cutting room floor" as teasers for the book (implying that the book content was even better).

RESULTS The Eisenbergs beat their goal by 70% and sold more than 17,000 copies of their book. Because of the tactics they used, all of those sales registered in the single week of May 16 through 22.

Over the course of the three-for-one campaign, the Eisenbergs processed 1,248 orders for a total of 3,744 books.

Before the May 9th launch date, 90% of the orders needed for the Eisenbergs' original goal (and print run) of 10,000 were already in their hands, so they raised their sights beyond simply making The Wall Street Journal business list. "We realized we could sell a lot more and get additional impressive rankings, so we had the printer print more copies," says Eisenberg.

"Our printer did a heroic job printing those additional copies in three weeks," he adds.

As a consequence, 'Call to Action' received the following rankings: * No. 4 on The Wall Street Journal Business list (for week ended May 21) * No.11 on The Wall Street Journal non-fiction list (for week ended May 21) * No. 14 on the New York Times hardcover Advice bestseller list (for week ended May 22) * No. 4 on the USA Today/Money list (for week ended May 26) * No. 41 on USA Today's list of best sellers (for week ended May 26) * No. 5 among all the books on Amazon.com on May 9, the official day of the launch. The book subsequently reached the No. 5 ranking two more times during the month. * No. 1 for the month of May on 1-800-CEOREAD's Top 25 List.

"That was the goal of the whole campaign," Jeffrey Eisenberg says. "There were six major publishers — exactly the kind of publishers we targeted — who contacted our publisher wanting to do deals with us."

Conversion data

During the prerelease, three-for-one campaign, more than 70% of the visitors to the book's Web site ordered. This is an outrageously high conversion rate, which we assume is as much due to the quality of the lists who saw the book offers (such as house lists) as it is to the offer and site creative.

"An interesting thing is that after we stopped the campaign, the conversion rate got much higher, closer to 90%. Our guess is that the offer is more credible now." (Note: That 90% includes visitors who click on links to the three "recommended" e-commerce sites: Overstock.com, Amazon.com, and BN.com. We assume a degree of falloff may occur between those two points.)

PR results

* Influential bloggers can drive sales. The Eisenbergs saw their book's ranking on Amazon shoot up from the low 20s to #5 on May 12th after the following post on Seth Godin's Blog: "Despite the gawd-awful cover, this book is an astonishing bargain… I can't conceive of a Web site that won't benefit from the ideas inside. Still reading this blog? Stop! Go check out this book."

* Less famous bloggers often link to name-brand press online. Some of the book reviews posted by official online journalists wound up generating their own series of secondary blogger links.

* In total, the Eisenbergs recorded 34 posts from "credible" bloggers mentioning their book during May.

Useful links related to this article

Creative samples for this campaign: http://www.marketingsherpa.com/eisenberg/study.html

The official book Web site: http://www.calltoactionbook.com

Mike Drew, the book publicist consultant the Eisenbergs used: http://www.promoteabook.com

RJ Communications, the book printer the Eisenbergs praise as "super fast" and "super responsive.": http://www.selfpublishing.com

Future Now Inc: http://www.FutureNowInc.com

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