Episode 9: Erik Nelson on Branding and Marketing

In this episode, Joshua talks with Erik Nelson, a friend and marketing consultant, about how publishers can approach rethinking their own branding, and develop a more powerful approach to marketing based on their passion and mission. 

Publishers, like other businesses, will fit broadly into three categories: 1) Those who are starting from scratch, have no major direct-to-consumer approach or marketing to speak of; 2) those who have a customer-facing brand, but know some things are broken and they don’t know where to start on the repairs; and 3) those who already have some momentum on branding and direct-to-consumer, but want to throw some rocket fuel on that area. This podcast will be helpful for publishers in all three of those situations. 

Before you jump headlong into marketing and advertising, though, you have to start with the “Why”. Where does the passion behind your company infuse your work? What’s the deeper, more aspirational thing that got you in this business? What gets you jazzed and excited? You want to bottle that up and show it to your customers.

After you know the Why, think about how you want to express it. That is where branding comes into the picture. Branding is like a mental shortcut for consumers. You want them to think of your brand when they think about the topic of passion behind it. Branding comes out in two areas: in the aesthetics or design, and in the messaging. 

Only after you have defined the Why, and developed the branding around that Why, can you start approaching the question of how to implement the sales and marketing aspects of your direct-to-consumer strategy. And that strategy will need to take on different forms in the pre-purchase, purchase, and post-purchase stages. 

Joshua and Erik get into all of this, and more, with direct connections to the publishing business and suggestions for helping you get more out of your branding. 

Erik has agreed to offer a free 30-minute call with anyone who wants to talk to him more about these topics, and about ways that he might be able to help you. Please visit his website at https://nelsonconsulting.co/.

Transcript

Joshua Tallent 
In previous episodes of the BookSmarts podcast, we’ve heard a couple of different opinions, mostly in passing, about whether or not publishers should be expanding and diversifying their business with direct-to-consumer sales. So for example, in Episode 7, Andy Hunter made the case for not selling your books direct to consumer, and instead focusing on supporting independent bookstores and companies like his own BookShop.org, which is trying to draw business away from Amazon.

I think there’s some pretty valid points to be made on each side of that discussion, but in general, it’s my personal opinion that diversifying your business is becoming more and more important. And as Andy mentioned, Amazon is consistently taking more and more of the online book sales. So we have to be careful as an industry and we can’t afford as an industry to let that behemoth just continue that trend indefinitely. So whether that means expanding to take on a direct-to-consumer approach or not, the goal, I think, should be always to expand the visibility and availability of your products. But how do you do that? How do you actually start the diversification process? And what are the steps that you need to take to get started?

So I was just chatting with my friend Erik Nelson about this a few weeks ago. Erik has 20 years of experience working in Fortune 200 environments, and now runs a consultancy that helps companies with branding and marketing and sales. So after I picked his brain about these topics for a bit, I just thought, you know, it’d be good to just invite him onto the podcast, and help us investigate these questions a little bit more. So Erik, thanks for joining me.

Erik Nelson 
Thanks for having me, Joshua. As you’re saying that intro, just sounds like a lot of this is orbiting around, How as a publisher, do I take control of my future? How do I, you know, play defense with some of the big dogs out there? But also getting a little offense myself.

Joshua Tallent 

Yeah. And where do you get started? What do you do as a publisher? I’ve got books, I have the things that I want to sell. I’m selling them already. But how do I really figure out where I am as a publisher? How do I get more of that diversification? How do I—even if I don’t want to sell the books myself on my own website? Maybe that’s too big of a picture. Or maybe I already am. What is it that I can do, though, to diversify my business, and hopefully pull more of that direct-to-consumer thought and approach into my business model?

Erik Nelson 

Yeah, great question. I think today what we’ll be able to cover—because of course, every individual business has its own needs, sometimes more complex needs, not a problem, oftentimes, that’s an opportunity—is kind of get some shape around the larger conversation to your point of how do we get started. And my hunch is that audiences listening today, publishers, business owners fall into one of three categories. My hunch is, the first one would be, you’re starting from scratch, that you heard podcast 7, and you’re saying, I would really like to have my own brand and begin to move that direction and catch some of the momentum I create, not let it all just, you know, go to Amazon or Barnes & Noble whoever. Or you fall in the second category, you have a customer-facing brand, but you’re not really seeing the results you want. You know, some things are broken, and you don’t necessarily know where to start there. Or maybe you’re the third and that would be you have some momentum as a brand, but you really like to, you know, throw some rocket fuel on that and accelerate the growth. And so I think no matter where you’re at in that dialogue, I think some of the things that I have today and some of the ways of thinking, some of the ideas, the hope is they’ll be helpful.

Joshua Tallent 

Yeah, and I think that first category at first type of person fits really well in a lot of publishers that I’ve talked to. Because a lot of publishers have relied, I mean, historically, publishing has relied very heavily on retailers to do the selling of books, and in doing so has kind of kept a distance from the consumer that keeps the consumer from really knowing who a publisher is. Most people don’t know who published Harry Potter. Most people don’t know who publishes any of their other most popular authors. They know the authors really well, that’s a brand that they recognize, but not the publisher. So as publishers try to break out of that mold, a lot of them I think are in that first place. But there are also quite a few publishers, especially in very niche markets that are in the second and third. So it’s great. I think that’s a great breakout of the three different types of publishers or types of businesses that are trying to deal with the diversification and branding.

Erik Nelson

Okay, well, I think what we can do then is I’ll carry on this conversation is if somebody coming in and saying I’m starting from scratch, because I think as I go through the process of what I would do you know if that that person was a client, there’ll be something for everybody. kind of along the road. Does that sound good?

Joshua Tallent 
That sounds great.

Erik Nelson 
So if this was our first conversation, where I would start—and this may be a little counterintuitive—is we want to talk about the “Why.” And I know probably somebody is doing the eye roll right now. But what I see with a lot of companies is where you started on the journey, let’s say if you started a business three years ago, or even a year ago, how you talk about what you’re doing, what you’re promoting, even a year later, or three, certainly three, or sometimes five years later, what you’re actually offering has shifted, right? So I think if we look at the Why as kind of that plumb line, we want to get back to it. And we want to—we really want to say, Where does passion infuse into that? So yeah, you know, I’ll ask a business owner, “Hey, why are you in business?” “To make money.” Like, okay, [buzzer noise] try again. What’s the deeper, more aspirational thing that got you in this business? What gets you jazzed and excited? When it comes to publishing? We want to bottle that up. So that’s where I start, and then quickly, we’re gonna turn to, you know, where am I at? You know, when we look at the addressable market, when we look at market opportunities, we’re positioned somewhere. So we need to get really honest about where that is. And then also, we want to extrapolate out, where would I like to be, ideally? Where would I like to be down the road? But a little note of caution on this. My experience—and I say this with humility because I found in my own business—it’s extremely hard to get there on your own. There’s a research project that was done in the late 90’s, and actually introduced a term called the Curse of Knowledge. Now, without going into that, essentially, in a nutshell, it’s, we’re too close to our own businesses and processes to oftentimes see them clearly, to get the objectivity. So I mean, you probably laugh, sometimes you’re in the room when I’m talking with the owner, because I’m asking them some seemingly dumb questions. But here’s the thing, I find that a lot of businesses because of the urgency that they feel internally, they’re not slowing down long enough oftentimes to ask these questions. Sometimes they’ve never asked these questions that are more fundamental, internally—why am I in this business? what gets me excited and passionate about what I do? And ultimately, again, defining where I’m at where I’m going.

Joshua Tallent 
And that would apply even—that passion about what you do—would apply even if you’re not the publisher of the of the publishing company: you’re working in marketing, you’re working in sales, you’re working in the editorial or production teams. You still need to have that understanding of the passion of the business, the goal of business, the direction the business is going. And this can apply to someone who—a publisher that’s very large or very small as well. Right?

Erik Nelson 
Absolutely. Absolutely. And I think Yeah, exactly what you said. It’s not that we’re asking just questions, we’re asking the right questions. And that’s where having a little bit of distance, and not being so close to it is really helpful.

Joshua Tallent 
Yeah, that’s good.

Erik Nelson 
So once we’re clear on, you know, what we’re doing here, the why, where we’re at, where we want to go—pretty quickly we’re going to shift into How do we express it? And so that’s where this term “branding” would enter the conversation. And I know when I first heard that, I really started actually more thinking about it deeply, it feels very vague, kind of feels large. Also, when you think about branding, things like sales and marketing quickly come into the conversation, some people kind of feel like they’re synonymous. So one byproduct, what we’re going to talk about is getting some teeth on all this in at least to the best of my ability, helping you separate out those three categories, branding, marketing, and sales. So start with branding. And I think the best definition I’ve heard is from Marty Neumeier, and it’s this: “A person’s gut feeling about an organization, person or company.” Another way I’ve heard it is it’s like it’s “a mental shortcut.” It’s kind of like when I when I go on to a landing page, have an interaction, if I touch on any front, if I start to interact with your company, I’m moving towards that gut feeling, and data shows that happens pretty quick.

Joshua Tallent 
And this is this is why—I was at the movies the other day, and before the movie started they had a Mountain Dew commercial on the on the screen, and the whole thing was just about feeling. Like it was about fresh and like—they were trying to convey a physical taste of the drink from the screen. But it was all about feeling. It wasn’t about the specific type of Mountain Dew, it was about the brand Mountain Dew and about how you felt about Mountain Dew. It’s really interesting you say that I just thought about that as well. It’s it really is—you’re getting across feelings to people about—when you can help somebody understand a feeling that they feel then they’ll remember that feeling with that brand.

Erik Nelson 
Absolutely. And as we both know and I’m sure the audience knows too, there’s tangible aspects to that, and there’s very aspirational. And it sounds like that particular facet of what they’re trying to get with that brand was connect you to a larger feeling, maybe a larger story in that way,

Joshua Tallent 
Which a lot of publishers are trying to do, right? If you’re if you’re a Christian publisher, you’re trying to, you have aspirational ideas about—we would want to teach people about Christian values and about theology or about, you know, we have Bible studies, or whatever it is. If you’re a romance publisher, you have aspirations or aspirational values, you want people to feel good about what they’re reading? You know, if you’re an education publisher, you want educators to want your books to use your books in their school. So there are lots of aspirational goals within publishing, that I think will come down. And when we’re talking about the brand of a publisher and about, you know, all these different things, the there’s a lot of aspirational energy in there.

Erik Nelson 
Absolutely, absolutely. So, now that we’ve kind of defined branding, you know, let’s get a little bit more into what does that mean, you know, we move out for the 30,000 foot and do a more granular picture. I think, two key categories. And again, if you’re if you’ve gotten into a lot of this, there’s a lot of ways to say it. But I think when we talk about design, or the aesthetic, that would be like one leg of the chair, or the stool rather, and then the other would probably be messaging. So what’s, what’s the aesthetic? What’s the visual aesthetic, messaging, and overall positioning you’re looking for, combined with, “How do we say it?” And so ultimately, these things kind of combine, you know, in in the publishing space, what we’re talking about here, to form kind of a digital footprint. You know, what’s kind of this ecosystem, is one way of putting it, in a digital space that is inviting the right, the ideal customer or the right kind of people into your “brand,” what’s that gut feeling we’re producing?

Joshua Tallent 
And that’s what you want on your website. That’s the feeling that you want to get across in your branding, and how you want to message it—that’s what you want your website to be as a publisher, is that place where people can get that—can meet that aspirational goal that they have in their mind, or to meet that goal that they have in their brain—that connection to your brand is on that website, in that digital footprint?

Erik Nelson 
Absolutely, absolutely. And we can broaden it because you have a website, you maybe have collateral, there’s, there’s digital interaction, and there’s sometimes physical interaction, even a networking event, how you talk to your neighbor about it. When you get clear, and you go through this process the right way. All those things collate, and you start to have a more powerful “brand” as it were, in all the different ways you express that. Does that make sense?

Joshua Tallent 
Yeah, totally.

Erik Nelson
You know, one of the most powerful things—since we’re talking about messaging, a little bit—that I’ve heard is a quote from an author, Donald Miller. And he says that, “Customers don’t buy the best products, they buy the products, they understand the fastest.” And that’s really helpful, because data is showing that most people are on a website for about a minute, they’re gonna click two things, and if they’re not invited into the deeper process, or the journey that that website’s trying to promote, they’re gone, and they’re not coming back. And even in a smaller sense, you have about five seconds in your header, to connect with the customers—what they’re there for, what they want, or the problem they’re trying to overcome, and if you’re not clear about, What do you offer? How do I get it? You know, in five seconds, they’re gonna bounce, too. So, the window’s closing.

Joshua Tallent 
Yeah. And that’s the messaging part, right? That’s the part of this that is all about messaging, which we’re going to talk about in another podcast. I’m gonna bring you back and talk about that, because you and I’ve worked together on some of that messaging stuff as well. And I love Donald Miller, I love the StoryBrand approach to things. And I think the messaging that we have as—when we’re thinking about how we present ourselves, when we think about how we’re presenting the products that we’re selling, it’s very important to have that messaging down. So let’s, let’s come back and talk about that in much more broad detail in a future episode.

Erik Nelson 
Absolutely. I’m really excited for that. I mean, when we talk about the design is getting into, you know, what are some of the intangibles in the value you bring, your personality—your personality’s coming out? And also, we’re looking at what’s your ideal client? Right? What people in the market do we want to come to your doorstep? And so getting into that dialogue is key. But as we’ll talk about in a future podcast, a lot of people overemphasize that—how pretty the website is, what’s your favorite color? You know, it’s a farm, it’s been in the family 10 years and I’m gonna tell grandpa’s story—like, we can use that stuff, as long as it’s not at the expense of the simplicity. So those two things go hand in hand. And I’m not downplaying design, I think it’s important. Aesthetic, and really that reflection of your value in some of those intangible ways, but it’s there’s two sides to the coin. And I see a lot of companies really neglect the writing portion and realizing that it’s the words that actually push the ball forward. It’s the words you’re using.

Joshua Tallent 
And you can overwhelm people too, especially if you’ve got that one minute, you’ve got those one or two clicks that people are going to do, before they decide whether or not this is where they want to be. You don’t want to overwhelm somebody with a story, if that’s not going to be drawing them in. You don’t want to overwhelm them with things that are—with a weird and off-the-wall design, that’s going to actually push them away and be confusing to them. You want it to be simple, you want it to be something they can very easily catch. And as soon as they see, oh, this is for me, that’s going to hold them. It’ll keep their attention.

Erik Nelson 
Absolutely. We don’t want them burning mental calories. We’re trying to conserve calories, and we want to invest them—our attention span, as we know from other research is shrinking. So the window to connect is getting, is short. So this is, to your point, very important, very important. So we’ve kind of touched on, you know, for the purpose of this podcast, kind of the step two, we’re clear about, you know, our Why, where we’re at where we’re going, it’s kind of gonna get us over that risk threshold of investing our time and money. Now we’re moving into how is it expressed, again, branding, that mental shortcut, that gut feeling, and there’s two sides of that, we have design, and as we’ve talked about messaging. Well, then we’re going to move into what I would call the third phase and this, this is fun, we can start getting into the marketing and sales, you know. Now we can get more tactical with lead generation, right? Converting leads. But one of the biggest mistakes I see often is—and I think it’s really because of a lot of the marketing companies out there and the marketing efforts—is they’re saying, hey, you need to spend money on paid advertising, you need to do this, and I’ll see companies dumping money into those places. But in fact, they’ll you know, if somebody calls me, Hey, I need a new website. Well, okay, back up. Like I said, there’s a process here, when we get into the Why, we kind of get into some of those early questions and asking the right questions, by the time we get to the point of talking about marketing and sales, the strategy could have totally shifted, right. And if we had missed those steps, and tried to take a shortcut, it’s one of the quickest ways to waste money, Joshua, I’ve seen it time and time again.

Joshua Tallent 
Yeah, and this, this is really interesting, too, because when you think about how a lot of publishers are very focused on Amazon marketing, are very focused on Facebook marketing, or things like that. I had a great podcast with a marketing expert, actually a publisher who does a ton of marketing on Amazon and Facebook, Episode Five with Ian Lamont, for those of you listening, that podcast was really good, but it also—it’s very practical, very tactical. And it’s where unfortunately, I think a lot of publishers jump first, instead of instead of like you’re saying, take a step back, look at who you are, as a brand, look at the company’s brand, even look at the individual units within—you know, if you’re publishing the Wimpy Kid series, that’s a brand on its own. How does that actually—what’s the mission of that? The goal of that? What’s the feeling of that? Taking that step back actually gives you the bigger picture, and it can help you direct your marketing where it actually will be most helpful.

Erik Nelson 
Absolutely. And as you’re saying that I’m thinking—this is a throwback, but—Stephen Covey, in Seven Habits talked about, you have production. It’s kind of the Goose that Laid the Golden Egg, right? A metaphor of we want those eggs. But then we have production capability, like how well are we taking care of that goose. And I think because of the fast paced industry that surrounds publishing, it’s so easy to get distracted by the golden egg, that again, we’re not calling a timeout, we’re not calling to say, Actually, we need an audible here, we need to change how we’re interacting, you know, we need to let go of this product line, pick this one up. Some of those decisions, the table really needs to be set before we start going into, now let’s throw an upgraded website, an email campaign, some of these different what we would call “lead magnets” at it. Which can be very expensive, but if done the right way they can be phenomenal, if we’ve answered the bigger question, if we’ve created any—I’m glad you brought this up. Because one framework I like to refer to is something I learned really from Scott Galloway (https://www.scottgalloway.com) called The Clock Model. And essentially it breaks this up: You’ve got Pre-Purchase, which would be a lot of the marketing things since we’re talking sales and marketing here. Pre-purchase is saying, you know, what are those lead generators, what are the things out there that are attracting people to my doorstep. So we have Pre-Purchase and then quickly we’re going to move into Purchase. So that would be okay, now that they’re there, what’s the tangible process we’re inviting them into and this comes out in messaging too, but if there’s confusion about what to do next, people bounce. They don’t, they’re not going to ultimately purchase. But if there’s a simple 1-2-3 process, and we’ve taken that, and simplified it, it helps people get over that sense of risk to purchasing and beginning the relationship with you as the publisher.

Joshua Tallent 
Yeah, so you’ve got the, you’ve got the pre purchase, and then you’ve got the purchase. And that purchase part is for a lot of publishers going to be a little bit out of their control sometimes, right? If they’re on their website, they’re building out a website, building out their own direct-to-consumer, then obviously, they want that purchase process to be simple, straightforward, easy to understand, not something that requires a lot of weird steps or whatever, give the consumer the ability to jump through it very quickly. But if they’re, if they’re relying on Amazon, or BookShop, or Barnes & Noble, or wherever else to sell the book, they’re still involved in that process, because hopefully, people are coming to the website to find the product, and then going to those other locations, and they can still help the consumer engage with that sales process by pushing them to the all the different places that they might want to go to buy. And then you’ve got the Post-Purchase, how does that look from a consumer perspective? I’m selling commodities, essentially, these are products. These are things that a lot of times there’s not a continual connection to the consumer. So what’s that Post-Purchase look like if you want to retain more of that connection to the consumer?

Erik Nelson 
Yeah, that’s a great question. Sustainability, I think, in this conversation is oftentimes overlooked. And this is my bias. But I think Post-Purchase is one of the biggest opportunities right now in the industry. Because it’s almost like I think a lot of owners have been trained to think about how do I get leads in the door, but focusing on customers that you already have, nurturing that relationship, and creating more value on the back end to create raving fans and kind of a tribal following, can move the needle very quickly, and kind of has really an exponential effect to it. So, you know, focusing on ways to continually engage that customer, stay in front of them, that makes sense to them that again, kind of realigned to what they want, their problems, you know, they’re looking for that sense of value. That’s going to be key.

Joshua Tallent 
Yeah. And that can also play back into the earlier parts of the process, too. And, you know, NetGalley is a service that we offer at Firebrand that allows you to have your books up available for download to professional readers before the book is actually available for sale. And so you can build a community of readers of bloggers and book buyers and librarians and other people who are passionate about books. If you’re focusing energy and attention on building out that part of the early pre-sale process with them, you can build that community that can actually impact that after-sale community as well. That post-purchase community can be impacted a lot by the people who are writing reviews about a book early on and doing other things like that. So I think there’s a lot of overlap there, when you’re thinking about building out your community and building out passionate readers and people who want to follow your books and not just not just buy from anybody, they want to buy your books, because they know that you’re selling the kinds of books that they want, the types of authors that they like to read and things like that, that’s going to help—the more you can build those communities, pre-purchase and post-purchase, and put them together, I think that’ll make a big difference as well.

Erik Nelson 
Absolutely. And I think that’s a really fun part of the process, too, is—you can talk their language. And when we get back to passion, that’s why a lot of people went into publishing is they love books. They love writing, they love story and narrative. So you can have fun in kind of that post-purchase phase, saying, what would I want to read? What kind of PDF if I were gonna receive one via email would be like, wow, click it. I’m gonna read it, you have me. Creating those kind of tools—You know, we’ve got to elevate the conversation above commodity, and transactional. We got to get more to the heart. We kind of started this conversation of you know, there’s classy ways to do that and get more aspirational. Yeah, we need the tangible things. But when we pull all the pieces together, it’s this thing called a “brand.” But beneath the brand is the person. And that’s why that’s again, why we started, why and really think with that post purchase that brings it back full circle.

Joshua Tallent 
Yeah, that’s great. All right, we’re out of time. But if this has touched a nerve with anybody that’s listening today, I’ve kind of convinced Erik to agree to offer a free 30-minute call with anybody who wants to talk to him more about these things, and potentially ways that he might be able to help you with this stuff. If you want to you can visit his website. That’s nelsonconsulting.co. And I’ll have a link in the show notes. nelsonconsulting.co. You can reach out to Erik and chat with him.

Joshua Tallent 
I’m going to have you back on Eric because I think there’s a lot of cool stuff we can talk about on the messaging side, and maybe we should spend more than 25 minutes talking about stuff. But yeah, there’s a lot of cool stuff here.

Joshua Tallent 
If you’ve got questions, or you have suggestions for this topic or things you want Erik and me to jump into next time, please feel free to reach out, and let me know. You can email me at joshua@firebrandtech.com.

Joshua Tallent 
So that’s it for this episode of the BookSmarts podcast. If you like what you’ve heard, please leave a review or rating in your podcast app, and also share the podcast with other people that you work with—other colleagues that you have. If you have a topic suggestion or other feedback about the show, you can also email me at joshua@firebrandtech.com. Thanks for joining us and getting smarter about your books.

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