Do You Know Your Customer?

Rachelle Gardner

Blogger: Rachelle Gardner

What Publishing Can Learn From Kodak

Part 2 of 3

Yesterday we began looking at things we can learn from the decline of Eastman Kodak Co, starting with the importance of knowing our business. Today let’s focus on knowing our customer, with three more lessons from Kodak.

4. Acknowledge that the consumer has considerable impact on the market.

Traditionally, advertising and marketing has been focused on “creating a need” in the consumer, and then filling the need. You convince people they want something, then you sell it to them.

While that dynamic is still in play, there’s been a power shift in favor of the consumer. People know they’re not beholden to giant conglomerates to get what they want. They realize they have control—they can make their own movies on YouTube, distribute music through iTunes, they can create apps, they can publish books. Consumers don’t have to wait around for a big company to spoon-feed them.

They also wield their freedom of choice unflinchingly. There’s little brand loyalty. If a company isn’t giving them what they want, they’ll go somewhere else.

For us, this means we start by knowing who our customers are: not readers but content-consumers. Then we pay attention to the hard data on what our customers are buying, what they want, what they don’t want, and where their attention is. We should be watching how things are trending to try and project what our customers will want in a year, or five years or ten years. The customer will get what they want, whether we provide it, or someone else does.

5. Don’t underestimate the public’s willingness to adapt to new ways of doing things.

In the past, people were slow to adapt to new technologies. But we live in a time where new technology is a given—there is no longer a general expectation that things will stay the same for very long. People are open to “the next new thing”—but they’re discerning about what they adopt. The new thing must be perceived as either superior to the old, or equal to the old but for a lower price, or preferably both.

Kodak didn’t pay enough attention to the new ways people were interacting with their photos, assuming that people would always want physical photos. They vastly underestimated the degree to which photo-sharing via cellphones and the Internet would become a major way people connect with each other. They didn’t give their customers credit for adapting to a whole new dynamic where photos were concerned.

Sure, many people still print out a few photos and put them in an album; we all have family portraits on our walls, and there’s a subculture of old-style scrapbooking. But all of that is a tiny fraction of the major ways photos are now used—as a social tool. (Pinterest, anyone?)

It may seem like the public’s adoption of digital book technology is going slowly, but it’s not. Surely you’ve noticed how many people say, “I swore I’d never use an e-reader, but once I got one, I can’t live without it. I’d never go back to paper books.”

So let’s not over-estimate how long printed books are going to continue to be the major portion of our business. Right now they seem to still be around 75-80% of sales. But in five years, I think it will be exactly the opposite: 20% paper, 80% digital. And the way people interact with books—the way they define books—is bound to change. Will they become more social and interactive like photos have?

6. Focus on consumers’ needs and wants, rather than the perpetuation of our own products and business models.

This is the logical extension of the previous two points. Apparently Kodak operated on a model that assumed marketing was about selling products to consumers, rather than providing consumers with what they want and need. They relied on consumers continuing to want to print their photos. They didn’t adapt to the new marketplace and consumers’ new attitudes. They were product-oriented, not people-oriented.

If we want to continue into the future successfully, we all (publishers, agents, authors) will focus more on our readers—the consumers of our content—and how to stay relevant to their needs. We must not expend energy trying to stop the tide of change, but instead figure out how to surf the waves of change, staying right ahead of that curl. (I’m not sure how a surfing metaphor got into this post.) It’s not about physical books and physical bookstores; it’s about connecting authors with readers in the way that our customers want.

People today want connection with others. Consider that Pinterest’s mission says: “Our goal is to connect everyone in the world through the ‘things’ they find interesting.” Are we thinking about connecting everyone in the world through books?

Some questions for you:

1. What does your customer want these days that’s different from what they wanted five years ago?
2. Are you surprised at how quickly people adapt to new technologies? What do you think this new adaptiveness means for writers, agents, and publishers?

Yesterday: Part 1 – Do You Know What Business You’re In?

Tomorrow: Part 3 – Are We Ready for Change?

Sources: Forbes (here and here), CBS News, Information Week, Tech Crunch, and Mashable.

Visit Rachelle’s personal blog here.

11 Responses

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  1. Sarah Thomas says:

    One of the things that stuck with me from college is the idea of “reader response criticism.” Once you finish your book and put it in the hands of the reader, it’s no longer yours. Readers bring their own history, background, emotions, ideas and so on to what they read. They may get something out of it that you had no idea was in there. Which is why I think it’s so important to pay attention to readers (consumers)–to listen to them, to see what they’re saying on blogs, to notice what they’re consuming. To look at what they’ve posted on Pinterest!

    I didn’t set out to write a book to fill a certain niche. But surely I can look at the empty niches and try to see how my book might fill them!

  2. I’ll try not to be so verbose today. 🙂

    1. What does your customer want these days that’s different from what they wanted five years ago?

    Ebooks and Right NOW!

    Five years ago, I started publishing in audio and giving the books away. Two years ago I started publishing in text/ebook formats and selling them.

    This year, I’ve got four of my eight up and the backlash because book five is late is incredible. Forget waiting a couple years between books. If I don’t publish something every three months, I’ve got a riot on my hands.

    Ebooks may be a small portion of the mainstream market. I’m not surprised given the cannibalization models of pricing. Publishers are succeeding in suppressing sales of ebooks that way and giving the appearance of market success with paper.

    But the One Big Thing that’s changed is “I want the next book and I want it now.”

    2. Are you surprised at how quickly people adapt to new technologies? What do you think this new adaptiveness means for writers, agents, and publishers?

    I’m not at all surprised — at least by the rapid spread of the e-reader. The ebook reader is designed for the heavy reader. Those people who read five or more books a month adopted the devices early. That level of demand drove increased catalog availability of titles. The continued rise in price of hardcopy volumes, the reduction in bookstore shelves, and the proliferation of new voices drove the adoption cycle. Social media lubricated the process by keeping ebooks and ereaders in the forefront of public consciousness. With all that happening, a rapid adoption seems almost inevitable.

    I think this is a new marketplace and we — as writers, publishers, and readers — haven’t really gotten to the meat of it yet. We’re still at the basic level of technology adoption. We’re using the new tools to do what we’ve always done. We have not yet really explored the idea of doing what couldn’t be done without the technology, at least in terms of storytelling.

    What about a non-linear narrative?
    What about an alternate reality narrative?
    What about a collaborative story between writers and readers?

    None of those was really possible in a paper and ink based world but are readily implemented in a digital space. Monetization aside, the new technologies provide us with some new tools which storytellers aren’t really using yet. I don’t even know what some of those new tools might look like yet. I’m still too buried in the old paradigm.

    At a more fundamental level, I’m not convinced that the public are generally more adaptive, more ready to adopt technology. I do believe that new communications channels (blogs, facebook, twitter) allow the news of new technology to spread more rapidly. I believe that the causal relationship here is not a fundamental shift in people, but a sea change in communications tools and a change in factors governing market influence. Mass market is out. Mass customization is in. Niche and interactive marketing is changing the landscape in ways that those still ensconced in mass media haven’t really grokked yet.

    When they do, I expect to see things change drastically.

  3. Thanks, Rachelle,for your helpful insights on the world of publishing. I enjoy your blog all the time, but these are especially thought-provoking. Happy Valentine’s Day from Louisiana!
    Judy Christie

  4. Sarah >> You’re so right – “Once you finish your book and put it in the hands of the reader, it’s no longer yours.” Great point to remember as we think about our customers.

  5. Nathan >> I agree with you, “the causal relationship here is not a fundamental shift in people, but a sea change in communications tools.” Technology is changing everything. Great points all around!

  6. Thanks for the response, Judy. Happy Valentine’s day!

  7. While all the modern advances are good, I worry because technology keeps changing. Gutenberg Bibles are still in library archives and I have photos of my great grandparents from the 1800s on my wall. Will the things we write and publish today be accessible in 50 years? A hundred and fifty? That may not influence sales, but it matters to the value of what we do.

  8. Beth K. Vogt says:

    “We must not expend energy trying to stop the tide of change, but instead figure out how to surf the waves of change, staying right ahead of that curl.”
    You may wonder how the surfing metaphor ended up in your post, but it works for me. As I try to adapt to all the changes in publishing — and manage the demands of social media — I feel like that’s exactly the challenge: staying right ahead of the curl. So often, I feel like “OOPS! Missed that wave!” even as I tweet and comment and post …
    The changes (waves) keep coming and I can’t quite get my balance. But that doesn’t mean I’m taking my board and leaving the beach.

  9. What do you think of this post? (I got the link from Steve Laube’s blog.)

  10. Wow! Great post, Rachelle. I’m one of those people who never thought she would enjoy an e-Reader until she had one. Love it now and I request Kindle versions for most books I review.

    I’m still working my way through market research–it seems like a daily task–but I think parents who buy books for children are looking for new ways to teach tried and true lessons. As a Sunday school teacher, I know I’m looking for inventive new ways to teach familiar portions of Scripture. As a parent, I’m turned off by the vast amount of angsty paranormals.

    I also work a lot of school book fairs. I’m surprised by how much nonfiction sells. I think bold covers have a lot to do with that, but the Scholastic booklets also give kids facts in a simple and concise way. In the fiction arena, it seems humor is a big hit.

    As for people adapting to new technologies, I think it’s easier now. Even my in-laws who are 79 and 81 own cell phones. I know several folks of that generation who own e-Readers. On the reverse side, when I go to my daughters’ schools, I see kids using e-Readers everywhere. I’m hoping schools pick up on that and switch to these devices so kids aren’t lugging around heavy textbooks.

    As for what it means to those in the publising industry, I feel we’re definitely headed in the direction where digital is the norm. The WSJ wrote an article not long ago on digital book enhancements – Those books that are flashier and offer more might be attractive to buyers.

    Thanks for another thought-provoking post.

  11. […] decline of the Kodak company. Monday we discussed knowing our business, and yesterday we looked at knowing our customer. Today let’s talk about dealing with change. Here are a few more things I took from the Kodak […]