Image by James Cridland via Flickr
When I was in college, I worked at Barnes & Noble. The place was busy open to close. I have vivid memories of heated exchanges with women who came to buy Princess Di memorabilia books only to learn we were sold out.
I have even better memories of customers looking for a certain story, but unable to put a title to it.
When I would reply, "You must be talking about Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," the customer acted as if I was a genius, even though it was now sitting on our bestseller shelf thanks to the recent release of a hugely successful Hollywood movie.
There were customers searching for far more obscure titles. One that sticks out was my geology professor. He was searching for a book for his wife called Ham Hocks and Poppycock. I was searching for a way to make up for a recent and embarrassing incident during which I had complimented the rock in my professor's office only to find out it was a "mineral." Thankfully, we both found what we were looking for.
There were the customers who came in multiple times a week to browse and see what was new. There were customers who came in every Sunday at a set time. There were people who came to find a quick gift ten minutes before they were heading to the party. And there were the customers who came to study and [sometimes] drink coffee (often their own from home) at the tables sprinkled throughout the store.
You don't have to be a bookstore executive to get a general idea of the industry's customer base:
- People who know what they're looking for
- People with relatively easy queries
- People with more advanced queries
- People who browse and often buy
- People who have last-minute buys that can't wait for shipping
- People who don't buy anything now but we cater to them because we want to be the go-to place in the event they ever decide to buy something.
I went to college in the nascent stages of grand-scale e-commerce, so the industry probably should have been a little more concerned about this customer line-up than it was (or, preferably, should have seen the great opportunity of the emerging medium). Using Borders as an example, it dabbled in e-commerce, then decided to hand the reigns over to Amazon in 2001, then took it back last year, and, finally, effectively gave up on it this year.
In doing so, it effectively gives up customers 1, 2, 3, which I would guess were a substantial piece of its business. The browsers might love books and the bookstore more, but the people who knew what they were looking for or had searches (all of which can now be performed online) must have been a significant piece of the foundation of the business. While there is definitely a great business that can be built for browsers and booklovers, I doubt it was the kind of business that mega-stores like Borders and Barnes & Noble were envisioning a decade ago.
I haven't even mentioned conferences yet, but I think the analogy that can be drawn is pretty clear. There are all different types of attendees. While I am a big proponent of the live event, not all of our attendees come for the live benefits (networking, community, etc). Many attendees come primarily for the content, most of which can now be effectively delivered online.
So as I see it, you have a few options. You can shun the online medium and focus on creating fantastic live events. This is a great option, as long as you recognize and embrace your market and realize that content-only attendees will stop coming as competitors make online content available. If you're the bookstore that focuses its entire business on booklovers, you happily watch them go.
Of course, you can also do online-only programs, but you do so understanding that you alienate some of the most engaged people in your industry because these are some of the same people who love live events.
Or you can take a hybrid approach, offering both options to reach a larger audience. In some ways, this is the obvious option, but I also think it is the hardest option (which may be why massively successful corporations have struggled with it). You are now dealing with two very different customers and two very different products.
What do you think? Can we learn something from the book industry? Are there other courses we can take? How can we successfully implement the hybrid approach, if that's the path we choose?