Textbook Marketers Push Hard During Key Selling Period

College students chug milk and paint their cars bright orange. TV networks drench the airwaves with fried goldfish, plodding penguins, stupefied lava lamp watchers and belching frat boys. January is here, and the online textbook retailers are jostling for market share in a pivotal month that accounts for 35 percent to 45 percent of annual sales.

As the nation’s 15 million college students flock back to campus for the spring semester, textbook marketers aren’t playing around as they enter one of the two brief annual periods that give them the vast majority of their revenue. But the virtual campus bookstores differ on which tactics work best as they fight for traffic to their Web sites.

“Striving to be the first place that the consumer thinks of when they’re making a purchase is critical. No one’s going to go and look at all seven or eight competitive locations and then make a decision about where to buy their books,” said Andy Brief, director of account services at ad shop DeVito Verdi, New York.

Agency client ecampus.com, Lexington, KY, took that advice to heart. Not yet a year old, the online retailer expects to have spent $25 million on marketing by this summer. In contrast to the on-campus, in-your-face marketing tactics popular among its rivals, ecampus chose a TV-heavy approach.

“One thing that I think maybe some of our competitors forget is that the four-year residential college … represents about 20 to 30 percent of the whole market,” said ecampus chief marketing officer Philip Emmanuele. “For us, it just didn’t make sense to pour a lot of money into campus reps and focus all the money on a small portion of our target.”

Executives use the word edgy to describe the ecampus commercials. One features a long, stationary shot of a student who methodically burps the alphabet. “He’s become a sort of cult hero among college kids. We get these e-mails from women wanting his name,” Brief said.

Other textbook e-tailers that traditionally have used grass-roots marketing tactics – such as hiring students to handle promotions – are hitting the airwaves as well. VarsityBooks.com, which pioneered the online textbook market in 1998, is in its first semester with TV.

The company’s site was knocked out of operation briefly last week – a failure a spokeswoman attributed to a hardware problem. “No customer service was interrupted or anything,” said Jodi Gershoni, who explained that shoppers still could access the Washington, DC, bookseller through its toll-free number. However, that number was not visible on the site while it was down.

A merchant known for its aggressive guerilla-marketing tactics, Big Words Inc., plans to launch new network and cable commercials this week. But the San Francisco company insisted its milk-chugging contests and mass rubber ball crane drops have served it well so far. Big Words has focused on campuses that “drive opinion-leadership” for the others, said vice president of product marketing and business development Martin McClanan.

“At Harvard last semester, we went from a penetration of less than one percent to well over 10 percent of the entire campus based on successful promotion,” McClanan said. Big Words’ total revenue has increased similarly, growing ten-fold over the three semesters the company has been in business.

A more complex marketing strategy comes from efollett.com, the online unit of 126-year-old textbook company Follett Corp. Last week the Oak Brook, IL, company began a giving away plastic “Web decoders” in its 620 traditional on-campus retail stores.

The campaign is designed to steer textbook-buyers to Follett’s e-commerce site, where they can register and hold the decoders up to the screen to see if they won a prize. Redeeming prizes usually means going back to the brick and mortar locations again. Follett also is running a TV campaign this semester.

The company’s online buyers have the option of having their orders delivered or picking them up in the traditional stores. Senior vice president of integrated marketing Tim Dorgan said most students choose the latter option.

“It’s convenient and it’s cheaper,” he said.

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