Purple Cow Redux

Roger Anderson wrote in with some questions about the original Purple Cow promotional strategy. Since it's been so long, I thought I'd quickly recount it here, because there are some useful lessons for all products.

I self-published the book in paperback. I did this because few publishers were interested in a short book on the topic, and were dubious about the future of the web as a promotional tool.

I printed 10,000 copies of the book. I also contacted International Paper to have them print me 10,000 milk cartons. This turned out to be more difficult than I imagined. They print almost all the milk cartons in the United States and weren't particularly motivated by a $2,300 order. I paid in advance, though, and submitted all my materials on time.

The night before the print job went to press, the phone rang. It was my sales rep, informing me that they, "weren't going to be able to print my job." Uh oh. The problem? Someone high up had read some of the copy on the carton and didn't like it.

"I didn't realize that International Paper was in the censorship business," I said. He replied that they weren't censoring the carton, merely refusing to print it.

The offending paragraph: "If this were actually milk, it would be pasteurized and homogenized. Pasteurized involves heating it up to kill any new organisms inside, while homogenization involves mixing it to make it all the same. If this sounds like your organization, perhaps you need this book." They also didn't like the line, "Please don't drink from the carton!"

Instead of calling the ACLU, I just deleted the paragraph and knew I'd have a story for the ages.

Then, Fast Company was kind enough to run an excerpt from the book in the magazine. This is an important part of the story, because this is where the permission marketing part kicks in. Fast Company's 100,000 loyal readers had already given me permission to talk to them. They were listening. If I were doing this today, I'd use my blog, just like you could use yours…

At the end of the article, it said something like, "If you want a copy of Seth's new book for free, send $5 to cover shipping and handling and if there's any left, he'll send you one."

Meanwhile, I had found an epsom salt packaging facility in New Jersey to turn the printed cartons into folded cartons and to stuff the books inside. (Don't try this at home! The factory was a godsend and very hard to find.)

If you sent in your money, we made a mailing label, slapped it on the carton, put on a stamp and mailed it to you. No other packaging. [BONUS! If it's August 23, 2010 and you're reading this, you are eligible to win a free milk carton, I'll mail it to you if you win. Here's the form].

So the carton arrived, and already the mailman is talking about it. The folks in the next cube notice it. Many people opened the carton from the bottom and left the carton on their desk. It led to conversations. Which was the point.

THEN, the last step: On the side of the carton, it gave a web address where you could buy more. But since we sold the first 5,000 in just a week or two, the website only offered one option: if you wanted more, you had to buy a dozen for $60. Why a dozen? So you'd give them away. More conversation.

At the end of the process, I had moved 10,000 books to just the right people, created 10,000 conversations (or more) and broken even. I didn't need anyone's permission (except maybe International Paper) and got exactly one great break (Fast Company, now replaced by blogs).

[My publisher wants me to mention that they were then insightful
enough to buy the hardcover rights and that so far they've sold (if I
count Taiwan) [way] more than a quarter of a million copies.]

I think this process scales (not the milk carton part, the remarkable part) and works for things other than books. There are two steps that are difficult but not impossible. First, build an audience that wants to hear from you. Second, create something they want to talk about and make it easy for them to do so.