Messaging is a hard, winding journey

Sometimes a strategy emerges without you choosing it, because when you set out you didn’t know you had options. That’s how Paperight’s approach to growth and marketing emerged over the last few years. With hindsight, I can summarise this strategy as:

  • create a web brand (cool domain, slick website, friendly blog and social media, tech coverage) that consumers recognise and seek out.
  • use that brand recognition to attract consumers to Paperight outlets.
  • use that consumer-attraction to sign up more outlets.

To do this, we called Paperight a ‘website that turns any printer into a bookstore’, an ‘online library that copy shops use to print books for customers’, and other phrases that described Paperight as a website with downloadable content.

We kept describing the tool, but not the product. To the consumer, the product is a print-out from a local copy shop. To a copy shop, Paperight is a movement, a network of forward-thinking copy shop owners.

The fatal flaw here was that this required us to build brand recognition among consumers for a product that didn’t exist in their world yet. In other words: how could we get consumers to love Paperight before their local copy shop, which they already recognise, is using it? And worse, how could we attract low-income consumers to a web brand, when they spend no time on the web? To a consumer, Paperight is not a website. Describing Paperight as a website is like describing car repair as a spanner. We kept describing the tool, but not the product. To the consumer, the product is a print-out from a local copy shop. To a copy shop, Paperight is a movement, a network of forward-thinking copy shop owners.

Our mistaken approach was holding us back, but we didn’t have enough distance from it to realise that we had other options. I was obsessed with focusing on Paperight as a website. But I knew something was wrong, so I was looking for alternatives. Three key moments were Nick’s appearance on Hectic Nine 9, a misleading article in the Daily Dispatch about us, and Ben Maxwell’s sage session at the Nov 2012 Shuttleworth Foundation Gathering.

While preparing for Hectic Nine 9, whose audience is mostly teens, we realised that sending teens to paperight.com wouldn’t work. We needed to send them to outlets. We did NOT want them arriving at paperight.com and treating it like an ebook store (the interface doesn’t work as an ebook store, and our print-optimised PDFs make for terrible ebooks). But we weren’t allowed to mention brand names on air, like our major copy shop chain Jetline. So we decided to send the audience to a mobile-optimised, consumer-focused site at m.paperight.com. The problem was that when Nick got to the recording, the presenter and producer had other ideas. They were only interested in asking Nick about entrepreneurship, insisted on referring to Nick as the founder of Paperight (which is not a big problem, except that it made Nick uncomfortable), and then showed paperight.com and not m.paperight.com on screen during the interview.

The experience highlighted a few things:

  1. We didn’t have a concise, clear enough message that could cut through what the presenter had in mind about Paperight. Our approach was too broad and fuzzy, so the presenter went with what she thought already.
  2. A mobile site at m.paperight.com cannot be different in look and functionality from paperight.com, because (a) consumers will go to paperight.com by default anyway, and (b) users expect mobile sites to be essentially the same in purpose to their desktop parents.
  3. The whole notion of appealing directly to consumers was flawed because we don’t want them coming to our site. We want them going to our outlets.

Somehow, we had got completely the wrong message to the journalist. We briefly blamed her for being sloppy, but realised soon that it was our fault.

Shortly afterwards, the Daily Dispatch published an article about Paperight that described us explicitly as a site that matrics could use to download exam papers. There was barely a reference to copy shops. To make it worse, the article lightly criticised Paperight for being useful only to matrics who were wealthy enough to have Internet access. Somehow, we had got completely the wrong message to the journalist. We briefly blamed her for being sloppy, but realised soon that it was our fault. We simply weren’t being clear or focused enough in our messaging.

I also realised we (every member of our team) didn’t *love* copy shops enough. If we didn’t truly love them, we wouldn’t be able to create a tribe

We had to put our outlets first in everything. Our messaging, our elevator pitches, our promotional material, and most importantly, our minds. It was after Ben Maxwell emphasised to me the importance of creating in our messaging and on our site a sense of belonging (to a movement) for copy shops that I also realised we (every member of our team) didn’t love copy shops enough. If we didn’t truly love them, we wouldn’t be able to create a tribe, a sense that we were joining them in a grand march of progress.

Importantly, this meant we had to remove all references to our website and to ourselves as an online business or service from our messaging, especially any messaging that consumers might see. What would we replace it with? A movement, a network, a revolution.

Right now, our new messaging is built around the phrase, ‘Paperight is a network of independent print-on-demand bookstores’. If someone asks how we deliver content, we say we do it with a website.

The Daily Dispatch agreed to run a follow-up story with the ‘correct’ information. That story ran a few weeks later (see below, 14 Nov 2012), and is an example of the kind of thing we believe will work much better going forward.

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