All posts by Nick Mulgrew

Nick Mulgrew was our creative director till March 2014. He managed Paperight’s branding, messaging, copy and design.

Designing the #textbookrevolution

The bulk of my time at Paperight during 2014 was taken up by the #textbookrevolution campaign. This was by far the most well-planned, well-executed and successful campaign we did to date. For the first time, we agreed upon our messaging, plan of attack and the scope of materials that we needed far in advance of starting work on putting the campaign together – a ridiculous thing to say in retrospect, but meticulous marketing planning was something we only learned late into the game, mostly due to the fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants approach the entire company sometimes had for most of the time I was here.

The bulk of my work for the #textbookrevolution focused upon executing everything we had learned up until this point:

  • focusing on outlets that we could trust
  • defining areas in which our advertising could be focused
  • creating easily customisable materials
  • curating compact and effective product lists
  • synchronising our messaging and launching our campaign on online platforms as well as with physical materials
  • focusing on cheapness and availablility as our main selling points

As such, the material designing process was by far the easiest out of all the campaigns that I worked on.

To make the campaign seem more coherent, all materials and official posts made by us made mention of the hashtag #textbookrevolution. This was a successful idea – it made it easy for us, for example, to construct and conduct conversations focusing on campaign-related topics on social media, as well as being an innate call-to-action for social media commentary on the topic.

A fun project that we worked on was the creation of a series of beer coasters that had games and quizzes on them, along with Paperight advertising, including taglines with variations on “Cheaper Textbooks. More Beer”. I created six designs – three games and three quizzes – that were printed in quantities of hundreds and passed out at university campuses and student bars in Stellenbosch and Cape Town. It’s difficult to gauge exactly how well these coasters increased engagement, but we did find numerous mentions of them on social media, often along with the #textbookrevolution hashtag.

The weak link with this campaign, again, was some outlets’ reluctance to reciprocate the amount of effort we put into advertising their businesses with some semblance of preparation for or engagement with the campaign on their part. Again, potential customers were turned away from outlets that we had informed of the campaign, or had bad service from them. This was probably, I might speculate, because management had not passed on word on the campaign to their front desk staff. In some cases, outlets were mentioned specifically on posters, and had agreed to be mentioned on those posters, but turned away or offered customers lacklustre service when they came in.

This has been the most major flaw in the workflow of the Paperight model as it exists now. The success of the model depends on too many variables outside of our own control. Although that’s the nature of our business, it does not work as well for outlets as we would like it to, as we essentially outsource the bulk of our end-user customer experience. In other words, a customer’s experience with us is only as good as it is at the outlet.

And, another thought, for every one customer that was turned away and told us of their experience, how many were turned away and stayed privately dissatisfied?

Lessons learned from Now What?

now-what_together-we-pass-paperight_cover_low-res_20130228One of our better-sounding early marketing ideas was to break into the Unisa market – and thus get Unisa’s attention – by creating a book that would appeal to students struggling with Unisa’s bureaucracy and merciless stinginess. In early 2013, we teamed up with Together We Pass, a Unisa-specific study-aid service, to produce the book.

I wasn’t directly involved with the commissioning process of content, etc., but I did design the book and headed the marketing for it. Although the experience of designing the book was something I really needed to further my skills, and appreciated it as such, the editing and layout phases were both quite frustrating. This was chiefly because the content I had to work with was changed at inopportune times. The result was a product that, although I thought was useful and could potentially sell very well, I didn’t completely feel great about. In the end it didn’t sell fantastically, for a number of reasons:

  1. Together We Pass gave away the book for free to all of their subscribers, in other words, the few thousand people most likely to buy the book. Even though we thought we might potentially get exposure from this move, it was not a beneficial decision for Paperight in the slightest, especially as we took the bulk of production costs. A lesson we learned could be, in other words: never try to sell something that someone else is giving away for free.
  2. The cover and the messaging for the book weren’t as strong as they could have been, probably because we were trying to be nice to Unisa, in the hope that they would more readily partner with us. It probably should have been more provocative – in retrospect we did a lot of things with kid gloves when we really should have tried to grab people’s attention by any means necessary.

All in all, Now What? was an interesting experiment and an amazing learning experience, but a very frustrating selling experience. The book ate up way too much of my time that I should have been spending on marketing Paperight books to university students.

Introducing the briefing system

By August 2013, I felt that our methods of creating materials was creating undue stress on me and, even worse, that they weren’t working particularly well. (Even though they probably were.) To make sure that materials would be created in an efficient manner and, more importantly, that they would be used by outlets once they had them, I devised a simple briefing system that everyone in the company had to use in full if they wanted me to make materials for them.

Each brief had to take five things into account for each piece of material required for any project:

  • What is its purpose? (e.g. to increase sales of a certain book(s), to increase sales at a certain outlet, to allow customers to easily browse products.) If a material has no real purpose behind its creation (“point of sales”, for example, is not a purpose), nothing will come of it, and it will be a waste of time. Its purpose will also inform other crucial parts of the material’s design.
  • What will it look like? What format will it take? How big will it be? Is it print or electronic? Is it in colour, or black-and-white? Where is it going to appear?
  • What details have to be on it? If it’s for an outlet, for example, what details for the outlet need to be on it (address, e-mail, phone number, etc.) and what are those details? Is there a price list on it, and if so, what are the outlet’s prices? Does the material need another organisation’s logo on it, and if so, have you got that logo organised already?
  • How will you make sure this material will succeed in its purpose? How do we make sure the material is printed or distributed effectively? If it is left up to an outlet or other organisation to distribute it, then how to we make sure that it has been distributed?
  • What are the metrics by which this material will be judged to be successful? How will we judge that the production of this material is an effective use of company time, and on what time frame? Or, if you’d like to use Shuttleworth Foundation terminology, what do you expect to see from the production of this material, what would you like to see, and what would you love to see?

I hoped that if we were to consider all of these aspects before we produced materials, we would cut down on unnecessary revisions to materials and the production of unnecessary materials – in short, time-wasting.

So effective was the briefing system that I managed to get through the amount of work that I would ordinarily do in five days, in three days.

Happily, it worked. Marie and I were able to more efficiently get through our work, and it avoided a large amount of unnecessary work for the both of us. So effective was the briefing system that I managed to get through the amount of work that I would ordinarily do in five days, in three days.

It also forced us to think about marketing campaigns in a more nuanced and planned manner – instead of starting a campaign and producing materials ad hoc for it, as we usually tended to do, we would work out exactly what we needed to produce before we started the campaign, and figure out the most efficient ways for us to produce and personalise them, if needed. It meant that, when we embarked on our matric exam paper campaigns and, later, the #textbookrevolution campaign, we could spend as much time following up and doing new things in response to new developments in the campaign as we needed to, without the hassle of having to revisit messaging or price lists or product lists, etc., as we had to do in the past.

Lessons learned from distributed in-store advertising

We discovered soon after we began to create outlet- and product-specific posters and send them out via our newsletter that they made a difference to sales. In fact, a survey done by Yazeed at one point showed that outlets that advertised with posters had more success than others. (This, in retrospect, is incredibly obvious, but we thought people might have been driven to stores or to buy products by being encouraged to do so by… well, I’m not sure, actually.)

When Marie arrived in April 2013, it freed me up to do more material design work. Marie set about calling outlets to find out more about them and to make sure they were on board with our system. We made sure that, when she called an outlet, she asked if they wanted any materials made for them for the upcoming matric exam season. As part of our offering, we would design posters and flyers. These materials included price lists on them for up to 50 of our matric products, which we could change for every outlet that wanted them. There was sound reasoning behind this, initially: we assumed that, if we did the heavy lifting for outlets and gave them something specific to them and ready-made for them, they would take to using materials with more enthusiasm, and would get some outlets that didn’t have design capabilities to be able to engage with and to advertise Paperight better.

This was a pretty disastrous idea, for a number of reasons:

  1. The amount of requests for materials that we got was overwhelming, and we only had one designer: me, who had many other responsibilities to take care of.
  2. Outlets sometimes weren’t even too sure of their own pricing structures, or would arbitrarily change things, and so would ask us to make multiple revisions to the same materials because they couldn’t be bothered to tell us what their prices were and, even if they did, tended not to stick to them.
  3. Manually changing 50 or so prices for every flyer and poster, and copy-pasting logos and contact details, was mindnumbing and uncreative work. I felt like I missed a month of my life around July, as every day was the same task, in a sense.
  4. Outlets didn’t buy into the materials as much as we hoped. Some never printed them, effectively making the work a waste of time.

These problems piled the misery on me, with the result that I entered into quite a deep slump for a few weeks. I began to resent my work and what I was doing and, even worse, the people I was supplying materials for. The work was repetitive and seemed to have little effect on sales and/or engagement with products with outlet owners. I realised that something drastic had to change.

Facebook advertising push

We used our Facebook and Twitter feeds in a rather precise, but extremely underutilised fashion until midway through 2013. Until then, we had usually usually only made posts to accompany posts made on the blog, or to spread the word about prizes or nice media mentions that we had received. As such, we didn’t particularly place much importance on Facebook and Twitter as media in themselves, perhaps due to a belief that the bulk of the customers who we thought would be most interested in and would use Paperight weren’t super active on social media.

This, of course, was a mistake that we realised a bit too late – to survive, Paperight obviously had to appeal to social media users, too.

I had dabbled with creating conversation plans before Marie, our marketing manager, arrived at Paperight, but the ones I made either were too clunky, unimaginative, or just simply didn’t come together well because I was too busy creating designs for physical materials. There was too much for me to do otherwise, in other words. Press releases, for example, were perceived to be a much more important way for us to gain visibility, although we had no definite sales metrics to support the assumption that press releases created sustained consumer interest in Paperight.

We began to run Facebook conversation plans in July 2013, around the time of the launch of the Paperight Young Writers’ Anthology. We paired excerpts from published work with related advertisements or visual accompaniments, and tagging the contributors who were featured in the images in the posts themselves. This resulted in more shares from the contributors and their parents and friends. We also started spending modest sums of money on advertising on Facebook, targeting potential readers of the Anthology. The combination of advertising and a conversation plan, in which engaging content was scheduled every weekday, increased our Facebook Likes at a much quicker rate than we had achieved before.

The added engagement on our Page opened us up to the potential of advertising on Facebook – with the caveat that, although our imagined customers weren’t all on Facebook, it didn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to engage with those of them that were. It also meant a slight change in messaging: although we had mostly pushed the accessibility angle in our press releases, we began to push the price and convenience angle, especially with regard to matric exam packs and study guides, which were much cheaper from most Paperight outlets than they were from bookstores.

This greatly informed our approach to our campaigns for the rest of the year, which focused on the comparative cheapness of Paperight materials compared to their bookstore equivalents. We pushed this aspect hard with the products we featured for the rest of the year – which were mostly exam study guides for the matric season, and cheap fiction and self-help titles to augment and diversify the product mix. Advertising around this time focused on parents of matrics and matrics themselves, with messaging focused on helping learners to get fully prepared for their exams with our exam packs and other materials. These campaigns had a good reaction, but we also found that they were fully season-dependent. After the first couple of weeks of exams had finished, engagement took a sharp turn down.

We found, overall, that without advertising, Facebook posting was very unlikely to engage with many, never mind most, of our fans. Even with advertising, I can say anecdotally that it was mostly the same group of people who liked multiple posts, giving us the illusion of engaging a lot with our fan base, but, in reality, it wasn’t really the case. Facebook is an incredibly nuanced tool; easy to dabble in, difficult to master.

Al dente and lessons learned from early public relations

In November 2012, we started work with Nicole Sochen and her company, al dente PR. In the light of our SAB Innovation Award Seed Grant, she was to advise us on and establish our initial media collateral, such as a boiler plate, company info sheet and company profile, as well as compiling a media list, and to help us send out and follow up on our first press releases.

We started work together even before she was contracted to us, as we thought that we needed to spread the word about our matric exam campaign as soon as possible. We drafted our first proper press release – one with contact info, a personalised cover letter for each recipient, and so on – and dispatched it to the contacts in our small media list. From then on, we decided on quite a busy schedule of releases, media interviews and other things. While it looked like a lot of PR from our inexperienced perspective, it was actually quite a tame schedule. We could have, and should have fitted more in, especially seeing as many of the things we had planned, such as our two-city media roadtrip, never materialised. (Having complete control over PR, like we did when Marie joined the team in April 2013, would have helped us accomplish that far more easily.)

We also signed up for a Newsclip contract to monitor our media mentions. It was indispensable, but I would warn Newsclip that they better hope a good competitor doesn’t come along. While their staff were always courteous, the service was halting and unreliable. At the end of our contract with them, for example, in January 2014, they completely dropped the ball: they neglected to send us any media reports, and even forgot to tell us that our contract had come to an end.  Another frustration was that, during the six months we worked with al dente, Newsclip forwarded all of our media mentions to al dente, and not to us. As such, there’s unfortunately no real way to be sure that we saw all of our media mentions ourselves, unless, I suppose, we trawled through the University of Free State’s online media archive.

Over the course of al dente’s time working with us, we discovered a few, very important things:

Paperight has a very sellable story, but requires careful messaging in order to get the nuances of the system across. There were many things that could have been – and were – misunderstood by journalists covering us. An example of this was the Daily Dispatch journo who made enough errors in her piece for a reader to get the wrong impression about the terms of our service – specifically that it was meant for individuals to use – and have a letter printed in the paper the next day, accusing us of “false advertising”.

We also discovered that having “.com” in our logo gave people the impression that it was a website to be used by individuals, and not by copy shops for individuals, and that it was a consumer-facing website. Taking away the “.com” from our logo and company info tended to dampen those assumptions.

We needed to control our own media list. PR companies, al dente included, consider their media lists to be their intellectual property, which is fair enough, considering that it constitutes the core service of their business. For our purposes, however, it would have been better for us to control our media list ourselves, so we could have a better idea of where our releases were going, what the feedback was, and if we needed to follow up.

We needed to have someone working on our marketing and PR who was part of our team and shared our ethos, and didn’t just think we were a nice client to have in their portfolio. While al dente was a good collaboration, there didn’t seem to have much emotional buy-in above and beyond professional obligations. As al dente wasn’t integrated in our offices, there wasn’t a chance for them to keep close track on changes in our company and with our messaging, and we’d forget to keep them informed as things changed from day to day. As such, they were often two steps behind the game. In a fast-paced start-up setting, flexibility is important, and both the nature and structuring of al dente’s business model – whereby we were only one client out of many – meant that they often couldn’t keep up with our changes.

Specialised PR companies are expensive for start-ups. It might be more time-, effort- and cost-effective to hire a dedicated marketing manager.

Varsity advertising tinkering at Aloe X

no-to-high-book-prices_a1_20130200Having studied in Grahamstown, I wanted to make a Paperight outlet thrive there. The conditions were perfect: Grahamstown is a small, relatively low-income university town. Money is low, and demand for books is high. In 2012, I made contact with Aloe X, the closest copy shop to Rhodes University, after the university themselves showed no real interest in adopting a pilot Paperight project of their own.

I made contact with Aloe X the day after I travelled to Peddie for a research trip in May 2012. I handed them a business card, spoke to the manager Aletta, and reassured her that it was a free service.

Despite good intentions, we only really started getting involved with Aloe X at the end of 2012, in preparation for the beginning of the 2013 academic year. I figured out a strategy whereby we would collect the set lists of books from the English literature and Classics departments, figure out which ones we had on the system, and then make posters and flyer designs to stick up at Aloe X and around Rhodes campus.

At this point we found out that Aloe X had almost been closed down due to a spate of textbook piracy that ended in a visit from the police. Essentially, students would bring in books, the staff (without the owner’s or manager’s knowledge) would scan them and keep the files on their computer. Students could then get their textbooks printed immediately for R50–R100. Almost exactly the same as Paperight – but, you know, super illegal.

The copy on our advertising, until then, had been quite tame. Seldom did we have provocative taglines that foregrounded the bad aspects of traditional bookselling, lest we upset potential partners. For this campaign we went with “Say NO to high textbook prices” and variants thereof. The campaign was successful in some ways and not so much in others. The idea and the tagline attracted a lot of attention – the shop had a dozen or so enquiries a day at the beginning of term. We seldom had the books they needed, however.

We showed that there was a demand for cheaper textbooks and that students were interested, with minimal advertising and involvement. We just needed the books.

Since then, as our library has gotten bigger, Aloe X has been one of our stronger outlets – no doubt because of the fact that the town only has one academic bookstore, which, as academic bookstores do, charge extortionate prices.

Nick becomes Head of Communications, and the start of PR

I stayed on at Paperight after the end of my two-month internship, which surprised me as I wasn’t expecting to prove myself indispensable. Initially, we weren’t too sure what my title would be. We bandied around “Resident Storyteller”, “PR Head” and other things, until one day, on the phone to the Cape Argus, I improvised that I was the “Head of Communications”. That stuck, and so my job profile was built around that. My functional authority for this time, from May 2012 until roughly August 2013 was to:

  • Plan and execute external communications strategies
  • Create design and copy that sets us apart
  • Build our archive of media assets

My functional authority was rather easy to fulfill for the first few months. My weekly routine included designing a poster, completing a few blog posts and trying to put together a media list. I found I wasn’t terribly good or tenacious at putting together a media list, so it came in good time when Arthur delivered a talk at TEDxCapeTown and got the attention of a PR agency, Atmosphere, who wanted to work with us.

We went to a meeting in their plush offices at King James in Woodstock, and although it was a fruitful meeting, we simply didn’t have the budget to work with them. They recommended that we get in touch with Nicole Sochen, the founder of al dente PR, who would be more in line with our budget.

At about the same time we were invited to attend the second round of the SAB Innovation Awards. As Arthur’s wife Michelle was due to deliver their child at the same time as the SAB workshop and adjudication in Kyalami, I traveled by myself to attend. There was some stiff competition. Luckily, Arthur managed to come up for the last day and aided me with the presentation to the judges. We, unfortunately, did not make it to the final six, but we were informed in November that we had won a seed grant of R100 000. We finally had the money to put together, we thought, a sustainable PR strategy.

Zakes Ncanywa and Peddie

About a month into my time at Paperight, we hired three outlet managers, Zukisani, Zimkita and Yazeed. Their job was – and in Yazeed’s case, still is  – to promote Paperight to photocopy outlets and to support them in their Paperight-related operations.

One day, Zimkita met an old friend by chance while visiting an outlet. His name was Zakes Ncanywa, and he had, until very recently, worked in a Big Pharma company. When Zakes asked Zimkita what she was up to nowadays, she explained that she was working for Paperight, and looking for outlets to sign up. Zakes was on his way back to his hometown of Peddie, in the rural Eastern Cape (a good couple hours’ drive from any major city), to set up an internet café/computer store, to serve what he saw as a huge, untapped demand for technology in the town. He bought old computers in Cape Town, had them refurbished, then brought them back to the Eastern Cape to sell for affordable prices.

We all met in Arthur’s kitchen one afternoon to discuss how we might help him set up a Paperight outlet. There were problems, however: there was no Telkom interchange in Peddie, and where his house was didn’t fall under a 3G coverage zone, so a USB dongle was ineffective. We thought that this would make a great success story if we could make the outlet work. We made tentative plans for me to meet up with him.

In May 2012, I was scheduled to go to Grahamstown to meet with some outlets and see if we could set up a pilot Paperight project at Rhodes University. While I was there I thought I would go through to Peddie to meet with Zakes. He agree to take me on his rounds – selling computers, visiting schools, and the sort – one Wednesday. I borrowed my girlfriend’s car and drove on the windy N2 for an hour and a half until I came to Peddie. Zake’s house was across a still-being-constructed highway, along a network of very confusing dirt roads and over some worryingly steep hills. I arrived at his house a little worse for wear after getting stuck on a steep incline near a field of very skittish sheep. He stayed in large rondawel connected to his mother’s home. Inside was the most eccentric collection of electronics and materials: computer towers stacked ten-high, photocopiers, CRT monitors, and stacks of Paperight matric exam packs.

Zakes-in-PeddieFrom there we traveled to a school, Nathaniel Pamla High School, where the teachers seemed overworked but received us relatively warmly. Zakes chatted to them about matric exam packs, and I explained Paperight. I don’t think they really understood what I was explaining – my fault more than theirs, as I was tripping over my words – but they seemed enthusiastic. They wanted to buy a computer from Zakes, too, so Zakes and I travelled back to his house, brought a computer back and set it up for them. They explained they were promised a computer lab from the local government, but it never materialised. He figured that, in the meantime, the school could buy some computers from them.

Afterward we went into Peddie’s small town centre to have a look at some potential premises. I was shouted at by an elderly man for taking photographs inside an arcade. There were many Chinese shops, selling the most bewildering ranges of foreign bric-a-brac. It was a strange experience. Zakes and I we chatted more about technology challenges in the rural Eastern Cape, and then I went back to Grahamstown.

On my return back to Cape Town the following week, I started writing up the experience as a wiki post. I had the idea to pitch the story as a feature on rural technology and entrepreneurship to the Mail & Guardian – and they took it. My piece, which backgrounded Paperight and focused more on deficient ICT infrastructure and Zakes’ own tenacity, was eventually published and made a good impression. So much so that a certain South African weekly magazine plagiarised it, but that’s another story.


Marketing first steps

I started work at Paperight on 1 March 2012. I finished work at Paperight on 31 March 2014. A lot happened between those two dates.

In the beginning, I had only two other colleagues – Arthur and Tarryn – and we worked out of Arthur’s study in his home in Wynberg. There were many creature comforts – a kitchen full of coffee, a bowl full of avocados, and a box of free-range eggs weekly. I had signed on for a two month contract, thinking I would stay as an intern for a while and then go back to my rather miserable existence as a part-time blogger and a writer with no portfolio. (Luckily, Arthur decided to keep me on at the end of it.)

My first tasks at Paperight were quite simple: design covers, prepare documents when orders came through, and to write a weekly featured author post. During my time at Paperight, I designed roughly 900–1000 covers for Paperight editions of public domain books; most of these covers were designed during my first two months in the job. Tarryn had also initially delegated a small amount of content management to me, in the guise of master sheets and product uploads to the Paperight site, which at the time was a WordPress shell with what seemed like a hundred add-ons and extensions installed.

Over the first few weeks, however, my incompetence with regard to file and content management was made apparent. I was less than meticulous with file naming (to Tarryn’s significant chagrin), and even less so with keeping my version of the sprawling content spreadsheet up-to-date. I think that that had a lot to do with the fact that I was barely Excel-literate, and the thought of having to update the spreadsheet every time I designed a cover (all 900 times I did so) and every time I had to upload or change the details on a product page seemed like a particularly torturous circle of hell.