Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Christian Book Expo was a No-Show

I just returned from Dallas, TX where I witnessed one of most disappointing moments in the history of Christian publishing. The purpose of my trip was to visit several WildFire Marketing author clients at the Christian Book Expo (CBE), a first-of-its-kind consumer-oriented book fair at the Dallas Convention Center. Expected attendance was over 15,000 people.

To everyone’s dismay, the total attendance was only 1,500 people, which included 275 children who got in for free. Less than 10% of the needed amount to break-even showed up. The Christian Book Expo may go down as the “Christian Book No-Show.”

Publishers sold very few books and lost a lot of money. Several famous authors stood at empty book-signing booths looking embarrassed. The few attendees who were there acted uneasy by all of the open space and quietness. It was one of those situations where you cringe and think, “This is going to leave a mark.”

I was very disappointed to witness what happened, because I thought CBE was a good idea. Unfortunately, the Devil’s in the details, and many of the event planning and marketing details got overlooked. How so?

There was talk that CBE suffered due to the current economic crisis, struggling publishers going through staff layoffs, and competition with March Madness and Spring Break Week throughout North Texas. But, I think these were minor issues compared to the real problem.

After talking with several Dallas-area church leaders and residents, their common response was “We never heard about the Christian Book Expo. No one told us it was coming to town.” As a marketing consultant, this lack of event awareness is inconceivable. How can you plan such a massive undertaking and neglect the most important part…marketing?

My wife is a professional event planner who managed corporate events at the Salt Lake Winter Olympics and numerous Christian women’s retreats. To us, we can’t comprehend that a large group of multi-million dollar publishing houses (with excellent marketing personnel) didn’t implement a marketing plan with benchmarks that monitored progress leading up to the event. For example, here’s what puzzles me:

• The official CBE website didn’t launch until 8 weeks before the event date. That’s too late to build momentum needed for a turnout of over 15,000 people. The website should have been up at the latest by last Fall.

• Three days before CBE, only 700 tickets had been pre-sold! Why wasn’t an alarm sounded weeks ago to pour on the marketing efforts? Most event planners use early ticket sales as a benchmark to indicate progress. If those benchmarks aren’t met, then the event is cancelled or the marketing efforts go into overtime. This didn’t happen with CBE.

• There are over 1,000 churches in the Dallas / Ft. Worth area. Plus, the 3 largest churches represent a combined congregation of over 100,000 people. So, why weren’t churches used as ticket sales outlets before CBE? I was told that hardly any of the churches in Dallas conducted pre-sales activity for CBE. Yet, churches routinely pre-sell tickets to music concerts, mission trips, marriage conferences, women’s retreats, etc. I don’t know if the Dallas churches weren’t asked to sell tickets, or if they refused to assist. However, the basic idea of marketing is to reach consumers where they congregate, and churches make the best fit for reaching Christian book readers. And, if the churches refused to help, then you know ahead of time that you’ve got a big deterrent to a successful event.

• In the weeks leading up to CBE, many people prayed for a successful event. But, God didn’t answer their prayers. As a Christian, sometimes I’m guilty of neglecting hard work in the hopes that God will somehow just work everything out. At CBE, God reminded us that He’s not in the “bail-out” business. Instead, He wants His children to work hard and use smart business principles in the midst of their ministry efforts.

• The CBE organizers assumed that publishers would use their connections to help reach the masses. But, publishers aren’t setup to handle this kind of function. They’re great at marketing to the retail trade. But, publishers aren’t positioned to market directly to consumers. That’s because readers care about who wrote the book, not who published it. The CBE disaster was a prime example of this truth.

Will CBE ever happen again? Nobody knows. It depends on how long it takes for the industry to remove the egg off of its face. I still think the event is a good concept. But, a future attempt will require a much more concerted effort of event planning expertise.

The positive news is that several WildFire Marketing clients, such as Lysa TerKeurst, Kathi Lipp, Mary DeMuth, and Brenda Garrison, were among the few author standouts during CBE. Stay tuned as I blog about their success in an upcoming post.


Lysa TerKeurst said...

Great post Rob. And thanks for the shout out.

One other thing I would add is the name "Christian Book Expo" is all wrong.

People want to come to an event for the presenters and / or the program material... not the purchase.

If the presenters and program are effective- the products will sell themselves.

By calling this event a book expo, it screamed- come spend money on a ticket to get in and spend more money on books.

I think the event should have had a title that clearly communicated value to the attendee--- like Inspire '09--- or something like that.

Kathi Lipp said...

Hey Rob - Yep, I almost feel guilty about how much I loved CBE - getting to really hang out with my publisher, getting to meet readers, and getting to meet some of my favorite authors (Lysa TerKeurst, Jennifer Rothchild, Mary DeMuth, just to name a few!) I hope that CBE comes back with a different name, a diffrent vibe, and a diffrent marketer.

Mary DeMuth said...

My take is here:

You made some great points.

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