In this episode of TALKS, we spoke to Steffen Daleng, the CMO at Booktopia and Angus and Robertson, and Thomas Ott, the Senior Digital Marketing Manager there. We discuss their roles in the business and the social responsibilities that come with being Australia’s biggest online bookstore, as well as adapting to consumer needs and patterns through COVID and the insights they have gained through these times.

 

I would love it just to, I guess, get a kickoff on this discussion, if you could give us a bit of a background as to both the Angus and Robertson and the Booktopia businesses. A bit of a history as well as what the businesses are doing now, as well as what your two roles are in the business.

Steffen: Sure. So Booktopia is 16 years old now, Booktopia was a pure play online book retailer, and started on a daily budget, spending ten dollars a day on Google advertising to get the ball rolling. Originally, this business was founded by three marketers who had a marketing agency on the side and then ultimately started Booktopia as a side project. Fast forward many years. Of course, this turned out pretty well for the group and now fast forward the 16 years we’ve acquired a few other businesses. Angus and Robertson was one of the bookstores that we’ve acquired and we’ve also acquired another book shop for textbooks, which was called The Co-Op. We bought all their assets here earlier in the year. Now, total size of the businesses we have just north of two hundred people in the business. We have a big logistics out in Lidcombe in Sydney where we store all of our inventory. We have that there and all staff are working from that office and from that location. On the website, we have many millions of products on the website and we’re sending out north of twenty thousand units a day. 

Cooper: A big operation.

Steffen: Yes. It’s definitely come up to that, we’re the biggest online bookstore here in Australia right now so, yep. 

 

And how do both your roles sort of operate the business? CMO and Senior Digital Marketing Manager, that would have some pretty heavy firepower, particularly when you’re an online retailer. 

Steffen: So, for us, we because we’re online only, we, of course, focus very much on the bottom funnel tactics. So most of what we’re doing, you will see a natural gravitation towards that bottom funnel activity, very heavy on any kind of performance metrics performance and that’s really where we’re playing it strong against the offline world, of course. So, in my remit as Chief Marketing Officer, I oversee everything marketing brand, PR and social, as well as some community. Thomas, you want to tell us a little bit about yourself and your role.

Thomas: Yeah, exactly. So, like you mentioned, I’m a Senior Digital Marketing Manager of Booktopia and I’m really accountable for basically the digital marketing performance across all channels that we operate on, including email, search affiliate and social being some core ones. I’m really responsible for all the numbers across these channels, including all performance marketing elements.

 

That is, I guess, something I wanted to ask. Probably a pretty relevant question for both of you is, books have a massive lineage, you know since the dawn of civilization, people have been writing and then we have this huge digital wave which started, you know, some time ago now. To your point, Booktopia is 16/17 years old and there is a big lineage there already, but digital has this huge lineage and then right now, due to COVID, has this massive critical mass. I read a stat the other day that E-Coms conversion or share of voice, in terms of total retail, has jumped to like 30- 35% in Australia and they think it’s going to settle at more than double what it was before COVID. So, there’s a big digital story there in general. How has the way consumers consume information and read books, how has it changed in your industry? I mean, you’ve got Amazon, you’ve got Kindles, you’ve got online news, you’ve got fake news. Like how has it changed?

Thomas: Exactly Cooper, that’s a really great question and it’s something that has been extremely unique in the last six, seven months. The consumption patterns have really been extremely formidable in the way that they’ve just adjusted over the past few months. So basically, as marketers, our role is to empathise and serve those consumer needs and during COVID, those consumption patterns changed a lot. What we found in the early stages were, initially, people really want to escape from reality, others want to really upscale given the turbulent times regarding employment. 

At the beginning of COVID, we saw a lot of demand for things like puzzles and kids’ books. Also makes sense given that schools were closed, right. And then we found that in April, May time, people became more interested in romance, right, and then after that, guess what happened next? A few pregnancy books started selling like hotcakes. So, it was quite interesting how things started to evolve. And we saw in the wintertime in June, July, a lot of demand for cooking books and then over time they also evolved into something a little bit more adventurous, like even dumplings. And even as recently as about a month ago, we saw an increase in demand now for weight loss books. So, it’s quite interesting how the demand evolved quite significantly since March time. 

And looking back beyond that, the best-selling number one travel related book in 2019 March was one on cruises, right. 12 months later, guess what it was? Aussie road trips. So, you can quite imagine that shift and how we tapped into that demand. We needed to cater for that. So, between April and August, we had a cooking campaign that did particularly well. We then of course had to cater for that demand with a jigsaw puzzles campaign between May and August. And then we tapped into the demand for fiction and had a crime campaign in July before focusing on a kid’s month campaign in September. So, we really had to react to the changing demand patterns.

Steffen: Like Thomas says, it tells a very human story around it. It’s funny how you can see the human evolution in Australians during these six or seven months they’re so profound and the changes in interest and the cravings that people have and how they were changing their behaviours and patterns was very, very visible. It’s fun.

 

I was just thinking through it while you are speaking then. Moving the kind of units or the kind of volume that you’re moving, it would almost be like you would have your own barometer on the consumer, like your own version of keyword trends or search trends or something like that. That would be quite a unique sort of experience to be able to tap into that. It’s almost like your own first party data set.

Steffen: It definitely was and for us, we were constantly looking at what was going on down in Melbourne as Melbourne went into their second stage lockdown. We’ve been sitting here with the finger on the pulse and seeing well what’s then going to happen now that they’re getting out lockdown down again here a few days ago, whatever it was, very visible changes in consumer spending and consumer patterns across all of these big events that’s happening here in Australia. You can spot the consumption patterns.

 

Yeah. Wow, that’s really interesting. And do you feel, so I’ve got a couple of family members who are just avid readers, they just love, love reading big time and it’s such a big part of their life. And so, pre this interview, I was thinking about what value they extract out of books and it’s pretty significant. It becomes a really big part of a lot of people’s lives. Everyone’s read or had an experience in reading a book in some way, shape or form. Do you feel like you have some sort of a social responsibility or a specific connection to your customer base because of the importance that they put on the books they read and the information they get out of the question?

Steffen: Deep question. Yes, is the short answer to it. Because of the breadth of what books are for people, there is a lot of responsibility around it. It’s not always an easy responsibility either. If you look at it, books is the combined human knowledge. It’s everything we know. It’s everything we’ve learnt put down to paper storage. When we lost Alexandria back in the day when the Library of Alexandria burnt down, that’s one of the biggest disasters in human history. 

What we have in terms of all the books is that it’s the collective knowledge and knowledge of who we are and who we were. There’s a big responsibility in protecting, but also sharing that. What I mean by that is when you’re talking about the responsibility, we don’t always agree with the books that exist, but we have a responsibility to still make them available, so to speak, like we can’t run from our past or the books with content that we don’t agree with on a very personal level. We can completely disagree with it, but it’s still who we are as a human race and there’s responsibility in owning up to that at the same time. So, that’s more of a philosophical question and philosophical answer. You know, when you are the custodian of all that knowledge and all of that information, how do you do that the right way? How do you live up to your own ideals and your society’s current ideals when you’re the custodian of old legacy thoughts and ideas at the same time? 

Let me give you an example of how that’s a challenge for a lot of other businesses like us today. Anyone who curates content, Disney Plus, as an example, the new streaming search service from Disney, they’ve literally just gone out and changed a lot of disclaimers on a lot of the old cartoons and Disney, because even Disney has a library of old series or old movies that would be considered very inappropriate today if it depicts any kind of racial or cultural differences.

We had a different sense of that 20, 30, 50, 60 years ago. There were things that we collectively considered appropriate that we do not think is appropriate anymore. And as such, we need to make up those calls of do we erase that part of our culture. There’s film producers and music producers, do they erase that legacy? But what do we do with it? And it’s the same with books. There’s a big responsibility around it and trying to figure out what to do with all of that responsibility. It’s not an easy task. So, yes, we do definitely consider the responsibility around it and I guess in some genres of books, there’s a larger responsibility than in others.

 

And it’s about that independent representation of the history of the collective of what you stock and what you sell. That’s interesting. So, we’ve sort of already touched on it, but just to expand a little further, COVID-19 sounds like it’s been a little bit of a tailwind to your industry to a degree this year. Would you agree with that? And I guess moving forward, do you see it in your business from a marketing lens, do you see it continuing to be so? Like I said earlier, there are retail, share of voice, ECom is 30-35% percent and a lot of businesses are saying they believe it’s going to settle at about double what it was prior to COVID. Do you see that sort of playing out at the moment and from a crystal ball perspective, do you think it’s going to?

Thomas: It’s tough to judge that one, to be honest, in terms of the commercial implications of this, I have to say there have been positives and negatives. Right. So, when we look at the positive angle, you know, it has broken people’s habits and when that happens, usually there’s a need that should be fulfilled. Right. And as marketers, we need to empathise with that and serve of that need. So, there’s been an opportunity for us to convert new customers buying online for the first time and what we’ve found is a significant proportion of those new customers that have been buying for the first time are now repeating that behaviour because that habit of buying online has now been developed, so it can be expected to be continued. So, in terms of drawbacks, though, of course it’s had a detrimental impact on physical stores with so many closing. And, of course, from a logistical perspective, that’s also had a huge impact on multiple businesses, and everyone has had to react to that so that the disruption does not ultimately negatively impact the customer. So, everyone has been very reactive to the changing scenario here.

 

Yeah okay. It’s one of those things where you mentioned the first-time buyer online, this being a new experience for a first-time buyer online, very much as marketers trying to nurture that first-time buyer into a long time user of online services. I think it seems like a lot of businesses are really sort of focused in on that at the moment as a way to not only obviously, like let’s call a spade a spade, support their own businesses and generate revenues for their own businesses, but almost provide a solution to customers that didn’t feel like they had it before. I would use the example of my neighbour that I live next door to. She’s an elderly woman. Prior to COVID, had never shopped online, felt obviously required to when COVID sort of struck and the experience has been really helpful for her completely separate of COVID. And it seems like yourselves and many other businesses tend to be sort of trying to support first time customers like that to continue to shop online.

Thomas: Exactly and that’s a great point. And it’s also one of those things where, yes, you can convert them for the first time, but at the same time, I just quoted that there has been an element of logistical pressures as well, right. So, I think there’s never been a time that marketing and logistics need to work as close as they currently do, because if customers are waiting six, seven or eight days for their orders, they might not purchase again with you. So, you need to be working daily with a distribution centre just to make sure that the increase in organic demand can be met by the supply side of the business.

Steffen: It’s a really, really good point. I think we’ve been very advantageous there in terms of the connection and I guess the collaboration that we have with Australia Post and the team over at Australia Post. I think if any business right now have had it really, really hard, outside of those, of course, who have seen the significant declines in revenues and foot traffic in their businesses. Another business like Cisco and Australian Post have had their own struggles, of course. But looking at that increased demand that’s happening at the same time on their side and how they’re following through on that. For us, like Thomas said, it’s been very much, it’s been a very good and a healthy experience for e-commerce in terms of getting closer to your operation and making sure that if you keep delivering on those promises that you have to your customers and keep operating in the same shipping times that you’ve always had, that’s kind of key right now. Luckily, we’ve been in that position and we’ve been able to do that.

 

I guess off the back of that, then a question I had around, maybe zooming out a bit, any changes in typical consumption with your customers? So, a trend we’ve seen in a lot of different industries is a significant shift that seems to be gathering more and more steam and more and more momentum around consumers going from being your traditional consumers of heavily packaged goods, sugared foods, etc etc, that the nuclear family of the 50s that rolled into the 60s and the 70s and the 80s and the 90s. It seems that more and more, society is developing like a consciousness around obviously being environmentally friendly, really thinking deeply as a society about race and gender equality and all these really, really significant issues, which I know we sort of touched on earlier, but from a marketing point of view, are you seeing shifts in the types of books that consumers are buying from you around these themes? And do you see sort of a contribution to that from Booktopia’s point of view?

Steffen: We do. We do. I think a little bit back to what the responsibility of a booksellers is at the same time, but we do see these patterns that are very much in line with society’s focus, I would say. At this time last year, we had very, very different battles, bushfires. Significant challenges across the country with bushfires, the devastating impact it had on our ecosystem, the animals here, the people that were impacted in the areas that were significantly hit by the bushfires and collectively, we as society went together and started doing something about it. When we’re talking about how that impacts, well what we saw were consumption patterns that looked at what you can do, what people can do. People wanted to do more but didn’t necessarily know how. So, they were looking for products, knowledge and information about how they could contribute more. 

Unfortunately, don’t remember the name of her, but there was a famous Australian comedian, I believe she was, that gathered all the Hollywood A-listers together and donated almost fifty million dollars or whatever it was. That’s fantastic. That’s a good example of that collective consciousness that we have, but it also taps into the collective curiousness that people have, because as soon as you start developing this mass consciousness where everybody focuses on a particular theme or topic, there’ll be a lot of people on there that want to be part of that as well and feel a responsibility to take part of that, but they just don’t know enough about it. So, they start seeking out information and knowledge about it. And the way that we’ve seen that across the year, both spans from back when we had the bushfires, what could you do for animal protection? Animal services? For deforestation? Protect the environment, living plastic free etc. and then we came into this situation on a global scale where the Black Lives Matter Movement got it’s justified additional moment in the collective consciousness, which is great for all of us, really. And ultimately, it led to us seeing that people were searching for those kind of products that could help them better understand both our, I guess, our history. Where did we all come from, where have we witnessed racial tensions in the past and how we’ve been challenged by that or how we’ve been overcoming those in a particular situation. So, getting more knowledge about it and getting more informed is definitely something we can see people are trying to do and buy products to support them in that.

Cooper: Again, you’d have that proprietary data around that. You just see those books flowing out of the warehouse. That’s really interesting.

Steffen: A good example of that Cooper is speaking of responsibility, I think for a lot of people, companies included, who sometimes observe what’s going on around us and it serves as a reminder of what’s important for us. And I think a lot of companies chose to lean into the movement that we just talked about and then serve that as a reminder to themselves, of still being the voice of equality where, you know, but this actually matters for the companies. For us, we went out, we tried to do our bit as well by creating a focus on all literature that’s written by First Nation communities. So for us, it meant that we really wanted to take a stand on this as well on and be part of not necessarily the Black Lives Matter Movement, but we just try and focus on how can we give a voice to the voiceless. And here in Australia, it’s just that our home turf and our local communities, you know, we do have minorities here that’s not getting their voices out and we do have a responsibility to, you know, to help with that I think.

So, for us, we went out and created these campaigns where we’re focusing on that culture and trying to make sure that the storytellers of these communities get to tell the stories the way that they want to tell them. So, our initiative with the First Nations voices, as you can see in Booktopia from the home page, is that initiative. We have a curator that is a community member of the First Nations heritage that curates the products on this landing page. It’s not a bunch of book buys, it’s the storytellers of those communities that tells the stories that they feel they should be told so it comes from their voices. So, we have a new community member that does that every single month. It’s not stagnant. We have the absolutely fantastic Bruce Pascoe as the curator of the first and every single month we have a new curator. We’ve been running that for around three months and I consider that’s something that’s evergreen and perpetual for us to continually contribute to this. 

Cooper: That’s a really good example of how I think if there are businesses out there that might feel that oh well, you know, “I’m just” comment. “I just” sell online or “I just” run a food vendor or whatever the situation is. There’s really a contribution that every, to your point, individual but also every organisation can make to some of those bigger issues. 

Steffen: Well, I think, like I said, when we can help surface the right information, we should definitely try it. It’s hard. It’s hard when you have that many products in many categories. It’s hard when you don’t always have a way of reading into the intent of somebody searching on your site, but there are things we can all do collectively.

 

I know time is precious for you guys so just to wrap it up, something that we like to ask a lot of people we speak with. And of course, you do not need to divulge your secret source, but have you got any advice for anyone, particularly in the marketing space listening who might be trying to find their next edge or their next tactic or their next way to drive growth for their organisation? Have you got any advice for anyone sort of looking for that edge?

Thomas: Yeah, absolutely and everything’s contextual, right? So, it depends a little bit on the maturity level of the company. But for example, since there has been this massive rise in organic demand, for some companies, that may put them in a position to justify reductions in marketing spend and shift the focus from incremental top line revenue towards the bottom line and ultimately profitability, some companies would be in a position to do that. Others wouldn’t. So, I guess there’s also a huge branding opportunity here, right? If the company has the objective of moving away from the bottom of the funnel, perhaps due to the logistical pressures that I previously mentioned and towards top of the funnel branding and engagement activities, that could be a huge opportunity during these times. But, also in terms of the increase in digitalisation, considering these supply chain impacts, that’s never been more important, and you do kind of need to re-evaluate the business strategy almost on a monthly basis in 2020 according to the changing needs of the consumers. It sounds a little bit ad hoc, but at the same time, 2020, we haven’t had a choice but to be that reactive. 

In terms of, on an individual level, I guess one thing to note that’s increasingly important is just staying on top of any technological developments or marketing trends and that’s really tough because it’s a really fast paced industry. But, how I do that is, before I even kick off my day, I will make sure that I haven’t missed anything, that it’s happened overnight. How I do that is through a couple of ways. One, listening to podcasts and two, just making sure that I haven’t missed anything on an industry level or on a position level. For example, I work very closely with organic search, so I rely on search engine round table for that. But then of course working in retail, I need to make sure that I haven’t missed anything in the last 12 hours just to make sure that I’m at the forefront all the time and I’m the first to know because then I can pass that down to the rest of the team, whatever is important, whatever is relevant. So, I guess the first task of the day for me is to zoom out and just make sure that I’m not missing anything. But during these times, it’s extremely hard to do that unless you make it a priority. 

Cooper: Yeah absolutely, it seems to be moving faster every day, that’s for sure.