J.C. Hutchins and Zero Budget promotion

Our friend Chel Wolverton helped me connect with award-winning novelist J.C. Hutchins to talk about promoting on little or no budget. I thought small businesses could take some lessons from his success.

J.C. is best known for his high-tech 7th Son thriller trilogy, which he released as free serialized audiobooks from 2006-07. With more than 5 million episodic downloads of his fiction — and approximately 100,000 downloads still occurring each month — 7th Son is the most popular “podcast novel” series in history.

Thanks to savvy “zero budget” promotion and relentless evangelism from his fans, the series’ first novel, Descent, is now in print from St. Martin’s Press. J.C. has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR’s Weekend Edition, TIME.com, OMMA and Blogger & Podcaster magazines, and the BBC.

1. Can you sum up, in one paragraph, what the “zero budget” project is, and how small town businesses could benefit from reading about it?

Certainly. The “zero budget” marketing I’ve used to promote my novels hails from necessity — like most small businesses, I simply don’t have the cash to hire a fancy marketing company to spread the word about my work. So I bootstrap it by using free online services (such as my website, blogging, podcasting, Twitter and Facebook) to boost awareness for my fiction. Further, I use these tools to personally engage with my customers — making them more than customers; they become fans — and ask them to help spread the word about my product.
Most businesses understand the importance of advertising and outreach. But so many fail to recognize that their satisfied customers are the best marketers money can’t buy. By turning your customers into fans, you transcend a mere transaction-based relationship and become something far more significant in their minds.

2. Are there any necessary first steps to making a zero budget promotion work? For example, how necessary is it to have a plan?
A business can certainly benefit from a plan, but I encourage low-risk experimentation — especially when businesses are using social media tools (like Twitter and Facebook) for the first time. There’s no need to break the bank here, from a time and effort perspective. Start out small and slow, and see what resonates with your customers.
The key element is providing value. Value, value, value. Make it worth your customers’ time and effort — and then make it effortless.
For instance: A local retailer can create a customer-centric Twitter account or Facebook page. This takes minutes to do, and is free. (It’s easy to become consumed with fancy designs, bells and whistles — but forget that stuff. Bare-bones it.) Promote these pages with some low-cost in-store signage, and talk it up to customers … even slip self-printed paper promotional “postcards” in each checkout bag. Encourage customers to visit those sites.
Why? Because there are online-exclusive deals that can be found there. Or perhaps there are quick tips that cater to your customers’ needs. With $20 and 10-minute time investment, you can provide valuable coupons for your customers, or priceless expertise. In a way, you bring your business to them. These things create value and customer loyalty — they’ll come back to those pages for more. They’ll come back to your store, too.
And if your customers don’t visit those sites? You’re out $20 and 10 minutes. That’s chicken feed, even for the most strapped businesses. You can implement similar strategies with blogs or podcasts, but start small and see what works.

3. What are the top 2 or 3 most successful techniques you’ve used so far?
In the online subculture in which I operate, I’ve found that loss leader products, cross-promotion, and leveraging customer enthusiasm deliver the best “zero budget” results.
Loss leader products
I give away my novels for free in serialized audio and text formats, and encourage my customers to share that free content with their friends. This sounds insane; how can I make a profit if I’m giving away my stuff? But these loss leader products get folks into the door, and invested in what I’m doing. They enjoy the free stuff, and are willing to hear me promote the “print” editions of my novels, which are for sale. Further, the low barrier of entry attracts customers who would not have otherwise discovered by books. I’ve seen a tangible connection between my strategy and successful book sales.
Brick-and-mortar retailers — or any other business, for that matter — can benefit from this strategy. I mentioned online-exclusive deals/coupons and “expert tips” articles. There is little monetary downside to these loss leaders, as it either drives customers in-store, or delivers invaluable insights that lend credibility to your business … which brings people in-store. With minimal modification, this strategy can work effectively for industries well beyond retail.
Small companies can also benefit by creating short- or long-term partnerships with other local businesses. Better still, these alliances need not cost a dime. This cross-promotion can occur online, or in brick-and-mortar locations. This works best with businesses who have customers with overlapping interests.
For instance: Let’s say your town has a locally-owned hardware store and bookstore. The hardware store can feature low-cost in-store signage that promotes the local bookstore as “the best place” to learn more about decoration, remodeling and other DIY endeavors. Meanwhile, the bookstore has signage in the appropriate sections that promote the local hardware store as “the best place” to buy the tools customers need to get the job done. It’s a dirt-cheap promotion which lends credibility — and drives business — to both stores.
Leveraging Customer Enthusiasm
Transcend the traditional transaction-based relationships with your customers. Make them fans with superior service and value! Identify your happy repeat customers and ask them to help spread the word about your business. Provide them with a few flyers (which provide value via deals/coupons/etc.) to pass out to friends and family. Or ask them to mention your Twitter or Facebook pages. Since they’re already invested in your success — they enjoy doing business with you — they’ll likely accept your low-pressure offer.
And if they don’t? Hey, no sweat. You only spend a few bucks printing those flyers.
4. You are targeting a fairly tech-savvy audience with your writing. How well do these tactics work when your target isn’t that technically minded?
They can work just fine; in fact, several of the “zero budget” tips I’ve mentioned are designed for the “real world,” and not the Internet. All it requires is an absolute love and belief in your business, and a willingness to pursue the slightly unconventional in your outreach and customer relationships. If you love what you do, that passion will spread to your customers — and to allies with whom you can partner.
Learn more about J.C. Hutchins and his work at http://JCHutchins.net.

Photo courtesy of J.C. Hutchins

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About Becky McCray

Becky started Small Biz Survival in 2006 to share rural business and community building stories and ideas with other small town business people. She and her husband own a retail liquor store in Alva, Oklahoma, and a small cattle ranch nearby. Becky is an international speaker on small business.

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