Trailblazer - The dropout logs on to a campus opportunity.
The college textbook market is a lucrative one, but that's just the beginning for one young upstart. Liz Garone talks to Matt Johnson, the brains behind BigWords.
Judging by the way Matt Johnson refers to his customers, you might wager that he's a 40-something businessman. The CEO of college retailer BigWords talks nonstop about the "18- to 24-year-old demographic" to whom he has tailored the BigWords web site. "They are savvy consumers," he points out, "and they are highly wired."
But Johnson is no middle-aged executive. At 24, he is a member of the same Generation Y he courts, with one exception:he is a college dropout, while his customers are still in school, with high textbook bills and a lot of disposable income from mom and dad. "They're probably the most elusive audience to get to," says Johnson. "But, if you can win with this demographic, you can win with anybody."
Despite competition from the brick-and-mortar world of campus bookstore and textbook sites like eFollett and eCampus, BigWords appears to be winning.
The site attracted more than two million unique visitors during January of this year, putting it first among online textbook sellers and third among online book sellers (surpassed only by Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.com ), according to PC Data Online.
But Johnson wants to get the word out that BigWords isn't just about selling books for the classroom. Through a number of key partnerships and by offering merchandise that he knows his demographic can't refuse, he has grand plans to develop the company into the number one retailer for the hip college set.
Johnson and BigWords use an amalgam of guerrilla marketing and hip promotions to attract the throngs of students who visit the site daily. In December of last year, Mini-Me from the film Austin Powers 2: The Spy Who Shagged Me, emceed a BigWords "Y2K ball drop" in New York City. Approximately 20,000 superballs were dropped from a crane onto an audience of 2,000 college students. Five of the balls were painted red, and students who caught a red ball won $2,000 in free books.
One of the more radical marketing promotions BigWords employed was offering to paint students' cars. The catch? Only one color choice: BigWords' signature shade of bright orange.Recent campaigns included handing out scratch-and-win cards on university campuses, with instant prizes ranging from $300 to $1,000 in free textbooks and other merchandise. "We've seen people on campus standing beside us in their white T-shirts handing out a photocopy of a Kinko's flier," says Johnson. "That just doesn't do it." BigWords workers are easily distinguishable from the pack: they don bright orange BigWords jumpsuits.
Johnson was no stranger to the Generation Y consumer when he launched San Francisco-based BigWords.com with three friends in August of 1998.
He had been working as the director of online services for In-touch Survey Systems, where his client roster included such heavyweights as the Gap and McDonald's.
Through a better buying experience, Johnson hopes to create loyal fans of BigWords.com. "The bookstore's an awful experience right now. You have to stand in line. They have poor availability and high prices," says Johnson.
"What we've done is to say, 'We have a better model. You don't have to go wait in line. You get all your books delivered to your doorstep within two days, and we deliver an experience where you can save, potentially, 10 to 15 percent.'"
As part of Johnson's plan to become the "Amazon for college students", BigWords sells everything from textbooks to the latest must-have CDs, along with book bags stocked with school supplies and BigWords T-shirts.
Plus, it has partnerships with Yahoo! Finance, the CapitalOne student credit card, MTV Online and MP3.com.
"We're trying to create a whole new retail experience," says Johnson, "and we are going to be the biggest demographic retailer there is, online or off."