What Booktopia’s CMO is doing to ensure brand partnerships flourish

Chief marketing officer for Australian online book retailer shares his partnerships strategy and the key pillars driving success

Want to find partnerships that can build your brand strategically and commercially? Then try making a movie of your customer’s day-day-life to identify patterns of behaviour and touchpoints and you might just find some hefty clues.

That’s the view of Booktopia’s chief marketing officer, Steffan Daleng, who recently caught up with CMO to talk about the investment the Australian online book retailer has made into building its partnerships might.

“I consider partnerships one of the core pillars in everything we do around marketing. Ultimately, it comes down to working with other people to get your name out there in front of potential customers, as they get introduced to your brand, products and services,” Daleng says.

While partnerships have always been a cornerstone of the Booktopia business model, the company only recently built out a dedicated team, appointing a dedicated strategy partnership manager plus headcount across the marketing function to foster new partnerships. Daleng says Booktopia’s model lends itself to leveraging a broad array of partnerships, from co-branding and affiliate marketing programs to co-marketing and co-product innovation.

“We are letting strategy always be the guiding light for what we want to accomplish but we’re executing through creating the right team structures and hiring the right people into the business to lead that approach,” he says.  “There is nothing more powerful than people pointing at your company and saying you should go there. Whatever that might look like, I’m interested in exploring it.”

Booktopia’s partnerships strategy is driven by the customer’s point of view and groups of people it’s serving, and what the company can do around that to elevate the brand.

“One lens is commercial, the other is the brand affinity or symbiotic approach: You want to work with people who are either on the same level in terms of brand affinity with the people who love your brand and that also love that third-party company and the services they’re providing,” Daleng says. “If you work with your company that’s much stronger in terms of brand than yours, that may rub off as well.

“There also comes a point of diminishing returns on brand equity, but again it comes back to looking at what matters and is valued by the customer.”

Examples of strategic partnership

Booktopia has launched two big partnerships in recent times. One is with Qantas around Frequent Flyer points and is pitched as a “good old-fashioned loyalty play”, Daleng says. The drawcard was Qantas’ stable and premiere brand positioning in the Australian market.

“It’s about being stickier with customers and ensuring they keep coming back to us,” he explains. “It’s a unique proposition for when you’re buying books. That’s required work around user experience, deep integration into everything we’re doing, our tech stack and CRM programs. Our entire UX journey through to post-purchase talks about earning and using these points.”

A second joint venture partnership struck last year is with ebook and audiobook platform provider, Kobo. This has seen Booktopia launch the Booktopia by Rakuten Kobo sub-brand to deliver a technology solution for ebooks and audiobooks. The partnership encompasses a joint brand and marketing approach with a product and app offering facilitated by Kobo’s technology stack.

With a certain percentage of customers buying ebooks, Booktopia “wanted to do right by them and ensure they have access to a library of content they want,” Daleng says.

Partnering with Kobo was then driven by the ‘buy versus build question’. “You have to look at overheads, risk in the business, facilitating support and development of multiple technologies as a cost exercise for the business,” he says. “We have to ask the question: Can we do that ourselves or is it better to partner on that? Then do what’s best for the customer.”

Also in the partnerships bucket are Booktopia’s relationships with ambassadors and influencers including authors and content creators. One major partnership program is the Author Royalty Club, where it works directly with fresh authors to hopefully create fresh best sellers in Australia. Authors can have significant social reach, a powerful driver of brand and influence and the impact of partnership.

“That’s content, through to our in-house studio inviting people to do book signings and doing fun things together,” Daleng says.

A further partnerships proposition is with companies with complementary reach and an affinity with “audiences very much leaning up against our audiences”, Daleng says. “For example, a lot of women are buying books, so we want to work with companies also focused on women. We have partnered with news magazines, such as Mamamia, to drive that audience engagement with that particular sector.”

One area Daleng is hoping a partnerships strategy can improve is Booktopia’s efforts to be more culturally conscious and relevant.

“You want to work with people doing the right things who have their hearts in the right place. Even when we think we’re communicating in the right way we don’t always get it right, or things change the day after and you have to counter with that,” Daleng says.

As a result, off the back of the #blacklivesmatter movement in 2020, Booktopia looked to partnerships to help build its diversity and inclusion credentials around Australia’s First Nations people.

“We looked at ourselves and said: What can we do to provide more diversity and what can we do internally to try and get the right narrative out there to our first nation communities? One big project we’re now working on is ‘First Nations voices’, a partnership with premium figures and personalities within these First Nation communities,” Daleng says. “Every month, they’re curating new stories and narratives from these communities with the idea that we don’t have a bunch of commercial buyers doing the job, these community leaders are choosing the stories they feel represent their communities.

“I want to create an environment where our First Nations people can get their stories out when they want them to be told. That inspiration will have to be executed with partnerships. We’re also reaching out to publishers and asking them for help to support this agenda. It’s a good example of where we need partners.”

Gearing up to make partnerships work

Daleng agrees there’s new-found interest in partnerships as a result of the unprecedented impact of the COVID-19 global pandemic on commerce and consumer behaviour. Many of these have been driven by operational and commercial necessity.

But Daleng argues the rapidly changing market conditions and the scrutiny they’ve seen many place on return on marketing spend has also provided impetus for marketers to think more creatively about how to build their brands in market.

“It’s a welcome lesson and shown we all need to think outside the box, be creative and get back to the core of what our customers really need and how we ensure we’re relevant to customers as brands,” Daleng says. “We need to look at every stone we can turn over to see what we can do that’s worthwhile, notable and remarkable.

“But it also means we need to see the difference and go back to the basics of good versus bad executions. I’ve seen many doing the bare necessities – I have an email database, for instance, you have a database so let’s share that. That doesn’t produce results. You need to make it meaningful and valuable to customers.”

To bring partnerships to fruition, Daleng says marketers must make sure there is a framework of operating that makes sense commercially and operationally, supported by teams internally.

“Another part is accountability you always have around yourself, the business model and partners you work with, and monitoring how we’re doing it, tracking it and provide that value back to partners,” he advises.

A third must is to have the right technology platforms and processes in place to facilitate a partnerships strategy. Booktopia has spent the last 18 months building out its marketing technology stack, including bringing on Impact’s Partnership Cloud to enable it to scale activity with non-traditional partners.

“Cross-channel, platform attribution means having proper tracking in place. It’s critical to work with the right tech and martech is of key importance to facilitate strategy and these activities,” Daleng says.

“There is a lot of legality in building partnerships – some companies are restricted by their own legal departments as well, and companies like Qantas, Bupa and the banks have legislation and high levels of compliance to adhere to. Choosing the right tech platforms and people to work with helps you through all that.”

At the same time, Daleng urges marketers to muck in, and points to Booktopia’s partnership with Bupa as an example. While details of the wider partnership haven’t yet launched, the pair have started by providing discounts and offers within the Bupa+ program.

“Sometimes you have to put a ring on the finger and get the relationship started with something while you work on the deeper, more integrated things,” Daleng says. “It’s certainly better than letting things drag for months and delaying executions. Perfection is the evil of done.”

But the ultimate guide for partnerships is the customer. That’s why Daleng’s top piece of advice for how CMOs can find more disruptive, fresh partnership opportunities is to “go back to the customer first”.

“Often, brand partnerships are driven by how to get the most eyeballs and accessing the largest database. My best advice would be: Don’t do that,” he says.

“Sit down, understand your customer and make it into a movie: What is the first thing they do in the morning when they open their eyes? What do they do? What coffee brand do they drink? Do they turn on the TV or an app? How could you work with that app, or get in front of them?

“Figure out who they are, and their patterns of behaviour, then think about what your brand can do within that lifecycle or journey that’s relevant for them.”

This exploration of Booktopia’s partnerships strategy is part of a new series of pieces by CMO A/NZ on how marketers can pursue more successful, disruptive partnerships. Check out the first feature in our series exploring the rise of disruptive partnerships in 2021 here.

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