Monday, August 02, 2004

Jump-Starting Loyalty and Affinity-Group Programs

Ned Barnett

(c) 2004

This article was originally published in The Wise Marketer, an excellent online marketing 'zine (with a free e-mail-feed subscription - available on application ...) published out of the UK - Wise Marketer can be found at: - my thanks to editors Peter and Robin Clark for inviting me to discuss loyalty programs, and what makes them work.

I've left the article intact-as-published, including the UK-variant on spelling ...

What kind of consumer buy-in can triple loyalty results?

By Ned Barnett
Published by The Wise Marketer in July 2004.

Successful corporate loyalty programmes try to create in the consumer a kind of self-generated identification with the company, eventually leading to loyalty. So why do some fail, and what can be done to help them succeed?

Successful corporate loyalty marketing programmes - from airlines' frequent flyer programmes, to retail loyalty points schemes, to credit card rewards programmes - are a kind of marketing Nirvana. Their intent is to create a kind of self-generated identification, by the consumer, with the sponsoring corporation. This identification, in turn, is supposed to lead to greater purchase loyalty, more frequent spontaneous referrals, and - ultimately - more business generated at less cost.

That's the goal. The reality is often far different. Frequent flyer and point programmes too readily become an added cost that generates little offsetting revenue - a defensive strategy to retain existing volume from current clients, rather than an offensive strategy that attracts new clients and increased business from existing clients. There are a few reasons for this but they tend to boil down to a combination of incentive and emotion.

Alumni successes
Some classic success stories include college/university alumni associations. Four years at a college or university 'imprints' a person, creating an emotional bond that will shape actions, often for their entire life. For decades, this loyalty was mostly manifest during university fund-raising drives (along with, on a small scale, the sale of university-branded products). However, the sale of branded products - from t-shirts to coffee mugs - faced stiff purely-commercial competition and seldom produced significant revenue for the alumni associations.

That formula for limited success changed with the advent of what's come to be called cause marketing, through which consumers can elect to make use of services (e.g. credit cards or long distance phone services) that provide their alumni associations (and later, their favoured charities or causes) with per-transaction revenue. Academic researchers have found that consumers are willing to pay slightly higher prices, and to acquire or use products and services preferentially, when they know that a portion of the proceeds will benefit their favoured cause.

Charities followed
Cause marketing was quickly adopted by charitable organisations, which had long paralleled alumni associations, capitalising on similar emotional ties. It was no surprise that the main donors to the cancer society were people who had experienced a cancer-related loss among their immediate family or circle of friends. So, once universities began experiencing real success with cause marketing affiliations, it was inevitable that charitable non-profit groups quickly adapted the concept to their own benefit - and savvy commercial organizations hopped on the same bandwagon.

American Express, more than a decade ago, proved to itself (and to other businesses after extensive coverage in the Harvard Business Review) that cause marketing could increase sales. Several years in a row, the company fielded Christmas-season promotions promising consumers that their designated charity (each consumer could choose between two or three) would benefit from each transaction. These promotions significantly increased the company's market share during the peak consumer-buying season of the year.

Using emotional ties

The lessons from these activities was simple: if you could follow the long-standing charity/alumni approach and capitalise on pre-existing emotional ties, you could generate additional commercial sales from consumers who would preferentially use your products or services in order to support their favoured causes. A 1996 Harvard study found that 54% of consumers would even pay over the going rate cost for a given retail product or service simply to benefit a chosen cause.

However, most commercial loyalty programmes have tried to succeed not with emotional ties but with often-vague promises of consumer self-interest, frequently manifested in miles or points that can be traded later for benefits or goods (which are sometimes also not very clearly defined). Looking back, many of these have failed to greatly benefit the sponsor organisation. The reason may be that those commercial loyalty programmes failed to create an emotional link. Without that, they failed to require consumers 'buy in' in some way. With no emotional ties, and with nothing of value at stake, too many consumers just don't care enough about the points to actively participate.

Differentiation needed
For example, when all airlines had adopted similar frequent flyer programmes, truly frequent travellers joined all of them, slowly accumulating reward miles that they might eventually be able to trade for extra trips. Even without the limits and conditions that made such miles seem less valuable, extra travel proved to be a remarkably de-motivating incentive for those business travellers who already seemed to live in airports, taxis, and hotels! What had been intended as a way of attracting new customers - and additional business from existing ones - had become an added marketing cost spent to defend existing market share.

Similarly, some points programmes from hotels, car rental firms, credit cards and other high-volume businesses proved equally de-motivating. Having joined casually without any personal motivation, customers were often only marginally aware that they were even members of these programmes, and felt no particular incentive to try to capitalise on them. There are two possible reasons for such failure: First, the consumers had no emotional ties to the corporations; The incentive that works so well for alumni associations and charitable or cause organizations was absent from these programmes. Second, the members had no commitment; They had no motivational buy-in, and therefore no particular reason to care about the programme. Without some believable and motivating incentives, consumers disengage from such loyalty programmes.

Consumer buy-in
Yet, handled properly, commercial loyalty programmes can be effective marketing tools. As already noted, cause marketing efforts that link corporations to favoured charitable causes or fraternal organisations have a long track-record of success. However, there is an even better approach - one that not only motivates consumers but becomes (at least partly) self-liquidating. This approach is a programme that requires consumers to invest in it, and offer some true commitment.

In working with a client which provided effective loyalty programmes for 'white tablecloth' restaurants throughout the USA, Barnett Marketing Communications had the opportunity to see first-hand the real impact of such consumer buy-in. The client provided a turn-key internet-managed loyalty programme which provided consumers with points that could later be redeemed for free meals and other benefits. In addition, members were offered discounts, birthday gift bottles of wine, special desserts and other interim incentives to motivate their return to the sponsoring chain of restaurants (in order to build up points). In implementing the programme, some restaurants charged an annual membership fee, while others opted to give away the programme. This gave me the perfect opportunity to test out my theory about commitment as an important measure of the success of points-based loyalty programmes.

Triple the results
By head-to-head comparison, I was able to determine that programmes which charged a joining fee of US$20 signed up roughly 33% of the new members each month as those which simply gave away the same membership programme. But those that charged for membership saw triple the rate of points redemption compared with those that offered the same programme for free. But while these two methods might appear to produce much the same result, they don't. Those that charged the US$20 fee had, in effect, a self-liquidating marketing programme: On the balance sheet they were already a long way ahead of those that had initially absorbed the costs of the programme themselves. In addition, with triple the number of members to service, the 'free programme' restaurants had three times the programme overhead costs. It turned out that charging a membership fee - asking members to commit themselves financially - was a double-win situation for those that charged the joining fee.

Some of our branded restaurant chain clients did programme comparisons, with some restaurants giving away the programme while others in the same chain charged the fee. Every one of those restaurant chains, after completing the comparison, converted to the fee-for-membership version of the programme.

So, if you have (or are planning) a membership-based loyalty programme, either tie the programme to a cause or organisation that capitalises on pre-existing emotional ties, or develop a programme that requires members to demonstrate some buy-in before they can benefit. Both approaches, based on the core principles of motivational psychology, are valid - and both work.

For more loyalty marketing feature articles:

BTW - all memberships/subscriptions are on application. At least in the UK, it's become fashionable to "subscribe" under pseudonyms such as "Michael Mouse", and the editors at The Wise Marketer therefore review each application to make sure the publication is going - for FREE - to a real marketer, and not (apparently) to a Mickey Marketeer.

Copyright © 2004 Barnett Marketing Communications

About the author...

Ned Barnett, the owner of Nevada-based Barnett Marketing Communications, has over thirty years of experience in high-stakes, crisis-management public relations, and is a well used information source for both print and broadcast journalists. As a political consultant and speechwriter, he has worked for candidates and officials from both US parties, as well as for public interest advocacy groups in areas involving the economy, the environment, and healthcare.

Barnett has taught PR at two state universities, and has written nine published books on public relations, marketing and advertising. He has earned PRSA's coveted 'Silver Anvil', two ADDY awards, and four consecutive MacEacherns. In 1978, he was the youngest (at the time) person ever to earn accreditation from PRSA and, in 1984, he became the first person to earn a Fellowship in PR from the American Hospital Association.

Barnett Marketing Communications can be found online at

Top Ten Tips For Marketing and Promoting Books and Authors

By Ned Barnett
(c) 2004

Last night an author I've been advising had an appearance on one of the cable news programs - and his appearance reminded me of a couple of key things that I'd neglected to include in my original "Top Ten Tips" for promoting books and authors; with that in mind, I've enhanced my original Top Ten list to include several additional - and very important - promotion concepts.

You'll find them embedded below, but here are a couple of hints:

1. If an author is scheduled to appear on any broadcast, get that word out widely, in advance, so interested parties can tune in. I am constantly amazed at the number of regular guests on cable news - authors who have a book to sell (and who also have an e-mailing list of fans at their finger-tips) who do NOT announce their upcoming appearance. The few who do - and my hat's off to all of them - include James Taranto at the WSJ's "Best of the Web," and The Nation magazine's editor, Katrina Vanden Heuvel. They never fail (as far as I know) to let their readers know, in advance, of their scheduled appearances.

2. If an author is scheduled to be interviewed in print format (or on a website), get that word out, too - and if the print interview will be echoed on the publication's website, put that in the announcement (not all of us read the Milwaukee Journal, but all of us can find their website).

3. If the author is interviewed, reviewed or cited in a major media outlet (of the Newsweek caliber - or the equivalent within the author's trade-media niche), put out a press release ... and put that release on the wire, and distribute it to all the talk show hosts/producers and other media decision-makers you can find. This actually works - for reasons beyond the scope of this column, media decision-makers often "run in packs" - one good review or prominent mention in a media leader seems to "validate" the author for other media, and a single break-through in coverage can lead to lots of other successful coverage.

In short, build success on success - do not be afraid to "pile on" and use all the coverage generated to create new waves of additional coverage. Then, like a surfer, ride that wave as far as it will take you.

In adding these three concepts to the Top Ten list, I had a chance to reflect on each of these ten concepts - and in every case, I've found ways to beef up those concepts, adding new dimensions to my initial marketing and promotion suggestions.

So, even if you've read this blog before (in it's earlier version), if you're interested in book/author promotion and marketing, I think you'll want to re-read this.

With that said, if you'd like to see how these ideas integrate into a solid Top Ten list of the best ways to promote a non-fiction book author (either in the mainstream or in a relatively narrow business market niche), please read on.

Because of my passion for promoting books and authors, I put together this Top-Ten list of solid PR- and marketing-related promotion ideas - suited for either a narrow trade/business/professional market niche, but easily adaptable to any book other non-fiction book - and for a good many works of fiction, too.

This advice is based on lots of experience. I first got involved in the publishing industry in '74, and began actively promoting books and authors in '82. Since then - in addition to my own nine published books (7 on PR/marketing/advertising) - I've worked for or with three different publishers (in the VP/Marketing role), I've owned a literary agency and I've promoted several dozen books and authors.

Without further ado, here are my "Barnett's Top Ten Tips for Successfully Promoting A Non-Fiction Book (or author)."

1. In cooperation with the book's publisher, contact the various appropriate print (or even broadcast or online) media outlets - the ones that tie in naturally to the book's topic - (including trade journals, if appropriate) and propose that they "brand" the book. For example, in my guise as literary agent, I sold a book to Simon & Schuster and arranged for Casino Magazine to "brand" it - the book, when published, was released as "Casino Magazine's Play Smart and Win" - and Casino Magazine not only loaned us their name (for free) but actually did a promotion to subscribers to help sales.

1a. If successful, work with this publication to ensure ample pre-publication publicity and promotion, as well as a big splash at the time the book is released.

1b. Also work with the publication to "serialize" part of the book before it's released, to whet the appetite of the publication's audience.

1c. Try to strike the same kinds of deals with the "branding" publication with regard to regular bylined columns (which can continue past the publication date, and give the author a firm position to promote and market this and future books, speaking engagements and other activities).

1d. If successful, be sure to coordinate this with the publisher's own in-house promotion/marketing department.

SUGGESTION: Clearing self-promotion activities involving the book with the publisher is always a good idea - even if they have no right-of-first-refusal on such promotion activities (and - though it's a surprise to many authors, many publishers do have such rights built into their book contracts).

It's also a good idea to always keep the publisher's own in-house promotion/publicity/marketing department in the loop on all planned (and especially all successful) self-promotion activities. Getting them on your bandwagon will generally help open additional doors for successful publicity.

2. Beyond the "branding" publication (#1, above), contact the various other appropriate print and web media (including appropriate trade journals) to propose having the author "serialize" parts of the book (i.e., adapt published chapters or parts of chapters into article format) in their magazines or on their websites.

2a. Depending on the author's publication contract and ownership of the copyright, permission for serialization (and perhaps even fee-splitting) must be cleared with the publisher ... and once approved, be sure to touch base with the publisher's own publicity/marketing department.

3. Contact those same targeted media to propose that the author do a regular bylined column for them, on the topic of the book. Generally, this is seen as a separate business venture, and no permission from the publisher is needed.

NOTE: Regarding 2 and 3 - if the publications which agree are non-competing, there is no good reason to limit the serialization (or the columns) to a single publication or website.

4. Create a website for the book. Then create a blog on the topic(s) covered in the book. Then create a subscription (free or paid, depending on your market and your marketing strategy) e-zine newsletter based on the book and it's topic(s) - and if this proves really successful, you can consider a print newsletter down the road. The goal here is to turn readers into subscribers - as well as vocal advocates for the book - and to ultimately create an affinity group based on the book, the blog and the newsletter. This will be useful in many ways, from boosting book sales to creating markets (and marketers) out of readers.

4a. Create a website press room that includes ALL the reviews (HINT: solicit some pre-publication reviews to aid in publicity), as well as a bio, a book summary, and all the other things a good publicity/PR rep would put into a press kit (the virtue of a website press room is that you don't want to have to pay to have it printed, but the material is still there for reviewers and other media).

4b. Put all the content of the website press room on a CD/ROM disk, and send it out with press releases, review copies, etc.

HINT: The concept of putting a website press room on a CD/ROM disk has played very well among media I've worked with at conventions and trade shows I've participated in over the past two years - you don't need a book to adapt this concept to your other PR activities.

5. If the book involves a business segment, market niche or issue of interest to some segment(s) of the business marketplace, contact the various trade (or special interest) associations (local, state, national) that cover the markets addressed directly or indirectly by the book. Then implement Top Ten Tips #1-3 (above) with as many of these associations as possible. Most targeted associations have member publications and websites (including e-zines) which constantly need new, fresh and appropriate copy of value to their members.

5a. Voice of Experience (I used to be an Association VP/PR-Marketing) In spite of the potential of these markets for all kinds of public relations, associations often receive far less input from writers/contributors/PR folks than do commercial publications. There are HUGE opportunities here.

NOTE: Associations are seldom competitive - if your book crosses topics, you can strike parallel deals with different associations in the same or similar markets without conflict.

5b. Arrange a deal whereby the association becomes a reseller for the book, promoting and selling it to their members - as a former Association VP/PR-Marketing, I know from experience that associations are always hungry for "unrelated income" to help them balance the books while keeping dues and member fees low. If you succeed here, work with the association's PR team to "get the word out" to both members and to the media that covers the association's market niche, as well as to other media on your list.

5c. Arrange for the author to put on a workshop/seminar for/with the association - either as a member service or a revenue-generator for the association. If targeted associations accept this approach, see (and implement) 5b. above, as well - then hold a book-signing at the session. Again, if you succeed here, work with the association's PR team to "get the word out" to both members and to the media that covers the association's market niche, as well as to other media on your own list.

5d. Arrange for the author to be a featured speaker at an association conference, trade show or convention (not a stand-alone workshop, but one of the keynote or working/break-out session presenters); and if so, again see and implement 5b. above. Once again, if you succeed here, work with the association's PR team to "get the word out" to both members and to the media that covers the association's market niche - and to other media that are on your own list.

6. Wherever the author goes (on business trips, vacations, etc.), arrange a B&N or Borders (or related) bookstore book signing - preferably in conjunction with a local business association (or a bunch of them - lawyers and accountants, for instance, aren't generally ashamed to be seen with each other). Chambers of Commerce might also be interested, especially if they can tie in book sales or a member service/revenue-generating program. If you succeed here, work with the book store's(and sponsoring organization's) PR teams to "get the word out" the media that covers the bookstore's and sponsoring organization's market niche - and to other media that are on your own list.

7. Arrange for speaking engagements at big national, regional and state conventions (the kinds that, unlike trade associations, pay their featured speakers - and that don't have speakers bidding for the opportunity to speak for free). Conventions like to have interesting speakers who are only tangentially related. I recall that a healthcare marketing/PR group (part of American Marketing Association) had, at a national convention about a dozen years ago, Joan Borysenko (of Harvard) speaking on her scientific research which validated the efficacy of prayer on hospital patients (we were mostly hospital marketers there). Her talk had nothing to do with PR or marketing, but it was fascinating, and much more relevant than the luncheon speaker they'd had the year before - G. Gordon Liddy! Anyway, the point is, there's a market here, and they pay speakers, and you can also do book signings. If you succeed here, work with the sponsoring organization's PR team to "get the word out" the media that covers the organization's market niche - and to other media that are on your own list. If the event is big enough, let the various radio talk show and cable news program producers know - the event might, in itself, justify them renewing their interest in the author or the book.

7a. Develop a speaker pitch kit - including a video/DVD (also on streaming video on your website) that shows the author as a speaker, plus book reviews and raves from group's s/he's spoken to, etc.

7b. Develop several programs that meet different needs of typical convention. For example, develop a "lunch program" talk on the issues dealt with in the book, but for the "laity" business folks who aren't focused on the "inside" of the trade book's topic. Also develop a "spouse program," using whatever stretch you can make to create a link between the book's topic and the audience's likely interests (insider "war stories" can often work). Be sure to develop a stock "keynoter" address, too.

7c. Pitch the author as an expert who can also talk to non-specialist business people (or other relevant audience group) - and aim broadly, as these target groups will have differing topics/themes and speaker needs.

7d. ALSO - position the author as an ideal "last minute" speaker who can fill in when scheduled speakers drop out (but define "last minute" - a day, a week, a month, etc.).

7e. When it comes to book signings/sales at these speaking engagements, the author have to handle the books without help from the sponsoring group. The author can obtain these books from the publisher, generally on consignment - assuming the author has got that kind of deal with the publisher), or the author can contract with a local bookstore to handle it. I was at a Sean Hannity speaking event last winter and he'd arranged for Waldenbooks to be there and sell books (which he then autographed). He would have made far more money if he'd sold these books himself, but I guess he didn't want the hassle of putting it all together (for his book promotion tour, he spoke to probably 200,000 people over ten weeks, and it could have been a huge hassle - besides, he was charging for the events and making a royalty on the book, so he didn't need to be greedy). The author can work it out that way, or you can take copies of the book on consignment (suggestion - have them drop-shipped to the convention site and arrange to have them delivered to the auditorium right before the event) and sell them yourself. You'll make more money that way, and most conventions will provide access to hourly local staff who can handle the credit card imprints, etc. (i.e., the local worker bees you'll need to pull this off). If you succeed here, work with the book store's PR team to "get the word out" the media that covers the bookstore's market niche - and to other media that are on your own list.

8. When sending out books to be reviewed, ALSO be sure to send out a ready-for-publication book review written (and bylined) by some name-brand expert - a Ph.D. or CPA or college professor or somebody like that who, on the face of it, is obviously an expert. In my status as "adjunct professor" at a couple of universities (in PR at one and Marketing at another), I've written such reviews for my clients or under contract - these reviews then went out with the books, and you might be surprised how often a trade journal or business publication editor will decide to publish the canned review, rather than actually read and review the book. Really, this approach works very well.

8a. Of course, with or without a review copy, you'll also want to have a press release done - and send it out along with a CD/ROM copy of the website press room.

8b. Regarding the press release, consider also "popularized" articles you can put out in a MAT service such as NAPS ( or Metro Creative Graphics ( Those reach and are placed in 700 or so small/mid-market newspapers. From this placement, you'll generate lots of nice clips, and they really do support sales. The cost of this is more than a release sent out on PRNewswire or BusinessWire, but the service costs far less than an ad, and the end result looks like pure editorial (which enhances credibility). Of course, it has to be written in newspaper (not press release) style, but that makes it function even more credibly than a press release. I understand that there is a similar paid-placement news story service for radio (for radio news and radio talk shows), and I imagine that it can also help to generate awareness and stimulate business (though, in point of fact, I've not used one of these).

8c. Don't forget putting out at least one press release on BusinessWire or PRNewswire - shoot for broad distribution, with a 400-word-or-less announcement of the book pegged for the non-trade publications (those you hit directly, of course). This will appear (based on the quality of the release) in dozens-to-hundreds of news outlets, plus on 1,500-plus online databases that capture press releases (topically, or generally).

8d. If the book/author scores big with a prominent review, an interview on a major talk show - or any other kind of impressive, favorable coverage - send out follow-up press releases on these successes. This series of releases creates a "breadcrumbs" trail that members of the media can follow as they research the book and author online - giving them a greater sense of the legitimacy of the book and the author.

NOTE: That (8d) is a strategy that has much broader applications in public relations and marketing - even if you don't "do" books or authors, jot this one down!

8e. When you're thinking "press releases" don't forget the growing market in online web-zines and similar sites that include news/promotion feeds. These are an increasingly important PR market, though the word isn't always "out" there yet among book-promotion PR folks.

9. Once the core book is completed and in the publisher's hands, think about publishing an "executive summary" book - a condensed (think "Reader's Digest") version that boils the key points down for the busy CEO, CFO or self-employed person. Offer it WITH the full-text book in some kind of two-fer, as well as selling it stand-alone. You'll need to work this out with the publisher, but because of the profit potential, publishers are increasingly open to this kind of add-value additions to the core book.

9a. Along with the Executive Summary version, you can do an audio version in cassette and CD, for the busy exec stuck in traffic. Again, the publisher must be involved - but again, the publisher should be open to this added route to sales success. I believe this concept is what "Positioning" innovators Trout and Reis (doesn't that sound like a fancy dinner in New Orleans?) called "line extension" - and handled properly, this approach works well in building both sales and profits.

10. Position the author with all the cable news (business especially, but not exclusively) bookers/producers - and all of the business radio talk show producers, as well. Be sure to prepare appropriate pitch kits for producers.

10a. List with Radio/TV Interview Report ( and GuestFinder ( They both have worked for me.

10b. Do the same (Top Ten Tip #10) for business publications outside the book's core niche, and especially general business publications - you never know when they'll need an expert on the subject of the book.

10c. As noted at the very beginning, every time you score with 10, 10a or 10b, be sure to put the word out in every way you can - let your author's "fans" know when and where to tune in, and let other talk show producers know that your author is "hot." Use great publicity to generate more great publicity.

Here's the bottom line: If you're going to promote or publicize (or market - the terms aren't entirely interchangeable, but there's a lot of cross-over) a book or author, these Top Ten strategies are a good place to start. And even if you're not in the book/author field, these strategies have a lot of bleed-over potential for the markets you do work with.

Obviously, if you need some support (this isn't a pitch, but I'd be a fool not to offer), I'd be glad to help.

About Ned Barnett:

Ned Barnett, the owner of Barnett Marketing Communications (, is a 32-year veteran of high-stakes crisis-management public relations, and is a frequent “source” for print and broadcast journalists. Barnett has advised many corporate and personal clients on effective crisis relations – often stopping a crisis in its tracks, even before it gets started.

As a political consultant and speechwriter, Barnett has worked for candidates and officials from both parties, as well as for public interest advocacy groups in areas involving the economy, the environment and healthcare.

Barnett has taught PR at two state universities, and has written nine published books on public relations, marketing and advertising. He’s earned PRSA’s coveted Silver Anvil, two ADDYs and four consecutive MacEacherns; in 1978, he was the youngest (to that time) person to earn accreditation from PRSA, and in 1984, he became the first person to earn a Fellowship in PR from the American Hospital Association. But mostly, Barnett provides PR counsel to a range of corporations, authors and advocacy groups.

Target Marketing Q&A #1 - Free-Standing Self-Serve Car Wash

Ned Barnett
(c) 2004

We get questions …

As a long-time PR and Marcom practitioner, I get a lot of questions from colleagues and friends, looking for ideas for marketing and promoting specific business ventures. As an occasional feature here, I’m going to present the questions – and with permission – present the answers I developed for those questions. These answers are quick-and-dirty, informal and focused on presenting concepts, rather than detailed how-tos on the concepts.

The intent is to bootstrap a new online service – market/product-specific promotion and marketing tips – which we’ll be debuting shortly on as part of our new feature, “Deal of the Century.” Take a look, then let me know what you think.



Question: How to market and promote a free-standing, self-service car wash

We just bought a new home and want to build a free-standing self-service car wash out there near us as it’s very undeveloped now and land prices are only going to be going up. There are homes from the $90’s to the $1mm+ price range within 10 miles of the area we’re looking at. I don’t know yet how we’d bill it. There’s just no other self-serve car wash around. As a business, it’s pretty low maintenance. We see it primarily as a source of passive income.

We’re planning on having 8 bays to wash and then more in the back to vacuum. However, I just don’t know what people in the area would want. If it’s soccer moms, I’m thinking they’d want to wash their cars as quickly as possible to get going again. There will be people with collectible cars in the area, I’m sure, and they will want to baby their cars. The site is near the lake, and I’m sure people will want a place to clean up their boats before taking them back home, too.

Make sense?

We plan on having cameras there to oversee things, too. If the facility gets vandalized, we’ll be able to see who did it, hopefully – and beyond that, we’ll have insurance. You can mitigate risk, but we know you can’t eliminate it entirely.

We’ve got a vendor lined up who stocks everything needed at a self-serve car wash. They can insert their machines into the car washes, restock them as needed, and help ensure customer satisfaction and cash flow. They’ve been doing this a long time and can tell us pretty much everything we need to know – except what our area will call for. They say it’s best to have it on a road at 40mph, but the street we’re putting it on is a major thoroughfare and it’s 60mph. I still think we’ll be ok since there’s absolutely nothing out there except a plant nursery, a restaurant and boat storage in the nearby vicinity.

What do we need to do to market and promote this operation, and to succeed?


1. Based on the information you’ve provided, I recommend that you position the car wash as upscale, at least to the extent that you have a couple of “detailing” bays that go beyond vacuuming. They could also have special high-pressure devices for cleaning tires and wheels (maybe coarse scrub brushes, too), as well as vacuums with special attachments for dusting dashboards, etc. Check out a few “detailing” shops to see what kinds of detailing equipment they have. I think you’ll have less trouble and do more business with an upscale image. This will require a bit more maintenance, I suppose, but I think you’d also be able to charge a bit more – and you’ll get more business.

2. Be sure that at least some of your bays are big enough to handle the largest of the new SUVs (the Ford Expedition is 19 feet long). Ensure that at least a couple of bays are high enough to accommodate pleasure boats on trailers (since you’re near a lake, boat access should be a major consideration). Also have at least one bay high enough to accommodate bus-high RVs.

3. Your advisors are right about a 40 mph road being an optimum location. At 60 mph, you’re going to need some prominent coming-and-going permanent billboards, located a good way off from your site, as well as a BIG sign that can be seen from a fair distance. Remember – 60 mph is a mile a minute (88 feet per second) and it takes the average car one second per 10 mph to stop. At that rate, you’ve got to give drivers sufficient time to register on your sign (3-5 seconds), plus time to react (1-2 seconds) and 7 seconds to stop. This is especially important since, as we both know, in a 60 mph zone drivers will be speeding along at 70 mph. Best to figure 10-15 seconds of advanced warning – that’s 900 to 1300 feet in round numbers. Unless your signs are as recognizable as McDonalds (and yours won’t be), they’ve got to be visible from at least 1,000 feet from your site. Better yet, erect a visible series of billboards or signs at 1,500 feet, 1,000 feet and 500 feet (and one even farther away if you can get the rights and afford the signs). Better to own the signs outright than to rent, I think, but your accountant should be consulted on that. Don’t forget to figure in the upkeep on the signs (undoing the damage caused by gang-banger graffiti artists, etc.). ALSO, if your road has got a median, you’ve just cut your spontaneous traffic down by half. The ideal would be 40 mph with a “suicide” center turn lane, but even without the ideal, you can use your signage to help “make it work.”

4. As you’re selecting your site, explore striking a deal to build your car wash next to a name-brand auto parts store (AutoZone, Checker, etc.) you’d help each other with business. For instance, do-it-yourself car mechanics/detailers would want to use your facility, while people washing their car might decide to buy new wiper blades, etc. It could be an important win-win marketing opportunity.

5. Be careful of those expensive security video cameras – they are very often stolen (small, portable and with some street value) – so be sure to put them in cages or something like that.

6. As far as vending, think upscale. Try some high-end products like the new premium Turtle Wax polishes – that might really work as cash-generating products, and you might even be able to get some co-op marketing deals going with the manufacturers/distributors. I would also suggest that all of your vending machines take ATMs, Debit Cards and Credit Cards (don’t you just hate having to lug $5 in quarters to the car wash?).

7. When you’re thinking of vending machines, don’t forget refreshments. And if you go “upscale,” be sure your refreshments include some upscale items – lattes or cappuccinos, Snapple, low-fat or low-carb snacks, etc.

8. Building a sense of community is vitally important – even for an unstaffed self-service car wash – and there are a number of ways of doing this.

9. Come up with crowd-drawing publicity stunts – such as “wash-offs” – where area residents could compete to see who can wash a car (well) fastest. That’s a “for instance,” but seek out ideas like that – ones that will draw crowds to participate, and to watch. Maybe these could also be held in conjunction with charities, which will add to your crowd-draw and overall positive brand image.

10. Work with your area community colleges and host some hands-on “how to detail your own car” classes – and generate good PR for them, as well as for your facility.

11. Work with local churches, school bands, Boy Scout and Girl Scout groups, etc. Arrange for them to stage fund-raising car washes (where the client feeds the kitty for the water and soap and things you usually charge for, then the client donates to the groups who do the actual cleaning work). Again, those kinds of fund-raisers are also great for generating local publicity, so be sure to tip off the local community newspapers.

12. Work out a deal with neighborhood kids to offer their services to customers – to do the washing/drying for them. Even if this isn’t a charity operation, I’d bet a lot of ambitious 14-to-16 year olds (who may be too young for work permits in your market) would like to work on a piece-work basis at the car wash. In all cases, be sure get parental permission, in advance. Issue the parentally qualified kids with photo IDs that tell your customers that these kids are for real. Then, using prominent signage, make sure that customers know these kids work on commission, and that the customer is under no obligation to use them. When I was that age, I caddied at a local country club on just such an arrangement – I was an “official” caddy with a photo ID, but I only got paid what the golfers chose to pay me. Following that example, set a standard rate so the kids and customers don’t get ripped off – and post that “suggested” rate prominently. This Tom Sawyer/Andy Hardy approach to giving your customers the option of washing themselves or hiring an ambitious kid can also be good PR – but first and foremost, make sure it’s legal and not a violation of child labor in your market before you proceed.

13. Set up a secure, open-but-shaded area where kids can watch Disney-like videos while mom and dad are washing the car. This area should be open (where parents can easily see in), but also covered. Of course, the TV monitor should be secured behind a locking screen. A playground might also be nice, but think of the liability. Better to just have a video baby sitter in a safe, open place (with warning signs around written – nicely – by your lawyers to reduce liability exposure).

14. Set aside a “picnic” area (doesn’t have to be large) where you can host chili cook-offs and other weekend events that will bring people out. Tie them in to charities or churches, but also do them on your own.

15. If you’ve got the land, look into playing host to turkey shoots in conjunction with charitable and civic groups such as the Lions Club. These events were very big in Nashville, and I used to win all kinds of turkeys – and side bets – by acting like a dumb business exec who didn’t quite know which end of the shotgun was which. More important, they drew huge crowds (hundreds per day) to the sites. Turkey shoots can only works if you’ve got the land, and a backstop wall, and no problems from local police officials. If you are able to stage these, be sure to hire off-duty, uniformed police officers to provide security and add to the public’s comfort level. This idea is a bit off-the-wall, but if you go forward, you’ll find that it’s a great traffic builder.

16. Contests and give-aways. Tie in with a local detailing shop to provide free detailing services to the winners of your various contests. Ideally, all prizes should tie in with your theme – from detailing to cans of high-end car wax, remind them (in your contests and promotions) about your business by tying in the prizes to the core business – the car wash.

17. Don’t forget that website! Even a self-serve business needs a website.

18. Set up a kiosk at the car wash where people can enter their e-mail addresses so you can send them no-cost announcements about special events and promotions. People WILL give you their email addresses (and be sure to include that in offer to register them online in every direct mail and door-hanger promotion – have them to go your website to register), and then you can market them for free.

19. Set up a photo board (also on your car wash’s website) of the best “before-and-after” photos of dirty-to-clean cars and trucks, as well as of car wash “events” you host. Use this to build a “community” feeling at the place. Set up a drop box for hard-copy photos, and a place on your website where customers can download digital photos.

20. Put up a locking bulletin board available to community groups (accessible only through you – no direct posts) to further build the sense of community. Be sure to echo those postings on your website.

21. When it comes to neighborhood promotion, remember this – your primary market is not a 10-mile radius. The typical retail primary service area for a free standing (non-mall) operation is a 3 mile radius. Three to five miles is second tier, and the ten-mile radius you cited is a third-tier market. Some of this depends on your roads, but it would be an optimistic mistake to presume a ten-mile radius for a self-serve car wash.

22. Within that 3-mile radius primary service area, you’ll want to do direct mail. Direct mail houses now have e-mail lists, too – so when you’re doing your carrier route-sort mailings, you can also buy e-mail lists for your 3-mile, 5-mile and 10-mile radius. BEST to let the direct mail service do the e-mailing, so you don’t get dinged for SPAMing people.

23. You’ll probably want a phone book ad, too, even though people won’t call. And you’ll want to do door-hanger ads (you can get youth groups to do that for you, and donate a fee to the group itself – and get a tax write-off to boot). Magnets are also good marketing tools (for the direct mail). However, you’ll do yourself a lot of good by tying in with local church, school band and youth groups (as noted above), as they’ll bring in supportive parents and friends and such.

24. REMEMBER – people won’t remember something like a self-serve car wash, so you’ll need to keep prompting them. And prompting them. And prompting them. All of the events and strategies suggested here are intended to give some form and substance to that prompting.

About Ned Barnett:

Ned Barnett, the owner of Barnett Marketing Communications (, is a 32-year veteran of high-stakes crisis-management public relations, and is a frequent “source” for print and broadcast journalists. Barnett has advised many corporate and personal clients on effective crisis relations – often stopping a crisis in its tracks, even before it gets started.

As a political consultant and speechwriter, Barnett has worked for candidates and officials from both parties, as well as for public interest advocacy groups in areas involving the economy, the environment and healthcare. As a historian, Barnett is widely published in military history magazines, and has appeared a number of times on the History Channel, discussing military technology.

Barnett has taught PR at two state universities, and has written nine published books on public relations, marketing and advertising. He’s earned PRSA’s coveted Silver Anvil, two ADDYs and four consecutive MacEacherns; in 1978, he was the youngest (to that time) person to earn accreditation from PRSA, and in 1984, he became the first person to earn a Fellowship in PR from the American Hospital Association. But mostly, Barnett provides PR counsel to a range of corporations, authors and advocacy groups.

© 2004 – Ned Barnett
Barnett Marketing Communications