CSS Publishing’s David Runk on How to Be Small but Mighty: Know Your Tribe
Above: David Runk, caught with a rare “No-shave November” beard
We met at the Denny’s outside Lima, Ohio, home of CSS Publishing’s Headquarters. It was a couple weeks before Thanksgiving.
Preparing my stomach for the holiday, I got one of those skillets with lots of meat, potatoes and veggies. It was so good I burned my tongue and didn’t even care.
Between bites of his club sandwich and sips of coffee, David Runk spoke with pride about the family business his father, Wesley T. Runk, started in 1970. Back then it was called the Children’s Sermon Service, after their first publication. It has since grown to become a major provider of adult pastoral resources as well.
A LOT CAN CHANGE IN 50 YEARS
In the early days, the company regularly mailed out 10,000+ catalogs to pastors. Times change. For one thing, they once had a full-time marketing director to handle mailings. For another, CSS’ marketing is now almost entirely digital.
“These days my brother Tim and I are handling just about everything ourselves,” David told me. “We try to email content out to our list of about 15,000 every week.”
David and Tim Runk are avid students of the Jeff Walker school of community building, or “tribe” building. They have the benefit of a laser focus on who makes up that community – a.k.a. their target audience.
DEFINING THE AUDIENCE
At the broadest level, as a Christian publishing house, they are trying to reach followers of Christ; at a niche level, pastors, religious teachers, study group leaders; at a micro-niche level, they serve Christian leaders who usually teach and preach from the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL).
(For those of you who didn’t go to seminary, the RCL is the schedule of readings prescribed each week of the year according to the Protestant Church calendar. For more, see Wikipedia. Or maybe your pastor.)
While it’s a wonderful marketing gift to be able to define your target audience – your “tribe” – so well, that alone doesn’t solve the most significant problem facing publishers of pastoral resources like CSS.
TRIBES AND MARKETS AREN’T STATIC
“My pastor is just a little older than I am,” David, who is in his fifties, said. “He told me that when he was in seminary, there were about a hundred students per graduating class. Today, in that same seminary, there are only about 100 students total.”
The problem: the tribe is shrinking.
At the same time, the number of bookstores is shrinking, too. It may be more apt to say the book business has been consolidated by Amazon, Christian Book Distributors and other similar companies. With that phenomenon comes the Amazon effect.
“When my wife goes shopping online or at Kohl’s, she’s looking for deals. I don’t blame her. So do I. That’s the mentality we’re facing. Nobody wants to pay full retail,” David said.
HOW TO KEEP EARNING YOUR FOLLOWING
The Small Business Saturday movement, the downtown revitalization efforts of small town USA, the rise in switchovers from banks to credit union membership; these are all indicators that at least some Americans value and will take steps to preserve the kinds of personalized experiences big retailers, cookie-cutter malls and mega-banks struggle to offer.
For small businesses, it’s not about competing against the big boys on price to snag the majority; it’s about having a meaningful story to share with a powerful minority. It’s about going deep, not wide; building loyalty by providing value they can’t get anywhere else, and consistently reminding your tribe that this is why they support you.
REMIND THEM WHERE YOU ARE IN THEIR STORY
CSS has not just one story, but many to tell from its nearly 50 years providing exactly the kinds of resources pastors need. The works they publish are “written by pastors for pastors.” They know what they’re doing.
As a small business owner, your tribe is the group of those most likely to understand why they should pay full retail price. They have ears to hear the reasons why, and just need to be reminded from time to time. It also helps to remind them that their success – their happiness, enjoyment, etc. – validates what you do.
It’s all about them.
“Our best customers are the ones who buy everything we put out. In this story, they are the heroes. We’re the supporting cast,” David said.
WHERE THE FREELANCE WRITER COMES IN
Sensing we were running short on time, we checked our phones. The time had flown by. It was almost time for both of us to hit the road.
“So here’s the question,” David said. “Beyond press releases and back cover copy, how do I utilize you more to help us tell our story?”
I’ll drop the curtain and stop here. Industry secrets and all. But suffice it to say, before we shook hands and parted ways, David and I began to discuss some exciting ideas to take CSS Publishing into the next half-century.
God willing, this will be one to watch.
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