Selling Ads in the West Point Bugle Notes – How Email Marketing Turned Annual Dread to Delight

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I’ve been selling ads for the famous annual military book, the West Point Bugle Notes, for at least 16 years (that’s since 1995 or before). Selling ads for this publication has been a thorn in my side since I first accepted the job and, until this year, has been a source of annual dread. This is because there are a number of hurdles to overcome which rarely exist for other types of ad sales. First, the book is only 2.5″ wide by 4″ high, a pocket-sized book with a hard cover. Besides being given to the class of cadets entering West Point each year, it is sold in the bookstore to tourists or history buffs for about $40 each. With over 300 pages, it is nicknamed the “Plebe Bible” or “Book of Knowledge” because it contains vital information that cadets must memorize in order to graduate and has been published every year for this purpose for over a century. Only 16 pages are allowed for the sale of advertising on a first-come, first-serve basis, and these are grouped together in the back of the book in black and white, even though there is color used elsewhere in the book. With approximately 4400 cadets within the student body or “Corps of Cadets,” the Bugle Notes has a role of great significance to the success of each future soldier enrolled at West Point; hence its small size and substantial construction. This book is looked at hundreds of times at every opportunity during a cadet’s residence at West Point to allow ample exposure to absorb its content. While most of the information is serious or historical, there are portions which could qualify as entertaining. Advertisers would like to think that their ads provide some “relief” as well.

Unlike ads sold to accompany editorial matter in a consumer magazine, for instance, ads which appear in the Bugle Notes accompany text about West Point’s mission; code of conduct; famous speeches; role of sports; basic, individual and tactical skills and values; buildings; monuments; ranks, medals and badges; academics; history; tradition; songs; cheers; etiquette; and other essential military information. Since its founding in 1802, West Point has been an integral part of American history with famous leaders such as Generals Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, John J. Pershing, Douglas A. MacArthur, Dwight D. Eisenhower, George S. Patton, Norman Schwarzkopf and David Petraeus among its more than 67,000 graduates. It takes a special kind of person to appreciate the privilege of having one’s ad appear in such company.

According to the United States Military Academy website, “Nearly 3 million people visit West Point each year,” which includes families and friends of West Point cadets, alumni, senior citizen tours, school groups, and American and international tourists from all over the world. This website also states that West Point is one of the top three tourist attractions in the state, according to the New York State Department of Tourism. With those kinds of statistics and interest in West Point, it is no wonder that the Bugle Notes sells out at the bookstore each year.

While the Bugle Notes is thought of as more than an encyclopedia requiring memorization, given the widespread belief among alumni that its wealth of worthwhile information provides a proud heritage with which to confront life in any situation, it is usually not considered a vehicle of clear-cut value to local advertisers. Until I point out that parents and other visitors will be needing lodging, dining, shopping and touring suggestions during their multiple trips to visit for a multitude of annual events, football games, or just a chance to see their children, the revered Bugle Notes suddenly becomes a coveted advertising medium with a clear target and great value. A full page sells for only $350 for the whole year and can communicate an advertiser’s message repeatedly with long-lasting effect.

What I find disturbing is that the local market for advertising potential is one of very small businesses struggling in a depleted economy, eking out a living at best. However, these same businesses express gratitude for the constant stream of patrons who seek their services because of their proximity to West Point and see the merits of advertising in the Bugle Notes, despite its relatively “hefty” cost, as a result.

Years ago, there were advertisers of national stature who also sought to reach this same market with messages of inspirational substance. However, the economic meltdown has affected the availability of funds for such peripheral media and lofty goals. These advertisers were usually representative of national defense or government agencies and looked to shape the psyche of tomorrow’s military leaders through a book so unique and important to a cadet’s future.

That said, I mentioned above that until this year, this annual project was one of yearlong dread. What changed this year? My approach! Sixteen years ago, as well as up until only a few years ago, my market for Bugle Notes ads was reachable only through personal visit, mailed letter or phone calls.

I despised interrupting these business people with phone calls which only served to annoy them. Mailed marketing postcards or letters largely went unanswered except for some renewals, and personal visits were a huge investment of time and travel for me and rarely were more than a source of tedium to those I visited. But those were the ropes and I learned them well.

This annual dread became such an issue for me that I chose to divulge my source of anxiety about doing this job to management at West Point several years ago. Clearly aware that it would be tough for anyone to sell this product in such an economy, they practically begged me to continue temporarily until they could find a replacement. More years passed where they somehow didn’t contact me to perform this task until very late and therefore were more forgiving about my efforts if I were to just keep those who might renew. I aspired to do as good a job as possible under the constraints of limited time and even more limited funds. Until this year!

I had received a West Point contract extension last fall which clearly alerted me to the fact that they expected me to perform the job on time this year which I usually start in January. Rather than dread the job, I decided to prepare an exciting website and equally attractive emailed presentation which I could release to a list of addresses I would research myself and build with personalized marketing messages. If the emails reached anyone capable of making a decision, they could click to visit the website and purchase an ad online without ever needing to speak to me. Of course, I gave them ample contact information as well.

I was understandably trepidatious about going about marketing this opportunity via email since it is a well-known fact that much of email is shunned because of fear of computer virus infection, or worse, because it never reaches a viable candidate as a result of ubiquitous spam filters. And, slow to evolve into the high-tech era, the local market for advertisers had never been reached by computer before. Not to mention that marketing a printed vehicle of advertising through email was a bit unorthodox, no matter how unique the book!

Yet, one evening after having sent out about fifty targeted emails, I received notification of payment from PayPal! Someone had bought a full page ad and notified me that the artwork would follow. I was so excited that everything had worked just as I had intended! Shortly thereafter, another ad came through with payment. Then I received several emails asking me questions which I was able to answer by email which also resulted in more sales. Several people called me with questions or difficulty with payment. All questions were easily answered and all payments were successfully received.

When the selling period was finally over by the first of April, my total number of ads was more than triple what I had managed to sell during each of the past few years through traditional marketing. And this is a bad economy! Ironically, only a couple were renewals with the balance all new advertisers. I considered this a huge success, as did West Point.

What cadets and their families probably don’t realize, however, is that each word within such a small ad has been agonized over to try to deliver an effective message which will entice them to respond in some way. Without that response, advertisers will be discouraged about repeating their participation and support in future years. To my frustration, I have no way to communicate this concern to recipients of the Bugle Notes other than hoping perhaps some may read this article. And, it would be expected that those who read the Bugle Notes may feel no compunction to respond to any advertising, regardless of purity of intention or special efforts to compose appropriate messages.

If only they could appreciate the true spirit with which the advertisers invest in this medium, sympathetic to how congested the West Point region becomes with the constant influx of tourists. Hoping to make out-of-town parents and visitors aware of quality lodging available near West Point, several ads are for lovely bed and breakfasts situated in scenic and historic locations, while a number are for excellent and unique dining choices. With the new world-class sightseeing destination so close to West Point, a number of Poughkeepsie, New York advertisers hoped to present outstanding dinner and entertainment options for those who venture out to enjoy a daytrip to the Walkway Over the Hudson. And, with this Hudson Valley region so rich in history, there are ads promoting riverboat tours and nearby historical sites for interesting outings to delight any visitor.

Since I worked individually with most advertisers to create distinctive ad presentations, I naturally hope each advertiser will experience some success through our efforts. While I am not able to personally distribute each book to its end recipient which occurs when cadets arrive mid-summer, I’ve since decided to try to help these advertisers with one extra effort – by posting the entire group of ads online in book form with links to their websites should anyone discover them through an online search for West Point Bugle Notes advertisers.

Whether next year’s marketing of the West Point Bugle Notes will consist of renewals of this year’s participants, more newly discovered advertisers, or both, is a chapter reserved for a future reading. What I am sure about, however, is that those who own a copy of the Bugle Notes will devour its contents, honor its power, respect its history and cherish its significance for life…a tangible symbol of time spent at West Point, dear to the heart and etched into memory…’til death do us part.

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