ROI Calculators vs Transformation Stories

ROI calculators are useful props but they miss the point: that you transform your customers into something better

An ROI calculator is a useful prop. Like a cup in any production of Hamlet. How else can you tell the story of the death of Hamlet’s mother, who drank the poison meant for her son? Productions of Hamlet need that drinking vessel or it feels like charades. And you might need an ROI calculator.

But remember that it’s nothing but a prop in your story.

When is the last time you “switched” your religion because you thought it would increase your income by 7.4%? Or switched from one political camp to another, for a similar reason?

There’s a campaign concept that some Democratic pundits and politicians are in love with: “Don’t vote against your pocketbook”.

Clever but it doesn’t work.

Messaging focused on ROI calculation doesn’t work in the B2B business world either. It has a supporting role to play, but the leading role in your messaging is your customer’s identity and how you transform it.

Case Study: Scribe

Tucker Max learned about the value of calculation-marketing vs transformation marketing as he grew his business, Scribe publishing.

Having authored nonfiction books himself, both through self-publishing and through a major publishing house brand, he made the following observations:

  • Self-publishing is easier economically than ever before
  • There’s a methodical, replicable approach to publishing a quality non-fiction book, provided the author contributes expertise, time, and effort
  • There are many fewer bookstores than there used to be, especially chains, which makes ecommerce the inevitable distribution channel; this levels the playing field
  • Digital marketing and ecommerce are increasingly viable and accessible

and the coup d’grace:

  • Because B2B expertise is more distributed outside of large corporations than it used to be, there are many independent experts who would profit from authoring a well-edited, well-produced book

Based on those trends, Tucker saw an opportunity to productize the expertise he’d acquired by forming Scribe, a specialized publishing and book marketing company. His market size was (and is) in the 10’s of thousands worldwide. 

The problem was how to make the case that he saw so clearly. How to convince prospects to spend $10,000 to $35,000 on your productized service – and even more on sheer effort.

Tucker initially did what many entrepreneurs do: create the ROI calculator.  I don’t refer to a single calculator but to a mindset affecting many aspects of his marketing. He made arguments based on the profitability of publishing a nonfiction book to would-be authors. He also told the story of his own business model, which mirrors dramatic changes in our society as bullet-pointed above.

Having been stripped by the Internet of exclusive marketing and distribution power, traditional book publishers like Random House and Double Day retained only three assets: name-brand validation, editorial expertise, and book production expertise.

It gets worse for the big publishing houses: Scribe does the last two (and probably other startups will start to do the same). This leaves big publishers with almost nothing but name-brand and the validation that comes with it.

Specifically, Scribe helps successful consultants and executives publish “BPD” (business and personal development) nonfiction books. It does so by pairing them with industry-insider book editors with decades of experience at traditional publishing houses. And asserting just as rigorous, time-consuming, and taxing an editorial and rewrite process. It also provides industry-leading illustrators, designers, and others who make books look and feel polished. Scribe authors get the exact same production quality as authors at the top 5 publishing houses. You cannot tell the difference on the outside or reading through the inside. Except for the brand name.

Scribe even attempts to chip away at the most valuable asset, name-brand validation, by redefining “vanity publishing”. As Max Tucker frames it, trying to get picked by a brand name publishing house (“pick me, pick me”) is the new vanity publishing, since this often comes down to connections and clout not ability and effort.

Not sure I buy that. I observe that excellent books are produced both through self-publishing and publishing houses. And I still think that publishing house brand names are extremely powerful – but more for emotional reasons, not business ones.

In fact, some Scribe authors have outsold their BPD counterparts at famous publishing houses. The Alter Ego Effect, by Todd Herman, for example. It ranks #6 in the lucrative “Business Consulting” category on Amazon.

But even Scribe books that sell little can be very lucrative to a consultant, coach, or other experts. Case studies suggest 6 and 7-figure increases in total revenue gained through selling various types of consulting products and services. In fact, that’s the essence of the ROI calculation argument that Scribes advertises.

It can be difficult to trace the attribution of consultative sales to a book, though. Your last sale – where did it come from? Your personal brand, your sales pitch, your website bio, the video you made?

It’s hard to know. But this is the point: Scribe took off when it stopped trying to do that attribution. When it stopped trying to lead with ROI calculation.

And here’s where Scribe’s story becomes the lesson for your business.

The pitch is not, “stop voting against your pocketbook”; the pitch is: become a different kind of person and professional, share your expertise with your audience, become recognized as an expert outside your immediate company and client base.

And by the way, you may also make more money as you do so. Because ROI calculators are still a good supporting argument. But only if they fit into the story about who your customer starts out as and who they become, under your guidance.

Which brings this story to an end.

My best,