Don't be a museum piece

July 1, 2011

Johnson’s World by Steve Johnson

Midway Village is one of thousands of living history museums scattered throughout the United States. It has a museum full of indoor exhibits, but the main draw is its outdoor collection of restored pioneerera buildings. Midway Village features 26 historical structures, including a general store, hardware store, blacksmith shop, schoolhouse, town hall, police station, plumbing shop, bank, hotel, hospital, fire station, church, barber shop, law office, two barns, four farm houses and, yes, a print shop.

This summer, while on vacation, I took a guided tour of Midway Village from a costumed guide who was brimming with facts, figures and anecdotes about the village buildings, its former inhabitants and a plethora of related trivia. I don't think our guide stopped talking once, not even to draw a breath.

We toured all the buildings that were open that day, pausing at each to learn fascinating and useless facts: how plumbing came to the frontier; what subjects were taught in oneroom schoolhouses; why blacksmith shops have dirt floors; why horseshoeing has never been automated; and even an early cure for venereal disease that became explosive if left sitting around. Do tell.

Just the facts

At the end of the tour, we stopped in the print shop. For the first time, the guide stumbled. He didn't stop, but he stammered a bit.

“The moveable printing press was invented in … in … England, yes, England I think.” I waited, eager to hear some print factoid heretofore unknown to me. It didn't come. Our guide was merely confused.

“Germany,” I said. “By Johannes Gutenberg, in the midfifteenth century.” I didn't bother to tell him that the press was not moveable, though the type was (nor that the Chinese invented moveable type long before Gutenberg).

“That's it, Germany! Gutenberg!” exclaimed our host, obviously relieved to have his facts straight.

Wait just one cottonpickin' minute, here! Wasn't it just a decade ago that A&E Network named Gutenberg's story “biography of the millennium” and Time magazine named his press “the invention of the millennium”?

Fastforward to this summer, when a historian can't even remember Gutenberg's country, let alone his name.

As we toured the print shop in the historic village, my companions all turned to me, expecting me to know the details of the equipment and the processes. Everyone was politely interested as I spoke, nodding and smiling in the same way they did when touring the farmhouses.

The secret?

We’ve clearly shown that "Unique = Value" is a solid proposition. Mailing a catalog every day of the week might seem like a fruitless extravagance. In this case, by eschewing cost­cutting measures and actually increasing print expenditure, each catalog arrived implying unique information... then delivered on this promise.

I would further observe that my wife’s initial purchases gave the database wizards very little to go on. With her meager purchasing track record, it would have been next to impossible to tell whether she’s a professional model or a grandmother. (In fact, she is both, which shows just how tricky this database business can be.) By sending a variety of mailings with diverse content, one was certain to strike a chord.

I have since received our monthly credit card statement, so I can vouch for the cost effectiveness of their strategy. I am certain my wife’s subsequent purchases have justified the cost of the five­catalog blitz.

Not in the catalog business? Neither am I. But the next time a customer tells you of a need to cut costs, think about what can you suggest that will increase his or her perceived value of print. The solution is nothing less than the holy grail of marketing print.