Founder Korrina Ede shares how her YA Subscription box service, OwlCrate, grew from basement to packing facility in six months, how they tap into their enthusiastic audience with clever online and off-line marketing, and their secret to overcoming the doubts common to all box service subscribers: “What if I don’t like it?”
No one is too old to read YA (young adult literature). We will not be ashamed of our to-be-read piles. It’s okay to fall in love with fictional characters. Books have the ability to change our world.
The above is from OwlCrate’s manifesto - a Portland, Oregon-based company that sends subscription boxes of thoughtfully curated Young Adult fiction.
Subscription-based businesses are hot right now. You can subscribe to meal deliveries, beauty products, clothing, shaving kits and wine. But the book-loving community, especially YA fans (who are, by all accounts, an enthusiastic audience), hadn’t seen anything like it. It was an idea that found the perfect audience at the perfect time.
Founders Korrina Ede and Robert Madden began OwlCrate out of a basement suite in November 2014, and launche their “Magical Monthly Reads” concept three months later, mailing their very first box in March 2015.
Korinna recalls, “Originally we were thinking of launching an online boutique for bookworms, but then we thought it would be fun to offer that in the form of a subscription box. We’d been subscribed to a couple nerdy boxes ourselves, such as LootCrate, and we loved the idea of creating specially curated boxes for readers. The ‘planning and researching’ phase was mostly to do with logistics and how it was all going to work. We also began finding the extra special goodies and book that would be sent out in our first box.
I was already a member of the YA community, and had a lot of love for the genre, and we wanted our business to stem from our passion. We hoped that the thriving YA community would be excited by our idea - and we were right!”
They were so right, in fact, that in six months they outgrew their basement suite and had to find a new packing facility in Portland, Oregon. By the end of that year, Korrina and Robert had to quit their day jobs and devote themselves entirely to OwlCrate.
Korrina says, “When we first launched, we were blown away by the response. For many months we continuously sold out and couldn’t keep up with demand. There were only so many boxes we could hand pack ourselves in our basement suite, and the next logical step was to find a company to help us do that.
"We had no idea we would need to look into packing facilities so early on, and it was quite a journey to find the perfect one! But after some trial and error, we found a small family-run packing team that we couldn’t be happier with. They put so much care into packing each and every box!”
In many ways, OwlCrate bridges young and old(er), old and new. As more people switch from ink-and-paper books to e-readers and Kindles, it’s a throwback to send actual books - via post.
This is part of OwlCrate’s magic: the thrill of getting a package in the mail with unknown, yet exciting, contents. An OwlCrate shipment may contain books, tea, Edgar Allen Poe socks or Pride and Prejudice-inspired headbands, and a delightful assortment of other products that relate to that month’s theme.
Korrina says the “YA” focus does not at all limit her readership.
“We have members of all different ages, anywhere from ages 10-65. We would say that our ‘target audience’ though would be women aged 18-35. We truly believe that YA can be enjoyed by anyone though, and that so many of the books are universal.”
There’s an element of childlike wonder that guides the curation of OwlCrate boxes. But it’s how they curate their marketing that is, truly, wonder-inducing.
There are certain, established paths to reaching book lovers. GoodReads is a goldmine for publishers and self-publishers looking for audiences. Events like ComiCon, WonderCon, and BookCon are just a few of the venues for marketing book-related, genre-specific products.
But this is not how OwlCrate found its audience. Korrina says their audience finds them on Instagram.
“Most people discover us through Instagram, which is definitely our biggest social platform. Whether it be from stumbling upon our own account, or by hearing about us through family or friend’s unboxing photos.”
Tapping into the audiences of “un-boxers,” “Booktubers,” book bloggers and “bookstagrammers” is a move that puts their word-of-mouth growth on loudspeaker. But they also encourage user referrals by offering a free box to subscribers who refer three friends—a proven way to grow an audience and build a community (but more on that later).
OwlCrate’s home page includes several “Featured YouTubers” sharing unboxing videos, positioned just above a testimonials slider, which sits atop an “as seen in” section—three vitally important features for overcoming the hesitations of booklovers who aren’t quite sure if they’ll love a book box.
Credit: Sasha @abookutopia - OwlCrate Unboxing: Myths & Legends!
In marketing lingo, user-created videos, user-submitted images, testimonials, and “as seen in” publications are prime examples of Social Proof. Marketers and copywriters use social proof to gain the trust of potential buyers by showing them that other people—real, unpaid customers—love the product.
This is especially important for products that come with a higher level of uncertainty, like a box that could contain anything. People need more than a little reassurance, and OwlCrate’s home page is like a primer in how to give it.
Korrina says, “The most common concern we hear from people is whether or not they’ll receive a book they like.” And another common worry, especially among die-hard YA fans, is “what if I get a book I already own?”
Social proof eases the first concern, but two strategic business decisions address the latter.
“To limit this possibility as much as possible, we only send out books published within 45 days of shipping, and we also have begun including books with exclusive covers. This means that all of the books included are special editions that can’t be found at your local bookstore. So even if you do end up with a book you may already own, it will be a unique copy of that story.”
And, of course, part of the fun of getting surprise books is the chance to find authors you don’t know about.
“Receiving mystery books allows people to truly step outside their reading comfort zones and discover amazing books they never would’ve picked up on their own. It’s a fantastic way to find out about new authors and stories, and we’ve received such great feedback from our members about the books we include.”
That feedback becomes more social proof—and good, old-fashioned word-of-mouth enthusiasm—that eases the concerns of subscribers and brings new subscribers in.
“We highly encourage our subscribers to post unboxing videos and photos, and to share in the experience of opening their monthly crates. We love seeing their reactions to each box, and we enjoy sharing their beautiful photos on social media.
We have a select group of YouTubers that we send free boxes to each month in exchange for unboxing videos, but we didn’t find them through outside ‘influencer marketing’ companies. We like to do our own research as to who is relevant within our niche community, and we create personal relationships with each of the people we work with. We find that YouTube is a great platform for subscription boxes, since our product is so visual.”
But Korinna says they don’t think of this as marketing strategy, “but more as sharing how vibrant our community is."
OwlCrate is about so much more than books. When you join, you really do have the opportunity to make friends and get to know people. It’s always been important to us to show the human side of our business, by sharing real reviews and photos on our website.
OwlCrate saw the potential for community building and ran with it, creating opportunities for interaction with their members across social media platforms.
Is it marketing genius or the organic outgrowth of genuine love and fellowship among YA booklovers? Perhaps both. But their passion for their subscribers is evident, and reciprocated, and they show no signs of slowing down.
“As our subscriber base grows, we continue to brainstorm fun things for the community to participate in together. This allows our social proof to grow and evolve very naturally, which is something we love sharing on our website and various social media platforms. Above anything else, we care about our members, and want to create and share content that interests them.”
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The efforts of Korrina and their team have paid off with what she calls “an incredible group of thousands of bookworms who support literature, support our bookish dreams, and support each other. Community is very important to us, and a huge part of our mission. It’s been amazing watching people bond over their OwlCrate boxes and books."
Korrina says their most frequently asked question is “How do you decide what goes into the boxes?” Her answer reveals just how much thought, effort, and fangirl love go into the process.
“Many, many weeks of searching. People ask us this question quite a lot, and there’s no easy answer. We’re always on the hunt for fun and unique bookish items. I browse Instagram and Etsy frequently, to keep my finger on the pulse of what the community is excited about. We love supporting fellow small businesses and artists, so we’re constantly on the lookout for new exciting creators. We also attend toy and gift trade shows throughout the year to seek out cool products.”
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The non-book items are just as exciting as the books, if not more so. One subscriber favorite is tea.
“We like to include things that a majority of bookworms would enjoy, and what reader doesn’t love getting cozy with a hot beverage and a good book? We started out by including tea every few months, which our subscribers definitely liked. We’ve also sent out coffee recently, and are looking into hot cocoa for a future box.
"We love working with ambitious independent tea companies (especially ones that have a fun bookish edge). And luckily for us, selecting tea requires taste testing many different samples!”
In a very YA moment, Korrina says that if she could go back in time to 2014 and offer herself one piece of advice, it would be this:
We were very nervous entrepreneurs, so the only piece of advice we wish we would’ve followed was to believe in our own abilities more - and try not to stress out as much. We wouldn’t go back and change anything from the early days tough, as this is our story. We’re proud of how we’ve grown and where we’ve ended up.