Better World Books: the power of engagement through cause and not gimmicks

Forrester says we live in ‘the Age of the Customer’

Yesterday I came across this post by Josh Bernoff (Forrester) where he states that we are living in “the Age of the Customer” and asserts “that companies must be more than customer focused, they must be customer obsessed”.  He then goes on to set out the changes that companies need to make to become customer obsessed.   In the video Josh says “The only source of competitive advantage is knowledge of and engagement with customers.”

I say that ‘Cause Obsession’ trumps ‘Customer Obsession’

I beg to differ.  There is something more compelling than customer obsession.  What is that?  A obsession with a cause that touches the human heart and inspires customers, employees, volunteers, suppliers and the community to come together and live/further that cause.  It is one thing to engage customers it is something else when you can engage all the stakeholders. It is one thing to engage through gimmicks and something else to engage through an uplifting cause.

BetterWorldBooks is an excellent example of company that is engaging a range of stakeholders through cause. BetterWorldBooks landed on my radar back in December and prompted me to write ‘Better World Books: a great example of customer centricity being practiced’.  And then again last month prompting me to write ‘Better World Books: a great example of hi-touch relationship marketing’. So I decided to dig a little deeper to figure out what makes this organisation special.

A few facts on BetterWorldBooks

The company was founded by three friends and graduates of The University of Notre Dame in 2002.  They started by selling unwanted (and used) university textbooks online.  The cause and the social mission was built into the company right from the start – the very first book collection drive and sale at Notre Dame.  You can read more about the founding of the company here.

BetterWorldBooks has operations in the  USA and the UK, employs some 380 people, has some 1200 volunteers doing book drives (to collect unwanted books) and has some 3.5m books sitting in a huge warehouse at any one time.

Today, BetterWorldBooks is a global bookstore which turns up at number 261 in the Top 500 list of internet retailers.  It sells both new and used books.

Here is what the revenue picture looks like: $20m (2008); $31m (2009); $45m (2010); and $55-56m is expected for 2011.

BetterWorldBooks has raised over $9.7m for literacy and libraries and saved almost  56m books from lying around not being used and/or ending up in the trash cans.

They have shipped over 1.4m books (valued at $10.9m) in 58 sea containers to Africa. If you want to read more you can find their blog here.

What does BetterWorldBooks success rest on?

I am clear that the success of BetterWorldBooks is its cause.  The cause enables it to build a network of strong relationships with all of the stakeholders.  The students and libraries (suppliers) that donate used books.  The volunteers who do the book drives – collect the books.  The partner organisations (Books for Africa, Invisible Children, Room to Read…) which do the work on the ground of improving literacy.  Customers, like me, who buy the used and new books.

Why would anyone donate their time to collect books or donate their books for a profit organisation?  Because they believe in the cause – what BetterWorldBooks stands for.

Why would a customer like me make a return visit to BetterWorldBooks?  Simply because a core part of their Mission and Values is to flabbergast customers with great service.

Does BetterWorldBooks have an advantage over Amazon?

How does BetterWorldBooks turn customer like me into advocates?  Through a combination of outstanding customer service and cause.  In my world BetterWorldBooks has an advantage over Amazon.  I am an advocate forAmazon yet Amazon does not stand for any cause that touches, engages and inspires me.   In a world where all the other things are  increasingly becoming equal, cause is the difference that makes a difference.

What do you think?

Author: Maz Iqbal

Experienced management consultant. Passionate about enabling customer-centricity by calling forth the best from those that work in the organisation and the intelligent application of digital technologies. Subject matter expert with regards to customer strategy, customer insight, customer experience (CX), customer relationship management (CRM), and relationship marketing. Working at the intersection of the Customer, the Enterprise (marketing, sales, service), and Technology.

2 thoughts on “Better World Books: the power of engagement through cause and not gimmicks”

  1. Maz, you’ve raised an interesting point, re: the “Power of Cause”-

    The sense of “Cause” is more prevalent, and more visible today than a decade ago – people seem to care about things beyond themselves; people are less materialistic, and more altruistic.

    Companies need to appeal to this sense of cause that exists within the marketplace. That means that the company must have a cause, feed the cause, and promote the cause.

    Many companies will have a cause, but don’t necessarily incorporate that cause into their mission and their business model.

    Others may not have a readily identifiable cause, and therefore need to create a cause, and promote that cause.

    Some companies, like BetterWorldBooks were founded on a cause, and build their business around a cause.

    Other companies, like have a cause that is not as intrinsic to the business, but is clearly carried out and promoted (

    Other companies have no easily identifiable cause.

    But back to your point – those companies that have a great product, a customer obsession, and a “Cause Obsession” will have a competitive advantage in today and tomorrow’s market. The “Cause” has become a new dimension in business that will continue to grow in importance.

    Thanks for raising this important point, Maz.

    Jim Watson


  2. Hello Jim
    I thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts. Often the thought occurs to me that you and I are fruits of the same tree. I wish you well and look forward to learning and hearing more from you.

    At your service


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