rodaleOnce in awhile, you can’t beat a good case study. And what better case study for a copywriter or direct marketer to learn from than the profile of a legendary direct-mail publisher: Rodale.

Rodale, if you haven’t heard of it, is located in Emmaus, Pennsylvania. Emmaus is a small American town that’s less than 8 miles square. Just under 5,000 families call it home. One of those families is that of J.I. Rodale, a former New York tax accountant who started Rodale Manufacturing in 1923.

Yes, manufacturing. Not publishing.

But then, during the Great Depression, Rodale moved to an empty warehouse in Emmaus.

And it was in the corner of that building that J.I. took a chance and followed his passion… straight to a printing press in the corner of the electrical warehouse.

His first few efforts were flops.

No, strike that, his first SEVERAL efforts were flops. They included a miserably unpopular humour magazine (closed after one issue)… some health digests… and a book of randomly accumulated health facts.

From 1923 to 1940, nothing seemed to work.

Then the company picked up roots and moved operations to a nearby 60-acre farm.

In addition to publishing, J.I. had a fascination with natural farming techniques and organic living. By 1942, he had combined the two and was publishing a magazine called “Organic Gardening and Farming.”

Yawnsville?

Maybe to the coke-and-cheeseburger set.

But “Organic Gardening” (now titled “OG”) is still around. And it’s hugely successful, with over 3 million subscribers worldwide.

The passion-publishing combination seemed to do the trick. Rodale started producing a slew of health magazines and books…

“Prevention” — arguably the most successful health magazine in history — was one of them.

Other titles include “Men’s Health,” “Backpacker,” “Runner’s World”… and books like “The South Beach Diet,” “The Home Workout Bible,” “The Organic Suburbanite,” “Shrink Your Female Fat Zones,” “The Testosterone Advantage,” “A Road Map To Ecstasy,” and many more.

The Rodale empire grew. And J.I. Rodale prospered.

He passed away in 1971, during an appearance on the Dick Cavett show.

So What Was His Secret?

The first time I saw one of Rodale’s direct-mail book promos, it was in the mid 1990s.

According to Forbes, the market for direct-mail-sold books was 4% of overall wholesale book sales. Today, according to the same article, that market has shrunk to about 1.4%. Rodale’s book division felt the pinch. Others, like Time-Life, cancelled their direct-mail efforts altogether.

But not Rodale. They stuck it out. Then they stumbled on an outrageously simple idea: Focus.

More focused marketing… more focused editorial.. more targeted benefits…

And most importantly for Rodale, more focused tracking of customer buying behavior.

Rodale took survey data, customer purchase behavior, and their magazine databases… and applied the same rigurous sorting technics you’d expect from a credit-card company.

They sorted and re-sorted their pile of prospects into fitness buffs, gardeners, weight-loss practitioners, etc.

Then they sorted even deeper until they found unexpected connections. “Organic gardeners buy household-hint books. Runners buy organic-lifestyle books,” said Forbes, “Using that information, Rodale sends out 100 million mailings a year.”

As focus and clarity had helped J.I. back in 1940, so it helped Rodale Publishing in 2002. Fewer ideas, more passionately-held. More quality. Bigger promises. And a crystal clear answer to the question, “What does the customer want.”

Says Rodale of themselves, “Rodale is America’s leading ‘how to do it, you can do it’ book publisher… regardless of whether it’s a book, magazine, or Web site, we take pride in our ability to communicate with our readers through personal, positive, practical and passionate editorial… “

Rodale’s direct-mail book sales have taken off. In 2002, they represented 31% of Rodales $450 million revenue.

New York publishers like Simon & Schuster and Houghton Mifflin, says Forbes, are so impressed they’re looking to apply the same discovery.

Like I said, this secret is simple…

In it’s essence, less is more.

Focus works better than trying to bludgeon your prospect with everything and the kitchen sink.

That’s a lesson here for the online marketer too. For instance, super-simple websites are leagues more effective than ones with 100 bells-and-whistles. E-mail marketing sent with relavent messages sent to pre-qualified, captive readers work much better than blanket ‘spam’ mailings.

And so on. But you get the picture.