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Friday, February 19, 2010

Interview with Paul Alford of Plan-It Planners!

Paul Alford, CEO of The Student Media Group and creator of the Plan-It planners, very kindly spent some time to answer my questions about SMG, Plan-It, and how it all began.

The Plan-It planners are very interesting to me because they have two target groups: the users (university students who get the planners for free at their bookstore) and the customers (the businesses that advertise in the planners). SMG has to cater to both of these groups very well by offering a product that the students will actually use. Because even the best advertisements are useless if they will never be seen by their target audience! I'm fascinated.

Here is the Q & A. Thanks Paul!

Q: I really enjoyed reviewing the Plan-It planners you generously sent me (thank you!), they are awesome! Seriously, I wish I'd had a university planner this great when I was in college. And, I still can't get over the fact that they are free. Is that right? These are given out for free at the university bookstores?

A: Yes! Students can get one of the Plan-Its for free if they make a purchase at one of our college bookstore partners. SMG only partners with one bookstore company in each local University area. Currently, we create planners for over 60 different Colleges and Universities.

Q: You also sent me two Plan-It planners that do not have university information in them. Are these planners available for purchase somewhere? If so, where, and how much do they generally cost?

A: Our "fashion planners" (please let me know if you can suggest a better "name") are currently only available on Ebay, seller planitplanners (follow link here).

We are working to increase distribution through our college bookstore network. Many of our customers have even suggested them to their local bookstores and other retailers. It has really been fantastic! We will be offering August to August versions (for the college demographic) and the regular January to January editions this year.

This entire line was started for 2010 when one of the office interns (Erica who manages the @planitplanners twitter profile) suggested that we make some "really cute" planners with fashion tips. Our design team used many of her ideas to create this new planner line. You can also check out our Ebay feedback (username: planitplanners) to see what our new customers think. Any suggestions you can offer for this new planner line would be greatly appreciated!

Q (actually a comment): What a fantastic idea to put the Yellow Pages in the back of the planners! As the Student Media Group website says, the planner goes everywhere with the student so they always have that info on them when they need it. It's great.

A: We will be adjusting the Yellow pages this year to reflect each school's traditional colors. For example, the Planner pages for students at Clemson University will be orange and for students at the University of North Carolina they will be powder blue.

The planners do go everywhere with the students so it is a great way to help them navigate the local business community. Many local and national advertisers want to know how to target this elusive 18-24 demographic. I often say this: How do you get in touch with all of these new consumers? Solution: You need to get into their daily lives. You need to get into their schedule. You need to get into their Plan-It planner!

Also, students are always flipping through the planners in class. (When of course they should be paying attention!) Did you see the Suduko puzzles?!

Q: How long have you been working for Student Media Group?

A: 5 years, but I have had a passion for planners for a long time!

Q: How did you get into the planners business?

A: My former business partner and I worked for a company that printed University Telephone Directories for 12 years. Our company sold advertising that was featured in the yellow pages in the back of the University Directories. Eventually, students started telling us that they no longer used the phone books! As phone land lines started to disappear, no one wanted to have their cell phone number published in the directory.

I guess the company had become so big that we lost touch with what was actually happening in these local college markets. The student salespeople didn't believe in what they were selling and we started to feel as if we were being dishonest with our customers. It was impossible for us to sell University Directory advertising if we knew none of the students used or had even heard of the directory. That's when we quit our jobs and decided that we needed to provide the students and the advertisers with a new resource that students are actually still using on a daily basis.

I went to visit a local school's Student Union building to research what medium could be more that just "advertising clutter." I noticed that not many students picked up a student newspaper, they rarely stopped to look at flyers or the plasma TV advertising and of course no University Directories! One thing many of the students carried and used was a Daily planner!

All we did was take the advertising from an outdated medium and transfer it into the back of something that they already used! Also, many students pay $8-$12 for a planner each school year. We now partner with a local bookstore in each market and when a student makes any purchase they receive the Plan-It for FREE!

When we speak to local advertisers, we explain that in order to reach these students you need to get into their lives...you need to get into their schedule...you need to get into their PLAN-IT! At this point, I find it hard to believe that there is a company that still produces University Directories...it's really not fair to the local merchants.

(Laurie here--I think this is a fantastic story, and I'm glad to hear that there are still people in the world who go out to where their product users are, see what they actually use, and find a solution that fits their needs to better serve their customers!)

Q: How long has The Student Media Group been producing the Plan-It planners?

A: 5 Years. I founded the Company with one of my good friends, Phil Shafer. Since last November, Phil has been running his own planner company that specializes in the Baby Boomer market. SMG handles all of the design work and printing so I guess in a way we are still working together. It has been a fun "ride" as we have grown to over 60 College/University markets and have now developed a new Fashion planner line. We are very grateful and fortunate to have experienced so much growth. I know it is largely because of all of my great co-workers at The Student Media Group!

Q: Tell me about the design of the planners: who designs them, and how have the formats and designs changed over the years?

A: We have an awesome design team but the real ideas come from our student interns and our local business partners. As an Entrepreneur, I know it can be easy to fall in love with your own designs or ideas. But at the end of the day, we need to listen and serve our customers and end-users. Without them it doesn't matter if we have good ideas! They have suggested all of the developments including:

1) Rounding the corners. Our University of Georgia bookstore partner, Charles Fuller, gets credit for that change!

2) Our student interns have suggested placing the current month's calendar on the weekly planning pages, reducing the size of the Saturday and Sunday writing spaces, and integrating the "Monthly look ahead" Calenders before each month's weekly pages. We have over 15 interns from the University of Delaware in our offices throughout the year, so we are constantly picking their brains!

3) Sudoku puzzles were suggested by both the students and our local bookstore partners. Crossword puzzles and Sudokus are featured in many student newspapers so we figured if it works for them, it would work even better for us! Many of our bookstore partners place the puzzle answers on their website to drive additional traffic to their online book buying sections.

We have many more ideas that we are going to include in the 2010-2011 editions. Our goal of continuous improvement and implementing student/customer feedback will never stop!

(Laurie here again--this is awesome. And how great to ask the interns--they are the target user group of these planners so it makes good sense to listen to their wants and needs and adapt those in the planners!)

Q: Tell us about your internship program! From your website it looks like the interns get a lot of great marketing experience. Tell us the types of things the interns learn during their internship.

A: The Student Media Group Summer Internship is a 12 week program that offers "real world" experience that will help students secure a job upon graduation in this tough economy. There will always be a sales position for those individuals that can work hard and contribute to a company's revenue stream.

During the summer, the advertising sales interns assist local merchants with the design and development of their advertisements that will be featured in Plan-It Planner's local business section. If a business in a college town is trying to target the local University community, who better to help them than a current college student!?

SMG interns are responsible for prospecting and developing a local market research plan, meeting with clients to sell advertising in the Plan-It planners, and ensuring that each local business receives a copy of the planner after they arrive at the bookstore. The dedicated SMG Student Department Managers and hardworking Advertising Sales Interns are the backbone of The Student Media Group.

Q: What do you look for in a potential intern?

A: Extrordinary work ethic and a "Good Heart!"

Q: What else would you like to tell us about Plan-It planners and/ or The Student Media Group?

A: Two years ago, I joined the Entrepreneurs' Organization (www.eonetwork.org). I have learned from other successful business owners that any Great Company is built upon strong core values. I had to find a better way to communicate the SMG principles to my co-workers and customers.

So this year, our Executive management team announced that Valentine's Day was going to be our Official Company Holiday! Each year, we will show our co-workers how much we appreciate them and ALL of the employees will let our local business partners know that we really appreciate their business.

The Operations team sent Valentine's Day cards and candy to many of our customers to let them know how much we "heart" them! Also included in those packages was our SMG Valentine's Day Card that explained our core values through the acronym H.E.A.R.T.
In addition, SMG selected Give Kids the World (www.gktw.org) as our primary 2010 Charity partner (It is a fantastic organization!). Next Valentine's day, we have committed to traveling down to Orlando on a SMG Volunteer retreat!

(Laurie here again--AWESOME)

These are the Student Media Group's core values:

Hear - Listen to our customers/partners
Enthusiasm - It energizes everyone around you!
Attitude - will determine your Altitude (and is often times more important than your aptitude)
Relax - AND...Have fun!!!
Teamwork - Tenacity - Strong belief in yourself and our products

After an amazing 5 years, we are looking forward to the launch of some new planner lines in 2011. I am excited to hear your reader's feedback and suggestions for future enhancements. Thanks again for your time and for posting this on your blog! It has been fun to meet someone that LOVES planners as much as we do here at The Student Media Group! Have a great day!

Thanks again to Paul! I've really enjoyed learning about SMG, the Plan-It planners, your charity work and your commitment to service!

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