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by Steven D. Johnson
Racine, Wisconsin

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Need More Woodworkers? – Get Woodworking Week!

You are reading this column slap dab in the middle of "Get Woodworking Week," and if you don't know what that is, it is a laudable project pioneered by Tom Iovino on his "Tom's Workbench" blog.

As we contemplate ways to get more people involved in the hobby, craft, and vocation of woodworking, your first questions might be "Why do we need more woodworkers?"

Very simply, more woodworkers will increase the pool of potential customers for tools, training, supplies, and more. An increase in the customer pool will translate to higher sales for those who provide us those basic necessities of woodworking life, which in turn will fuel innovation and help keep prices in check. But more woodworkers will do more...much more.

Anyone who even dabbles with wood will soon come to appreciate the skill, thoughtfulness, creativity, and energy that goes into the creation of a fine box, bowl, bed, table, or chair, thereby giving these more educated consumers a connoisseur's eye when shopping for something that they cannot or will not build themselves. For the professional or even semi-professional woodworkers out there, one of the most frustrating aspects of marketing a product is the lack of appreciation many consumers have. We rail against particle board and MDF, but the average Joe or Jane doesn't understand why a piece of real hand-crafted furniture is different, better, a better value, and more aesthetically pleasing.

Carpenters and contractors actually benefit from a more astute consumer, too. Imagine a customer and a contractor speaking in two different languages trying to come to terms with a design, an accurate scope of the work to be done, an estimate of the price, and a final contract...it is difficult and fraught with potential for dispute. A customer with even rudimentary exposure to a trade or craft helps break down language and communication barriers; that usually results in a more mutually satisfying end result.

Most of us would agree that more woodworkers would be a good thing...then follows the question, how do we grow our ranks? As Mr. Iovino points out in his blog, wood shop and other related classes have virtually disappeared from our school systems. A shrinking pool of adult woodworkers also means that less and less are passing on the craft and passion to their sons and daughters.

Mr. Iovino cites commendable efforts of magazines that run articles aimed at the fledgling woodworker. The objective of "Get Woodworking Week" is to convince bloggers, video-bloggers, and others to write, produce, and publish more content aimed at the beginning woodworker. And, as cited before, this is a truly commendable and much-needed effort. In fact, this article is testimony to my support of the initiative.

But I sometimes wonder, are we preaching to the choir?... or worse, to an empty chapel? Is the problem about having enough content directed to beginners? Or is it also about having enough beginners?

It was an epiphany of sorts the other day in the grocery store. At the well-stocked magazine rack, I had hundreds of magazines to choose from were I even remotely interested in learning to crochet, knit, sew, build a log cabin, garden without chemicals, garden with chemicals, choose a handgun, hunt wild boar in Texas, become a photographer, write applications for iPhones, learn to use an Android device, or plan the perfect wedding. There was not, however, one single woodworking publication on the sixty-foot long rack. Undaunted by the frozen foods in my shopping bag, I was intrigued and went on an extensive quest. The local drugstore? No woodworking magazines...Walmart? Nope... Target? No... The only place I could find a woodworking magazine on the shelf was in the bookstore and in The Home Depot.

Now I am enough of a business person to recognize there is a supply/demand thing going on here, and shelf space, be it the magazine rack or the canned goods section of the store, is at a premium...what is on the shelf must sell or the shopkeeper will put something else in that valuable space.

But the lack of easy (and perhaps accidental) exposure to woodworking content adds to our conundrum. As I see it, initiatives like "Get Woodworking Week" are admirably stimulating the generation of content for newbie woodworkers...What we concurrently need is an effort to generate those newbie woodworkers.

Building the current pool of those who work with wood deserves a focused and coordinated effort. Think about it...what have we done, individually or in collaboration, to find and communicate with potential new devotees to the hobby?

A quick review of all the emails you receive from woodworking suppliers, magazines, and tool purveyors show that they are all trying to sell you something...because they have your name. How many of these companies are sending adverts, catalogs, and emails to non-woodworkers in an effort to get them interested? Can they afford to? Could they find the most "likely" candidates? Would their efforts be cost-effective? Individually, perhaps not. These suppliers and publishers might not have the marketing expertise and research capabilities to narrow a mass mailing down to the "most likely" respondents. But there are companies that do that for a living...and they are darned good at it.

What if every woodworking supplier in America was to join a cooperative marketing group whose sole focus was the expansion of the pool of customers? Think in terms of the "Got Milk?" campaign.

No single dairy farmer or milk producer could have afforded to effectively do the research, craft the message, and target the audience; but by working collectively, the dairy producers, first in California, then across America, united for the common good. The results were beyond stellar.

The "Got Milk?" initiative was started by the California Milk Processor Board. They had watched, horrified, a decade-long decline in milk consumption. They feared many dairy producers would no longer be able to stay in business. The initiative to reach and convert more milk drinkers was initially funded by an assessment on the member milk producers of 3¢ for every gallon of milk processed.

The stratospheric success, as measured by the number of new people drinking milk, the per capita amount of milk consumed, and the general favorable impression of milk, was quickly noticed and other milk-producing cooperatives around the country licensed the "Got Milk?" campaign and the rest, as they say, is history. Widely regarded as one of the most successful marketing campaigns ever, spawning books, articles and even university-level papers on the success of the initiative, it serves to show what a little cooperation can create. Do individual milk producers still advertise and compete with one another? Absolutely! But their cooperation expanded the overall market size for milk --- the pool of users, so to speak --- and they all benefitted individually.

The difficulty, of course, is obtaining "buy-in" for such an initiative, overcoming egos, and avoiding any hint of collusion, which, by the way, is illegal. The way to accomplish that, of course, is by creating that "third-party" entity, like the California Milk Producer Board. So who wants to step up and champion the "Woodworking Promotions Council" (or whatever name you like)? I can see it now…

An astute agency determines the demographic of the person(s) most likely to become a woodworker and then targets that group with focused, compelling advertisements. Thousands of people express interest in learning more. Then...then...those people can be directed to the plethora of classes, articles, blog posts, vendors, and videos aimed at the new-to-woodworking.

Thanks to initiatives like "Get Woodworking Week" we are developing superior content for newbies. Now we just need to find the most likely candidates to become new woodworkers and herd them toward the content. There are many great marketing minds among woodworkers, equipment, and supply purveyors. Someone might soon step up and take the lead. It needs to happen.

As a footnote, before you "pooh-pooh" the idea, a long, long time ago, in a galaxy (industry) far away, I did exactly what I described here by putting together a consortium of businesses that individually could not achieve growth, but together had potential to expand their market. Their collective annual sales, when the organization was formed, were $214 Million and after eight years of collaborative marketing aggregate sales exceeded $1.2 Billion...a 460% increase in business. Think about it.

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