Newbury Comics

newbury comics logoHow the leader in Boston’s underground music scene took customer experience to the next level

Company: Newbury Comics
Industry: Consumer Goods


Newbury Comics is a legendary music store based downtown Boston. From their early roots as comic book vendors on Newbury Street, MIT students Mike Dreese and John Brusger grew the company into a local stronghold for the underground music scene, and a champion for new ideas, experimentation and alternative vision over what the company calls “monolithic corporate structure.”NC Picture4

In a world of iTunes and Amazon, Newbury Comics sells music and vinyl, movies, and pop culture goods - and they do it extremely well. Thirty years later, the company has 26 stores in five states, and annual sales of $82 Million. Meaning this niche “record” store has outlasted a host of other brick-and-mortar shops such as Tower Records, Virgin Megastores and HMV.

Part of this success derives from a clear sense of purpose and a very Techcreative willingness to experiment with new ways to connect with their audience. According to CEO Mike Dreese, “We are part of the fun part of people’s lives… and one of the best places on the planet to get an impulse gift for less than $20.”

The Problem:

The only true constant in business is change. Like many companies, Newbury Comics marketing is constantly battling for attention and sales amid a noisy – and continually changing – consumer market place.

True to its experimental culture, Newbury comics were early adopters of social media, at one point sitting as the 13th or 14th largest retailer on Facebook. The company amassed an enviable list of 150,000 email subscribers (with an average open rate of roughly 30%), and 168,000 Facebook likes, plus an additional 40,000 divided among individual store pages.

NC_Picture1Unfortunately, new Google and Facebook pay-per-click rules dramatically reduced their impression-based media success. With rising social media costs, and declining free online impressions, the company needed a new solution to reach out to its customer base.

To hit their yearly sales goals, they needed to somehow leverage the social network they’d built and create an innovative, cost-effective way to target shoppers within 100 miles of the central Boston hub.

The Solution:

The company came up with a novel approach. By incorporating new technologies that their customers were already carrying around in their pockets, including smart phones and photo applications, they decided to launch a mobile app in the form of an October scavenger hunt.

The plan was the epitome of Techcreative: In a world where “brand engagement” is the next big marketing buzzword, Newbury Comics took a holistic approach to connecting with its audience. Using the principles of online engagement and gamification, the team created an engagement plan that encouraged people to go out and interact with the brand in the real world.

Great ideas often come in the most surprising places. While apps clearly have a connection to the company’s roots in the video gaming community – the scavenger hunt plan was actually born after Dreese helped his son with an app he was playing with.

But this wasn’t just fun and games. In addition to unleashing Newbury Comic’s fans through the streets of Boston, the mobile app program had specific goals:

  • Boost Brand Awareness. Scavenger hunt activities educated the participants on the company’s storied history. Hunt activities included going to the farthest store location, sitting on a former Boston Celtic’s coach Red Auerbach’s statue, and having a drink at a distillery owned by several Newbury Comics employees – all aimed at showcasing Newbury Comics’ deep Boston roots.NC Picture3
  • Drive In-Store Foot Traffic: In addition to connecting to company history, the scavenger hunt drove sales, albeit indirectly. Every four assignments strategically ended inside a Newbury Comics store where participants were given a free T-shirt or gift certificate as a prize. And, if consumers paused to shop while they were there… well, all the better! Dreese explained that the campaign focused on quality throughout, especially when it came to prizes.  “We did everything high end.” Even the T-shirt design was specifically customized for his audience. “This is a well-made, well-designed T-shirt. People want to wear it.”
  • Focus Attention Before the Holiday Rush: From a timing perspective, the hunt was scheduled to run before the holidays, running for three weeks and ending at midnight on Halloween weekend – and designed to grab pictures of people in their costumes. According to Dreese, “I never market to people during the busy season when everyone else is doing it. We want to get people before the rush – in mid-November, so they are thinking of us, and have been in our stores, before the holiday.”

Armed with these goals, the company prepared to develop and promote the mobile app.


Launching a scavenger hunt app to an admittedly counter culture audience posed some challenges that required a variety of Techcreative solutions.

  1. Identifying the right mobile app: To build an app, Newbury Comics first needed to find the right mobile partner. They reviewed with five or six different mobile app vendors, and interviewed three finalists, before deciding on the Scavify app, which Dreese describes as “fast and dirty and the most intuitive.” The choice was driven by usability. The Scavify app had a very simple sign up process and offered a unique new message flag, which was easy to see on the app homepage.Because Newbury Comics would be the first big-league app user, Scavify was willing to modify certain contractual terms to make the app easier to use. Armed with both user ease and vendor flexibility, Scavify was the perfect vendor for their pilot program.NC Picture 5
  2. Ironing out first-time kinks: Now that they had an app selected, they needed to test the software, and decide on how to verify the actions of up to 5,000 people who would participate in the hunt. Newbury Comics decided to roll out the app in two parts. First, they launched a pilot program for 250 company employees. This allowed the company to work out any new app glitches before they launched the venture to the public. Once they had identified and addressed the inevitable software and process issues, they could then confidently release the app to the wider market.
  3. Moderating images without policing. Much of the pilot vetting process focused on sorting out rules and compliance. Dreese noted, “The tasks needed to be hard enough to be challenging, but do-able enough that you didn’t piss off 25% of the people [who thought] the whole thing was unfair.” In fact, the early pilot program found some snags in both the hunt activities and how people would interpret them. For example, scavenger hunters had a hard time finding a WGBH umbrella (which used to be a very common fundraising giveaway). When even the president of the TV station came up empty, they decided to axe that requirement. They eliminated dangerous activities, like taking a picture of a helicopter or police car, once they realized that participants were take pictures from moving vehicles to get the shots.Another item asked participants to “Get a selfie with a rock star,” which raised the question of what kinds of pictures were permissible. For this one, they decided people could submit old images from past shows (this is a vintage vinyl audience, after all). Dreese was decidedly less lenient of Google searches, however, noting “People can’t just go download a computer screen shot of a helicopter, that’s just cheating.” Ultimately, they adopted a handwritten sign with the date and a scavenger hunt hash tag - #Newburyhunt - for authentication, disqualifying any submissions that failed to include the tag.
  4. Decide on Messaging: The hunt rules were simple: No whining, no complaining, be respectful, no personal attacks. Customers were asked to sign up, have some fun and win some gifts.

The Results:

Dreese rated the overall program a B-plus, with the human factor netting a glowing A. “People were so good spirited,” Dreese raved, “Even more so than the employee pilot. There was no trouble, no complaints and in three weeks only one person cheated. Given our audience, we were sure that there would be something that we would regret, but we were very, very pleased!”

On the downside, the overall hunt was “too easy,” which resulted in early winners that took some of the drama out of the whole event. “I would make it a little bit harder [the next time] and put back some more of the ridiculous items.”NC Picture6

Based on the employee pilot they took out some of the geographically problematic activities, for example only making people go to one outlier store rather than asking people to hit all four corners of their territory. Thinking back, he reflected, “We would have been better off if there were things they couldn’t do.”

Strong Participation

Newbury Comics ended up with 1750 participants. While that final tally was about 2/3 of their initial goal, the team was extremely pleased with the outcome – especially because the scavenger hunt got so much early attention that they dramatically backed off their original distribution plans.

In fact, with no radio ads and limited social media push, the fact that over 1700 people downloaded a third party app to their personal cell phone just because Newbury Comics asked them affirms their strong brand credibility.

According to Dreese, “It became very obvious by day three we would have four or five people do everything. The signups went better than we thought, so we didn’t pour gas on the fire. At first we wanted to get early feedback, and then we didn’t want to push people to win $500 if the prize was already gone.”


Engagement ran close to their email list responsiveness, with about 20 - 30% extremely engaged, another 1/3 of the participants completing a fair amount of activities and a few hundred people loading the app and their first picture, but little more.

Some stats:

  • The hunt had about 500 active participants and nearly 10,000 activities completed. A winner was selected from one of 12 people who completed all 71 tasks – a number that is particularly impressive considering someone had to spend about 20 hours, and drive about 200 miles to finish the entire hunt.
  • Winners earned 400 T-shirts in giveaways, which delivered strong side benefits. Once someone won a shirt, the next 8 – 10 pictures they took generally included the hunter wearing their hard won prize – a bonus for Newbury Comics’ brand awareness.
  • Further, the company estimates they drove about $150,000 in sales from the foot traffic generated by the gift certificate and T-shirt giveaways – something they were happy to trade for $5000 in gift certificates.NC Picture2
  • Using Instagram, Newbury Comics connected with a huge percentage of their audience. Every day for three weeks, the team picked a star of the day, and highlighted a picture of the hunt on Instagram. According to Dreese, “Make the customer the content, it totally works! They come up with things that our marketing team would never think of. It’s maybe a bit of voyeurism, but it also builds a community.”

They received excellent feedback from people happy to participate and excited by the activities. The company mailed out 250 prizes and gift certificates to participant’s home addresses. Almost everyone wrote back!

The winner, a 51 year old man, sent one particularly memorable message. “I loved doing this – I may seem old, but I have been shopping in your stores since I was 20. I bought a Clash T shirt from you in the old days.”

Final Thoughts

True to his nature, Mike Dreese is already thinking of the next iteration. This time, he also wants to empower a different group of people who could do it from home. Initial plans include a Trivia contest, which would include gamification and brand awareness strategies, but access a different segment of his audience.

“We will definitely do this again. The Newbury Comics Scavenger Hunt became a part of people’s lives they will never forget. Think about it, completing 71 things is a significant amount of time – about 20 hours total invested. From a marketing activity, it’s a very unusual activity for an adult to take a part in.”

All in all, the scavenger hunt embodied the quintessential Newbury Comic’s (and Techcreative) attitude – no chest pounding, just equal ingredients of cleverness and Boston pride.