Encyclopedia Britannica often is used in case studies as a definitive example of how new technology can disrupt a business. Everything was great for the nearly 250 year old privately held company until the Internet came around and a Category Five hurricaned on their parade. According to Comscore, for every page viewed on Brittanica.com, 184 pages are viewed on Wikipedia (3.8 billion v. 21 million pave views per month). In short, they are a classic example of the Innovator’s Dilemma (see also the Music Industry).
You can purchase the 32 volume Britannica, which has 65,000 articles and 44 million words, for just $1,400. Or you can access it on the web for $70 per year.
And now, you can get access to the online version for free through a new program called Britannica Webshare – provided that you are a “web publisher.” The definition of a web publisher is rather squishy: “This program is intended for people who publish with some regularity on the Internet, be they bloggers, webmasters, or writers. We reserve the right to deny participation to anyone who in our judgment doesn’t qualify.” Basically, you sign up, tell them about your site URL and a description, and they review it and decide if you’ll get in. I wonder if Facebook, MySpace and Twitter users are eligible? They all certainly “publish with some regularity on the Internet.”
Once you’re in, you get to link to the full version of articles – people clicking the link can read that article but they can’t go and read other parts of the Britannica site. Participants can also embed widgets like the following:
Britannica is doing a lot of things right – a relatively small staff of a hundred or so editors manages 4,000 unpaid (I believe) contributors who are recognized experts in their field. But, like the music labels, they still somehow feel as though people should pay to consume their content. And that means search engines can’t index their content. And that means they don’t exist.
Instead of going free and opening up to all, they’re using the new program to simply price discriminate. Give people who may link to the site free access. Everyone else has to pay. So in effect they’re aiming to be half pregnant – they want the benefits of web linking but don’t want to give up the subscription fees from the fools who continue to pay them.
As an outsider, Britannica’s future is clear. Eventually, and if they don’t go out of business first, they’ll be forced to make all their content freely available on the Internet, and will probably create a wiki-like format that allows user editing. Their differentiating factor from Wikipedia will be that they have experts guiding articles, so they’ll have a claim to be more authoritative. This is, by the way, the business model of Citizendium, created by Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger in 2006.
The sooner they do that the more likely they’ll be around for the long term. Perhaps they can even continue to sell those 32 volume sets to a few libraries. But it’s hard to give up that online subscription revenue. When this fails, they’ll try something else.