“We weren’t just using digital tools to sell our products, but we actually started creating digital products.”
Encyclopaedia Britannica describes itself as an education company that sells extensively to schools and libraries. For most of its history, selling had been done face-to-face. “We target teachers, administrators, principals, and superintendents. Mainly we sell at the district level, but sometimes to buildings, and sometimes statewide,” Michael Ross, senior vice president, Britannica Digital Learning US and EMEA said. Encyclopaedia Britannica found great success with this model, and now counts more than half of the 112,000 K-12 schools in the United States as customers. But as print’s dominance in reference publishing gave way first to the rise of CD-ROMs and then to the Internet, Encyclopaedia Britannica’s customers stopped buying books and started turning to cheaper, digital sources of information. Encyclopaedia Britannica’s print sales dropped from 100,000 units in 1990 to 51,000 in 1994, and just 3,000 in 1996 — a staggering 97% decline over six years. The company was prepared, having gone online in 1994, one of the first publishers to do so. But this meant an entirely new way of doing business. “Our culture changed from a company selling print books door to door and to schools and libraries, to becoming a technology company,” Ross said. “We weren’t just using digital tools to sell our products, but we actually started creating digital products.” The company also started marketing to schools and libraries under a new name, “Britannica Digital Learning.” The transition to creating digital products raised two key issues for Ross and his team. While customers routinely paid upward of $1,500 for a complete set of hardbound Encyclopaedia Britannica volumes, they would only pay a fraction of that for digital information. At the same time, they expected digital materials to be kept up to date in ways that print books simply couldn’t be. Company leadership embraced the change as a chance to drive more revenue by selling lower-cost products in much higher volumes — “Swapping print dollars for digital pennies,” Ross called it.