Perhaps some of you may also recall such a time, in your early childhood, at home, having rows of printed hard copies nestled regally on their own bookshelf. Or maybe you saw them in school, in this building called “the library”, where a teacher may have asked you to go in order to source some information.
Fast forward only a few short decades and you have Wikipedia, the platform-based business model, with its global, online, and free to view content that is purpose built for the digital age.
Yet somehow (and I would argue unfairly) this has always been compared to Britannica, the
“traditional incumbent”, who after 244 hard fought years of publishing finally printed its last edition.
To many ‘onlookers’ and HBR types, the message seemed clear. Another traditional incumbent, over 200 years old, had been wiped out by the “mystic force” of the internet.
They had been disrupted. Made obsolete. Become extinct.
Except that wasn’t true.
In the two decades before Britannica had hung up the boots, it had already tried to go through the very difficult process of “digital transformation”. And whilst many will report in history that Wikipedia was Britannica’s dragon slayer, the reality is that they were not their first challenger.
Back in the PC era, (think Wall St, Gordon Gekko, Bill Gates, etc) Britannica tried to move its content from print, to CD. Microsoft had launched “Encarta”, which they were simply giving away as part of a larger strategy to position PC’s as the #1 educational tool for the American middle-class.
But Britannica’s thinking was that this “new move” from print to CD, might curtail the attempt by Microsoft to compete directly against Britannica’s “share of wallet”.
Even though Microsoft was a ‘technology’ company that lived well outside of the ‘publishing’ category, they were attempting to position PC’s as a great educational investment, by giving away the content for zero profit, a loss leader, and through this move they were competing directly with Britannica.
So Britannica made their editions available on disk for the first time, but they did this because they knew that Microsoft had thrown down the gauntlet to them, even though Microsoft saw Encarta as a loss leader, and were pursuing a different strategy.
CD’s quickly transformed into the World Wide Web. And Britannica again faced competition from a myriad of online players, such as Nupedia and later its platform-based successor, Wikipedia.
Britannica understood that customers’ behaviours were changing fast as consumers quickly adopted the internet. So instead of trying to defend their traditional business model, their exec team tried to go back to the needs of its core customers—home users and educational institutions.
They played around with various methods of delivery and media channels. Tweaking price points, and sales distribution channels for its content product. But it always maintained a focus on its core mission… editorial quality.