How Encyclopaedia Britannica has remained relevant in a digital world

It’s doubtful that when Edinburgh publishers Colin Macfarquhar and Andrew Bell released the first edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica in 1768 that they had any notion of the upheavals that lay ahead for the publishing industry.

Yet even at the turn of the century, a year before Wikipedia’s founding, with Amazon already a force to be reckoned with in the bookselling industry, and ebooks barely five years away, Britannica stubbornly continued publishing its iconic leather-bound volumes, believing that as the oldest continuously published – and, in its highly respected opinion, most authoritative – encyclopedia, they would endure.

Or so you might think the story goes.

In reality, says Michael Ross, Encylopaedia Britannica, Inc.‘s senior vice president and education general manager, Britannica was an early adopter of digital technology, releasing a subscription website and its first CD-ROM edition in 1994.

While the company eventually ceased production of its print encyclopedia in 2012, the decision had been a long time coming, Ross says.

“It became hard to update. It was expensive to update. You had to pick something out to put something in,” he says. “Plus you couldn’t do videos or sound or other things that were becoming important with our type of information.”

Creating a digital version of the encyclopedia corrected many of those shortcomings, Ross says, but carried its own set of problems: namely, how to remain profitable by replacing a product that schools were purchasing for $1500 each with something many consumers would soon be able to find on the Internet for free.

And so during the 18-year period between the publication of its first digital encyclopedia and the last to appear in print, Britannica split the difference between its still-profitable, but gradually more expensive from a production standpoint (as volume went down, costs went up), print edition, and its less-profitable, but potentially wider-reaching, digital edition.

“We were exchanging what I called print dollars for digital pennies,” Ross says. “But the difference was that instead of reaching thousands of people, we could now reach millions of people. And so the pennies started to add up.”

The turning point came in 2012, when the company not only ceased publication of its print edition, but adopted Salesforce as its CRM software in an effort to better connect with the schools and libraries that remain its paid consumer base.

“To be honest, we couldn’t do the kind of sales that we do now if we didn’t have Salesforce,” Ross says. “Obviously the reps still have to make their sales calls, they still need to build intimacy with the customers, but Salesforce helps us identify those customers… and it actually helps us identify when to contact them, so that we’re meeting the customers where they want to be met.”

In particular, Britannica’s sales team has made extensive use of InsightSquared analytics software, which allows the company to monitor sales, identify opportunities, and manage forecasts, the Salesforce1 mobile app, which allows them to work from their phones, and Salesforce’s marketing automation software Pardot, which helps Britannica’s team easily create personalized, targeted e-mails designed to meet each potential customer’s specific need, then monitor the results.

Before switching to Salesforce, Britannica had been relying on its own in-house, standalone CRM software that did not talk to the company’s other systems and required frequent maintenance, Sara Varni, Salesforce’s senior vice president of marketing for Sales Cloud, says.

Holger Mueller, vice president and principal analyst of Silicon Valley-based firm Constellation Research, Inc., says that he’s pleased to see Britannica adapting to the 21st century after being stuck in its former ways for so long, and is less than surprised to learn the company’s investment in Salesforce has paid off.

“When implemented right, all enterprise software returns substantial business benefits,” he says. “Otherwise enterprises would not use these expensive products.”

Mueller is also impressed by Britannica’s commitment to implementing the new software, which he says would have required a total shift in IT philosophy, from the company having full in-house control of its custom-built software to Salesforce’s cloud-based, vendor-controlled software.

While dramatic, the tradeoffs are worth it, Mueller says.

“The longer you wait to update your system to modern software, the more benefits and uplift you can see,” he says.

In the end, of course, it still comes down to the quality of the brand, and Britannica’s now reaches some 100 million customers worldwide, including many Canadians (Ontario has a province-wide subscription) through one or more of its 12 expertly curated products, Ross says. Among them is an ad-free version of its flagship website (the general public can browse an ad-supported version), which is now offered to schools at an annual subscription rate of approximately 75 cents per student.

As a privately held company, Britannica does not disclose sales numbers, but Ross says that profits have grown by approximately 15 per cent per year since 2012. During the same period the company has also maintained a 95 percent customer renewal rate, and open rates for its sales team’s e-mails have risen from three per cent to 14 per cent, while clickthrough rates have risen from 10 per cent to 30 per cent.

“It’s a much more interesting business than it was when it was just print sets, because it’s so inexpensive,” Ross says. “It’s not free, and I don’t think it should be free, but I think it should be a good value, and I think it is a good value… You can’t buy a glass of milk for [75 cents].”

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Eric Emin Wood
Eric Emin Wood
Former editor of turned consultant with public relations firm Porter Novelli. When not writing for the tech industry enjoys photography, movies, travelling, the Oxford comma, and will talk your ear off about animation if you give him an opening.

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