Encyclopedia Britannica Must Leverage Accuracy Brand Perception in Digital Transition

by Gregg on March 17, 2012

I read this week that Encyclopedia Britannica is discontinuing its print edition, which has been published continuously since 1768, and will shift completely online. Reuters had a good story you can read here, but what really caught my attention were the five blog posts about the transition published on the Encyclopedia Britannica website the day of the announcement, Tuesday, March 13.

The key messages from all those posts:

  • It’s not about print or digital – it’s about knowledge, which Encyclopedia Britannica has been creating since the 18th century.
  • Encyclopedia Britannica was a pioneer in digital information back in the 1970s, so the transition isn’t new.
  • Going digital means information can be constantly updated, and there are greater opportunities for user engagement.
  • Change is good, and it’s looking to the future. In other words, it’s not end of one era as much as the beginning another.

"Today is a commemoratory moment at Britannica," said president Jorge Cauz in this post. "We are energized by the fact that our efforts of the last few years have been successful. We have completed our transition from print publisher of the Encyclopaedia Britannica to a digital provider of knowledge and e-learning solutions. The success of this transition is not only a testament to our strong brand and dedication, but also to the esteem that society places on Britannica as a reliable, trustworthy source of knowledge and instruction."

To be truthful, the news of this transition didn’t surprise me; in fact, I was a little surprised that print volumes of encyclopedias were still available. The Reuters story says an annual online subscription to Encyclopedia Britannica is $70, and mobile apps are also available, ranging from $1.99-$4.99.

My question: How can Encyclopedia Britannica compete against the Internet, and its information that is theoretically free, provided one has a computer and a connection? In other words, how does Encyclopedia Britannica avoid becoming just another voice in the commoditizing of information, or worse, be ignored due to cost?

Mr. Cauz alluded to it in his statement above, as did his colleague Michael Ross, senior vice president and general manager of digital learning in this blog post, but I think the strength of the Encyclopedia Britannica brand is its perceived accuracy of information, carefully crafted over two-plus centuries. The running joke, of course, is you can’t believe everything you read on the Internet; I have to chuckle whenever I read a Wikipedia entry that states information contained within is in dispute. For that reason, as a professional, I tend to mentally discount presentations which reference Wikipedia – because we don’t know if it truly is fact or opinion.

Most Millennials have never even cracked open a thick volume of Encyclopedia Britannica. But their parents likely have, and targeting the accuracy message to that audience, along with stressing the importance of delivering accurate information in any vocation, will create a trickle-down effect that engineers a new generation of Millennial users. The Millennial audience could then be targeted with messaging about why accuracy is so important, and not to trust just any source of information; one relatable way for that age group is gossip.

The challenge is making both audiences understand that there is a premium to be paid for accurate information, but that’s where Encyclopedia Britannica’s brand proposition should shine, compared to the grab bag of results returned by a search engine.

In other words, Encyclopedia Britannica is going to have to rely on its brand like never before to build a new generation of users, but it can be done, and based what I saw on its site, it’s already well on its way.

(Image credit: Reuters/Courtesy of Encyclopaedia Britannica/Handout.)

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