Fearing Content Cannibalization

I'm just back from the Buying & Selling eContent conference in sunny Scottsdale. I always find BSeC a bit manic because I must exercise so many different parts of my brain. The high-level crowd spurs on fascinating conversations; the relaxed resort setting ensures that attendees are always "on campus," not escaping offsite; and meeting new people plus seeing colleagues from years past taps into my limited name-and-face recall abilities. The juggling act of presenting on panels, learning from the other speakers, and trying to blog my thoughts on the fly can make it tough to reflect on the larger themes and to draw conclusions. Not this year.

The big takeaway for me is the perception that our industry faces a new content cannibalization scare. The old scare, "free information will cannibalize fee," which was intense for much of the early 2000s, is still simmering on the back burner. The new scare, the idea that offering micro-content will cannibalize subscription sales as well as the sale of large reports, now tops many publishers' lists of professional neuroses. As Shannon Holman of ALM Media says so eloquently on her blog (http://almresearchonline.typepad.com/sholman), micro-content is "the chunked, loosely gathered, widely dispersed, secret-sauced slices of content sold for (way) more than the sum of their parts." 

At BSeC, the first micro-content debate happened even before the main sessions began. I led a pre-conference workshop, "Leveraging Your Content Assets to Sell More Online," covering many content marketing techniques and strategies, followed by a half-hour of Q&A, which turned into a lively debate about micro-content among the 50 or so workshop attendees. Several people questioned the strategy of selling small bits of content (such as charts, graphs, tables, or pages of reports) online for fear that it would undermine sales of larger slices of content. However, some publishers in the crowd argued that the benefits of selling micro-content outweighed the perceived downsides of cannibalization. 

On the second day of the conference, several participants on a panel I was part of, "From Licensing to Branding: SEO/SEM and Ads Meet Premium Content," argued the benefits of micro-content. Matthew Hong, VP and GM of open web markets at Thomson Gale, said that search engine optimization (SEO) programs help to generate new revenue streams for his company, and he sees new opportunities for publishers to build multilayered monetization techniques. Pam Springer, president of ECNext, a company that helps publishers build SEO strategies to deliver micro-content, agreed. She said that the opportunities SEO programs offer are large, and the benefits make up for any perceived cannibalization. 

The fact is that smart publishers know the name of the game is offering different slices of the same content via multiple distribution channels and marketing each one to the particular buyers within that channel. For example, a market research company might offer yearly subscriptions to a series of full reports for $10,000. The same company might sell one-off reports via an online store found on the company's website for $500 each, while micro-content parts of that report, say, a table or graph, might be sold via an SEO site for a few dollars apiece. 

Because buyers of these diverse offerings have different needs, the publisher maximizes revenue (and exposure) by providing three different options to sell the same content. Sure, there might be a handful of people who would opt to purchase a piece of micro-content v. a full report, but in most cases it's apples v. oranges. And when packaged and priced intelligently, added revenue outweighs cannibalization. This is particularly true for smaller publishers using search engine optimization because nearly all the people who find the content via search will have never heard of the publisher. By offering consumers the ability to find a piece of specific micro-content and offering an option to purchase it inexpensively, the publisher has not only made a sale, but may upsell to other higher-priced content later. This isn't cannibalization because these buyers wouldn't likely have bought an expensive report via search from a previously unfamiliar publisher. SEO programs offer new buyers precisely what they are looking for as they enter keywords into search engines, and when consumers find what they need, they buy. 

The micro-content debate reminds me of a recent walk through an airport where I noticed a Wolfgang Puck Express offering yummy takeout sandwiches, just the thing to bring aboard the plane. Perfect, I thought. Here's a famous chef offering ideally sized and packaged meals at precisely the time I needed one. Does the airport version of Wolfgang Puck cannibalize the much higher-priced, downtown, sit-down restaurants he runs such as Spago and Postrio? Of course not! Each offers a buyer just what they are looking for at a given time. Mmmm good.