Building a Better Econtent Commerce Engine

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Purveyors of digital content—from those providing online access to newspaper and other previously printed articles to those offering streaming audio and video—continue to seek the best ways to market and sell their materials while ensuring that only authorized parties access content. The trick is to find an end-to-end solution that lets customers use content in the ways they feel they should be allowed and at the same time, protect the rights of content providers.

This econtent ecommerce balancing act has given rise to business partnerships among companies providing digital rights management and those handling the fulfillment, marketing, and esubscription services as well as to companies that try to provide all-in-one solutions. Meanwhile, other vendors maintain that the best business model is to concentrate on DRM or some distinct part of the business and allow their customers (content providers) to handle the rest of the value chain in house or through an unrelated third party. "Most companies with this type of solution are using several different products to meet their needs," says Mark Overington, VP of marketing for Authentica, a DRM provider.

Pass it On
John Blossom, president of Shore Communications, calls the supply and digital rights chain a mixed bag of solutions and methodologies. The business model is more developed for music and video than for textual content; but one model allows a user to use digital content for a limited period or number of times before paying for it, while other solutions seek immediate payment. Blossom believes that content users prefer DRM schemes that permit limited usage, or views of content, before payment is required and does not think that the all-or-nothing-model works as well.

Blossom points to the success of, a site that leverages pass-alongs to increase sales volume, even rewarding customers who share content. The site allows a visitor to use a single piece of musical content a specified number of times before paying for it. If a person buys it, he's allowed to forward it to someone else, who similarly has a limited amount of time to preview the music before paying. If the visitor does buy it, the person who forwarded the music receives a portion of the revenue.

"Publishers have lost touch with the ‘thingness' of content," Blossom says. "Kids have it figured out; the government has it figured out. Publishers are somewhere in between." Thus, they're still developing ways to distribute digital content and earn revenue from it.

Check it Out
One relatively successful digital content venue is ebooks, which are continuing to gain popularity, according to Blossom. In addition to outright sales to consumers, a couple of econtent providers are having success providing ebooks to libraries to augment collections of traditional softcover and hardcover books at a cost savings. Like the traditional library, the elibraries allow only one person to check out a book at a time.

These elibraries also maintain strict access to the materials. For example, if a user is rapidly viewing multiple pages of an ebook—a pattern that indicates the possibility of page-by-page printing—vendor netLibrary will display a copyright notice and instruct the user to discontinue his or her actions. If the pattern continues, the account becomes disabled for a period of time, and the event is logged for tracking purposes.

While some say that strong encryption is necessary for such econtent business to be successful, Brad Warnick, VP of marketing for ECNext, argues that access control with a user name and password is a "completely satisfactory" solution for most applications. In this scenario, the licensing information is imbedded in the content, with a watermark to restrict access to only authorized (i.e., paid) users. This type of model, becoming increasingly popular in the business-to-business world, enables a corporate user to buy multiple licenses to enable users across the enterprise to view the content.

Warnick cites two email renewal models that content owners tend to use: one with automatic renewals, and one with subscription reminders that are automatically generated when the user gets within a certain time before the end of the current subscription.

Warnick adds that, to be successful, content providers need to ensure that information about available content shows up on popular search engines like Google and Yahoo!. An increasing number of business users are using these search engines rather than Lexis-Nexis, so content owners need to let potential buyers know the content is available for purchase.

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