There have been 2 intriguing developments in the field of ‘premium’ content.
In a recent article in the WSJ, it was reported that “Google will soon let consumers buy and listen to music from its search results page”. What was of particular interest was further down the article where it reported that “the Google page will let users listen to a song once free of charge. In addition to offering a free streaming link, the new arrangement will offer options to pay 10 cents for an online-only version or about $1 to download an MP3″.
The WSJ also reported that its parent (holding) company, Dow Jones, was launching an online venture called the Wall Street Journal Professional Edition that combined the WSJ website with a slimmed down version of the Factiva business-to-business database. It was targeting “individuals and businesses who need more specialized information…but aren’t the large companies targeted for costlier services by Dow Jones Newswires or Bloomberg…The new service is one of the company’s first efforts to blend these products, which have largely been aimed at different audiences”.
So what does a Google music service and a Dow Jones database service have in common? Both represent innovative case studies of how content is segmented to meet the needs of “niche” users. In the case of music, the user prefers renting (streaming) certain songs for 10 cents vs. owning (downloading) them for $1. In the case of business information, the user prefers having just the basics of WSJ and Factiva for an affordable price versus paying big bucks for the advanced bells and whistles. In both cases, it’s an example of tailoring the features and availability of certain content to meet the limited needs and budgets of the end user.
Why offer this? Because you can. Because for virtually zero marginal cost, digital content can sliced, diced and distributed to a specific user segment and even a specific user. The balance that must be struck is to not offer so many nuanced choices that the user is confused or overwhelmed by the choices. Apple has demonstrated this approach perfectly - first by convincing the music labels to sell songs individually, to let the consumer decide what they wanted. But a key selling point was to make the pricing simple: $0.99. So the decision for the consumer became not whether to buy, but what to buy. Nearly eight years after the launch of the iTunes store, after $0.99 had been adequately burned into our brain as a no-brainer, Apple this spring introduced another level of segmentation by offering songs for $0.69, $0.99 and $1.29.
What does this mean for scientific and scholarly publishers? To paraphrase Mark Twain, history may not repeat itself but it certainly does rhyme. What happens in music, news and information may serve as a strong indicator for the future of scientific publishing. If users feel under-served by the lack of a suitable offering for their specific needs, they can and will will look elsewhere be it a “free” copy or a “good enough” alternative. As members of the scientific community, should we, of all industries, not be leading by example, or in this case by experimentation?