Britannica Embraces App Strategy

When Encylopaedia Britannica said it would cease publishing print editions, the company was quick to point out its digital bona fides. It introduced a CD-ROM version of the encyclopedia in 1989, an online extension in 1994 and a mobile edition on the Palm VII in 2000.

More recently, Britannica has made a more concerted mobile push, launching a series of children’s-oriented iOS apps starting in 2010 and an iOS edition of the flagship publication last October. The Encyclopaedia Britannica app packages 140,000 articles with an array of photos, graphics and interactive features. 

John Russell, director of business development for Britannica, said mobile development is an increasingly important part of the company’s growth strategy. “It’s still a small part [of revenues], but it is growing, pretty fast,” said Russell. “We see it as something we need to do to stay competitive."



Because the schools and libraries market makes up a large part of its business, Britannica is especially focused on staying up to date in that sector. That’s partly why the company began its foray into apps with the “Britannica Kids” series, focused on roughly a dozen different topics, including dinosaurs, ancient Egypt and U.S. presidents.

The rollout of kids titles also allowed Britannica to hone its app-building skills before introducing the main encylopedia app last fall. “The flagship EB subscription product was one of particular interest and importance to us, so we really wanted to make sure that we got it right, and so put a bit of time into development and testing of it,” said Russell.

The extra effort appears to be paying off. The app has earned a four-star rating in the App Store as well as an Appy Award in the reference category. Russell said downloads of the app, which sells for $1.99 a month, have been “well into the six figures."

How do you condense a 32-volume encyclopedia into an app geared to a three-inch screen? “What we really wanted to do was just create a sleek, simplified version of our online experience that made interaction with the content a lot easier,” said Russell. In particular, he pointed to features such as LinkMap, a button that generates a web of icons linking to articles related to the one read.

“The technology provides us with ways to interact and delve into all our content that we don’t really have online,” noted Russell. Compared to the desktop Web version of the encyclopedia, which costs $70 annually, the app is a relative bargain at $1.99 monthly. Still, any subscription fee can be a big barrier to downloads when most are offered free -- including the Wikipedia app.

Britannica subsidiary Merriam-Webster, for instance, offers free and paid versions of its flagship dictionary app for iOS, Android and other mobile platforms. 

Russell indicated that Encyclopaedia Britannica may follow a similar path, rolling out an ad-supported alternative to reach a wider audience. “Since this is pretty new, we’re trying to test the  viability of the $1.99 per month subscription. But that’s not to say we wouldn’t try different models in the future, or on different platforms,” he said.

Android could provide that opportunity. Britannica plans to extend its app franchise to the Google platform starting next month with the Kids edition titles, to be followed by the encyclopedia app in mid- to late summer. The company eventually expects to expand also to Microsoft’s Windows Phone OS, which Russell sees emerging as a No. 3 player in the smartphone market behind Android and iOS.

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