Ian Grant explains that while the current printed edition will be the last, Britannica's values remain unchanged.In December 1768 British consumers were invited to buy the first instalment of Encyclopaedia Britannica, a weekly partwork published in Edinburgh describing and organising all forms of knowledge, with particular attention paid to the "utility" of the subject matter. Consumers were invited to judge the uniqueness of the brand, the excellence of the editorial matter and the consistency of the publisher's delivery on the brand promise. By February 2012 Encyclopaedia Britannica was one of the top two media brands (after the BBC), in the annual Superbrands survey (www.superbrands.uk.com).
Britannica has developed its global presence through its 243-year history by delivering on that brand promise every day, from the time when customers were invited to bind up their partwork instalments by taking them to the cobblers. Since then Britannica's encyclopedic work has been published in printed, multi-volume, hardcover format; electronically in fixed media (CD-Rom and DVD) and as real-time databases of rolling information online; and for the past two years for smartphones and tablets.
Technological innovation has led to a huge change in the way people wish to receive information, and the value they put on that delivery has required Britannica to undergo a colossal business transformation. The brand values and editorial standards are the same, but production has been revolutionised. And Britannica has been transformed into one of the few profitable, cash-generative digital publishing businesses.
The brand values
Britannica's mission is to enable all our users to become confident global citizens. The founders of the company were at the epicentre of the Scottish Enlightenment, when intelligent people started examining the world through an empirical, scientific process - enquiry-based learning. They asked: "What does the world look like from inside the head of an educated person? How does that person express that view? How does a collaborative group of people put those views into an ordered framework so that others can find what interests them and use it for their own needs?" Britannica's editors do the same thing today.
The 100-strong editorial staff commissions its world-wide (constantly changing) community of 4,000 contributors. There is no "Britannica view", no ideological or political approach, and no market-centric angle. There is simply the application of current educated thought to the professional gathering of facts and the expression of that knowledge into text, illustration, video and animation. The practical expression of these values - the "utility" the founders sought - is in the published output.
This is written in a common style, inspired by the Chicago School of editing, that endeavours to communicate clearly and accurately the essence, and then the appropriate detail, of each subject to the level of understanding of the particular audience.
Currency and accuracy
One of the most important demands of information-seekers is currency. In 1768, Scotland's view of California was limited and expressed in six lines of text. By 1790, the occasional correspondence of European explorers had turned into a stream of letters and the Britannica article on California had expanded to 16 pages of detailed information. As I write this article on 8 March 2012, I read on Britannica.com about the resignation on 7 March of Mohamed Rasheed, former President of the Maldives, which is set in context; the outcome of the Russian presidential election on 4 March has been added to Vladimir Putin's biography and the article on the political structure of Russia; the events in Syria in February and early March 2012 have been incorporated into a rolling section on the Syrian uprising, and today's newsfeed from the BBC (on Britannica's homepage), notes the defection of the Deputy Oil Minister from the Syrian Government. Britannica is not a news organisation, but it sets the events in context.
Human error does creep in, but is corrected as soon as it is spotted. Users' contributions are encouraged, and where a user provides new, verifiable information or offers an additional subject, that material goes through the same editorial process as the article by a Nobel Prize-winner.
The values and the practices of Britannica, while remaining true to their roots, are now built into a business that moves very fast. Gone are the long, slow updates to text; the stands in public places that heralded an approach by a Britannica salesperson; and the four-hour personal demonstrations in the family living room. Also gone are hundreds of employees who worked at Britannica around the world.
In the 1990s, the vision of a new owner was that all information would be online. Led since 2003 by Jorge Aguilar-Cauz, the President and CEO of the worldwide Britannica group of companies, a smaller, leaner and fast all-digital global publishing business has emerged to express that vision.
Huge change in editorial practices and work-flow has been implemented, and a proprietary digital editorial and production system - which constantly develops to adapt to the changes in market needs in terms of digital output - was put in place. The sales system, once driven by high commission payments to individual salespeople, has been replaced by a consultative approach to the needs of universities, libraries, schools and families at home, who subscribe to online and mobile services tailored to their needs. Britannica now has a sales and marketing staff that is experienced in the teaching and learning skills used in classrooms and libraries, and it develops new teaching products to complement the reference databases.
The 21st-century business is operated from a headquarters in Chicago and offices in London, Delhi, Seoul, Tokyo and Sydney. Half the company's turnover is generated in the US. The core databases - at primary, secondary and undergraduate/life-long learning level - are common around the world, with variation for curriculum and language needs. And new products, for closer engagement with the customer-base, or adapted and updated to meet the requirements of ever-changing technology platforms, are being developed.
While the current printed edition will be the last, Britannica's mission and values remain unchanged. It has rebuilt its business model to match the needs of its customers - who respond by according the company recognition as a global Superbrand.
Ian Grant is Managing Director, Encyclopaedia Britannica (UK) Ltd