Small Content, Long Tails, and Big Ideas in Law Libraries

Jason Eiseman (MLS) is the Computer Automation Librarian at Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt in Portland, Oregon.

Think big. That always seems to be a rallying cry for corporate America. We always see entrepreneurs, salesmen, and marketers hawking big ideas, big changes, and promising to deliver big results. However, bigger isn’t always better. As law librarians, legal information vendors, and publishers struggle to find the ideal balance between information delivery costs and prices in our online world, our new cry should be “think small.” This article is going to try to sell you on a big idea about small, micro-content.

Micro-content, as the name implies, refers to small pieces of content. Often these small pieces of content are part of larger works. If a book is a piece of content, then a chapter from that book might be micro-content. Micro-content offers a new way of pricing, selling, and purchasing content. Ideally, a publisher could break its larger pieces of content (books, reports, etc.) into small, bite-sized chunks of information. When added together the prices for the chunks would be more than the price for the whole. Unfortunately, not everyone is buying into the idea of micro-content.

David Meerman Scott (Blog) wrote an article about micro-content in the July/August 2006 issue of E-Content, Fearing Content Cannibalization. Content cannibalization is the idea that one type of content, in this case micro-content, will eat into sales of other types of content delivery mechanisms, like subscription sales or the sale of larger, comprehensive reports. Meerman Scott writes that many publishers are afraid that micro-content will cannibalize the revenue generated from their other content sources.

This fear of cannibalization may be based on a false assumption. Many publishers think content purchasers will pay full price for reports or subscription services, rather than go without the information they provide. That may have been true when large vendors were the only avenue for information. But as new services arrive offering micro-content online, librarians will continually look for niche vendors with more efficient pricing models.

This phenomenon is addressed in Chris Anderson’s book The Long Tail (Amazon / WorldCat). In his book, Anderson suggests that providing an abundance of items for consumers to choose from will generate significant revenues, even if none of those items are “hits” or “blockbusters” in the traditional sense. In other words, you sell at least a little bit of a whole lot of items. Anderson credits the Internet with lowering “search costs” for consumers. He says search costs “refer to anything that gets in the way of finding what you want.” Those search costs include “paying too much for something because you couldn’t find a cheaper alternative,” something law librarians are all too familiar with. As more services offer micro-content and additional options for purchasing content become available, the “search costs” for law librarians will continue to drop.

One information vendor who is already filling this role is Cribis Corporation and its online service called SkyMinder. SkyMinder is a source of business, and industry information. SkyMinder’s pricing model makes it an example of a product that thrives on micro-content. Instead of subscribing to the service, you deposit money into an account. Money is debited from your account when you purchase information. Information is available in various content sizes, and prices.

While SkyMinder provides all of the comprehensive reports you might expect to find from a business database, the real value of the service is the ability to choose the comprehensiveness of the report you want. You can spend up to $100 for a report, with all the information you might need, or under $10 for a report with very basic information. That’s the beauty of micro-content – you pay for the content you want, and you get only what you need. Other vendors and publishers can provide you with the exact same information you will find on SkyMinder. What makes SkyMinder a great resource is the availability of micro-content.

Bob Schmitt, Director of Cribis Corporation, says that micro-content is a large component of the service they provide. “A lot of our customers, especially in the legal market, decide to buy SkyMinder based on these little bits of information rather than having to spend hundreds of dollars for data by the pound,” Schmitt said. He estimated that about 60% of the transactions on SkyMinder come from the purchase of what he calls “piecemeal” data. SkyMinder isn’t losing business because it provides micro-content, it’s gaining business because other vendors don’t provide it.

Some of the larger publishers are starting to recognize the need to sell micro-content as well. Westlaw Watch is an example of this growing trend. Westlaw Watch allows you to create a “Clip”, then save it as an HTML page or an RSS feed. The individual items can be distributed in your organization on an intranet or subscribed to via an RSS aggregator. What makes Westlaw Watch a micro-content provider is that you only pay for the bits of information you use. Instead of paying for a search, or paying to set up a “Clip,” you only pay for the documents you access in full-text format. You are not required to subscribe to a new service, pay setup fees, or sign a contract. The RSS feeds and HTML pages are public and findable, but anyone wishing to view an individual document still has to pay for that content.

Sometimes you have to look hard for micro-content offerings. LexisNexis and Westlaw may not be fully embracing micro-content like Cribis has, but some of their services lean in that direction. Lexis CourtLink has some flexible pricing options based on which courts you want to search. Westlaw also has introduced some services that allow you to search for free and see some limited content before purchasing an expensive report. These are baby steps, but if we’re thinking small we should applaud any steps by the largest legal information vendors to provide micro-content options, and encourage more.

As Meerman Scott recognizes in his article, vendors and publishers would be well served by offering different avenues for content consumption which can be customized and priced based on consumer needs. This means offering subscription services for firms which need it and can afford it, single-content rates for whole pieces of content (reports, e-books, etc.), and micro-content rates for individual report sections, pages, charts, graphs and the like. “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,” Meerman Scott writes.

Micro-content is already fast-becoming a viable option for generating revenue. iTunes is an example of the power of micro-content. Instead of buying CDs, albums, or larger pieces of content at more than $10 a piece, people are purchasing 99-cent songs on iTunes. These songs can be thought of as micro-content, chunks of content extracted from the larger piece (CD, album, etc.). Anderson suggests in his book that micro-content is an important part of benefiting from the long tail.

In his chapter “Long Tail Rules,” rules 4 and 5 speak directly to the issue of micro-content. Rule 4 is “One product does not fit all.” In this rule, Anderson, like Meerman Scott, suggests offering multiple ways to purchase the same content. Anderson, borrowing a term from Umair Haque calls it “microchunking.” Rule 5 is “One price does not fit all.” As vendors and publishers experiment with breaking up larger pieces of content into smaller chunks, new pricing models will naturally be explored. This will be a boon to publishers who find new ways of generating revenues, and to law librarians, who will have new options for purchasing content.

To understand the power of selling micro-content and the long tail, just look at the August 5 blog post on Anderson’s Long Tail Blog, Mainstream Media Meltdown III. In this post Anderson compiles data from a variety of media industries. Some of the most telling figures come from the music industry, where weekly album sales had set a 10-year low and CD-album sales were down 4.2% for the year. However, as Anderson noted, digital single downloads had increased 77%. Even though he says digital single downloads comprise less than 10% of the music industry, they appear to be generating enough revenue to offset losses in album sales. This is the power of micro-content. The music industry manages to stay in the black by offering multiple ways to purchase and consume content.

Maybe it seems that I’m unfairly comparing apples and oranges, and I’m certainly no economist. The same market dynamics which are currently wreaking havoc with popular media are not necessarily the same forces that rule information services. Still, it would be foolish to ignore the enormous potential for vendors and publishers to sell micro-content, and the obvious benefits to law librarians if they did.

By providing additional avenues for buying content vendors and publishers might keep cash-strapped law librarians as customers. Law librarians, who might be forced to cancel subscriptions and ignore expensive reports because of budget constraints, would have additional, cost-effective options for buying content for their patrons.

As we speak, government websites, and other information services are catching up on the large vendors by offering additional options for consuming content. Why should we run a search on Westlaw or Lexis if a case is freely available online from a court website? The answer used to be that they added value with powerful search capabilities and nifty features, but that value gap may be decreasing.

Last month brought an announcement that the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals is now offering opinions via RSS and oral arguments as podcasts. One wonders how vendors will keep pace with such rapid technological advancement. Now law librarians can get Seventh Circuit cases as RSS items (another form of micro-content), including alerts (as RSS items) for free.

Unfortunately, despite the small steps I mentioned earlier, the large vendors appear to be focused on providing more “data by the pound.” Lexis, Westlaw, and other vendors are currently gobbling up services like GSI and Applied Discovery, and then incorporating those applications into their existing products. That’s admirable and desirable for a variety of reasons. However, it will all be for naught if they don’t find as many ways as possible to sell that content, including breaking it into smaller chunks and selling it at a discount price.

Legal information is in a state of flux. As more and more legal information moves online, many law libraries struggle for shelf-space, funding, and how to meet user needs in an ever-changing landscape. Often law librarians have difficulty evaluating the optimal dispersal of resources, deciding between print and online sources, subscriptions versus per-use costs, and bickering with vendors over contract details. I’m not offering up the micro-content solution as a panacea to all of the problems vendors, publishers, and law librarians face. What I am suggesting is that all parties involved in these delicate transactions could benefit from some creative, out-of-the-box thinking. Micro-content offers a new way of thinking about information services, and information pricing that could benefit a great many industry professionals.

I’m sure many of the law librarians reading this can talk about experiences of forgoing a database search because it was too expensive, or canceling a subscription that just wasn’t used quite enough. Every transaction not pursued or subscription cancelled is money lost for the vendor and services not provided to law librarians or their end users. Offering micro-content can make up for this lost revenue, even if it’s only a few bucks at a time.

In truth, pushing vendors to sell micro-content may be unnecessary. Eventually they may simply have no alternative but to offer additional pricing models based on content size in order to generate revenue and remain competitive. As I said, I’m no economist. I’m just a law librarian who has difficulty finding the content I want, at the price I want. Hopefully, the idea of small content will prove too big an idea for the legal information industry to ignore.

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