Is DRM More Costly Than Piracy? Thoughts on leveraging marketing strategy and DRM-free content

Thumbnail image for av.jpgRecently, I’ve been thinking a lot about building better (read: strategic) eBooks. The more that I’ve tried to wrap my head around what would work and what wouldn’t, I keep coming back to the idea of reversing self-imposed constraints and searching for opportunity in areas from which we’ve closed off opportunity. One such area is DRM.
As a practice, wrapping content in DRM finds its justification in the fact that digital content is being pirated across the internet and distributed to people who we presume could be customers. These lost customers are choosing to not purchase our content but to download this content for free.
Before we continue, let’s address a few myths:

  1. DRM will eliminate piracy. This is completely false. Pirated content is always going to be available, whether we allow it or not.
  2. Pirates are stealing our customers. Most likely, the person who is downloading pirated content wouldn’t consider buying it in the first place. Piracy is not an alternative to retail, it is a parallel eco-system.
  3. Publishers will make more money by enforcing stricter DRM. I argue that this, too, is false. In fact, I think if we leverage the marketing possibilities of DRM-free content, we would end up making more money in the long run.

So, we start with a DRM-free eBook. Now what? What if we flat out encouraged sharing?
Let’s say a customer purchases an eBooks and they want to share it with a friend who would enjoy the book. In the development phase, the publisher could easily include a ‘share’ button or option. This would set off a mechanism for transferring the content purchased by one customer on her device to someone else’s device.
If we can get past the ‘piracy,’ unpaid content aspect, this simple act is incredibly powerful. Here’s how:
What if we asked the customer who is sharing the content she’s purchased to input her friend’s email address in order to deliver a download link? Now we’ve collected a second customer’s contact information. To use lead gen-speak, this customer is a “qualified lead.” Another way to look at it is that this represents a sort of passive word of mouth system whereby we let our customers tell us with whom they are sharing their content.
Then, we can engage the recipient of said content, because they’ve already been identified as an interested party by one of our customers. If done properly, the follow up to these new customers can not only lead to a sale, but to something much greater. It could be a vehicle for presenting your company as tech-savvy and engaging.
Now, let’s go a step further: what if, after a certain number of shares, we rewarded the customer for passing along their content and helping us to identify future customers? Say after a customer shares their content with 10 other people, the publisher can set up a mechanism which would send an invitation to receive a free eBook for all their effort. (Let’s not fool ourselves, they would be doing work for us.)
Not only does this give customers incentive to spread the word about our books, but it creates heightened brand loyalty. We cannot expect our customers to simply become loyal to our brands based on the laws of inertia and chance. Brand loyalty is an active pursuit which can be fostered by putting more products into the hands of people who use them. The more we can actively identify those customers who are not only reading our books, but those who are evangelizing for us, the more we are able to keep this momentum going by providing additional fodder to share.
In the publicity world, we send books to ‘influencers’ or ‘big mouths’ in the hope that they’ll initiate their own word of mouth campaigns. The only difference here is that we are using the available technology of eBooks in our favor to identify who the influencers are and who they are influencing.
File share points online such as SendSpace do something very similar to this already. Anyone can email anyone else with a file that is too large to send via email. The recipient receives an email notification and a download link. People are used to receiving a download link, to allowing their email address to be disclosed in order to receive something they feel is valuable or important.
The point: it is not unreasonable to ask for email addresses in order to provide a free service.
Let’s go back to our three myths about DRM:

  • DRM will eliminate piracy. We already know that DRM is not going to stop piracy because people want to share content. Response: avoid piracy by actively promoting user-to-user content sharing and make it worth it for the publisher by creating a win-win situation for both publisher and consumer.
  • Pirates are stealing our customers. Pirates will not be able to ‘steal’ our customers if we can provide them with a better, more valuable experience.
  • Publishers will make more money by enforcing stricter DRM. Publishers will make more money, in the long run, by growing their customer bases, collecting consumer data, engaging with their customers directly, actively fostering brand loyalty, and providing a superior user experience that exploits technology in a smart way.

Keeping content on ‘lock down’ is not good for anybody. We are in an age of digital sharing, of online exploration, boundaryless personal expression, and high engagement expectations. Wouldn’t it be counterintuitive to go against these trends and make it increasingly difficult for our customers to tell their friends about our products? At a time when every publisher must be concerned with search and discoverability of digital products, encouraging sharing in order to learn more about our consumer base and their behaviors seems like a natural course of action.

Brett Sandusky is Digital Marketing Manager at Kaplan Publishing. He is also the founder of Publishr, an ever-growing collection of essays that explores the world of digital publishing through both theory and practice. He lives in Brooklyn.

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