Digital collecting

In my last post, I wrote a little bit about my views on collection and the effect on content industries in the digital age. I argued that if people weren’t buying music anymore, it was probably because purchasing digital music does not satisfy the compulsion to collect. Some of this is unavoidable– collecting digital files will never be quite the same as collecting physical objects. However, I believe there are things that these digital content industries can do in order to court the purchases of collectors.

Skip the extras

My impression is that these companies, when searching for a way to boost sales, keep returning to the idea of adding some kind of extras or special features. When selling books, they want to add appendices and footnotes full of additional information. When selling movies, they want to add extra menus and special behind-the-scenes videos. Albums get additional tracks– B-sides and alternate takes. Sometimes these extras are interesting and worthwhile, and sometimes not, but I believe that the impulse to add features this way is a bit misguided.

It may seem counterintuitive, but the addition of extras and special features runs contrary to my desires as a collector.  When I look to add an item to one of my collections, I’m looking for the simple, true, definitive version of the work.  In a sense, I’m looking for something original and absolute, without extra baggage. I want it to be a work of art, complete unto itself, without branding or marketing attached.

For me, and perhaps I’m alone here, the addition of “extras” tends to mar a work with the feeling of messiness and incompleteness. It’s content that is not the work itself, and it doesn’t fit into a “collection” as such. It would be like being a coin collector and finding someone had embedded a diamond in one of your very old coins. Diamonds are great and all, but if you’re a collector, you will likely prefer the coin unadorned and pristine.

Beyond that, the addition of extras tends to come along with a never-ending procession of “editions”. You get the “Special Edition”, the “Director’s Cut”, the “Collector’s Edition”, and then the “New Collector’s Edition with extra behind-the-scenes footage”. The more new cuts and new versions are released, the greater the feeling that there will never be a definitive final version. The impulse to collect is tied up with the desire to have a somewhat final collection, i.e. to have each acquisition and addition to your collection permanently fill a previously open slot in your collection. If I suspect there will be a newer more authoritative version of a work released in the future, it dramatically undercuts my desire to buy it now.

I’ll admit, though, there are cases where I love the extras. Sometimes the behind-the-scenes footage expands your enjoyment of a movie, or an expanded appendix makes a book much more clear and interesting. However, my general advice would be to offer these things as free content from a website for marketing and promotional purposes.

Improve quality instead

So if the addition of “extras” is misguided, where I think content owners could improve their products is in focusing on quality instead. First, there are the sort of simple things to focus on– making sure that movies are available in 1080p, or that audio is available at high bitrates (or even lossless). I’ve had issues where I purchased ebooks with typos, or where the formatting of images or tables didn’t really work in my ebook reader. I’ve purchased digital movies that had audio/video errors. If you want to get collectors onboard, all of these things need to be fixed.

However, there are many other issues that are not always addressed well. One example is inconsistency between different objects in the same digital storefront. In my mind, e-books font sizes should be standardized to the reader’s settings, and not per-book. Metadata for each product should be complete and consistent. They should use the best album art, generally the original art, not one based on cross-promotional opportunities. Album art should be a standard size and aspect ratio. Movie aspect ratios should ideally be standardized too– I understand that there’s a lot of historical baggage on that one, but my TV is 16:9, as are everyone else’s TVs. Just sell a 16:9 version of the movie.

I’ll admit to being a little OCD about some of these issues, but those OCD impulses are exactly what drives me as a collector. Cater to them. Think of your product as a cross between a beautiful classic work of art and a collectable knick-knack being sold to autistic children.

Make it easy to enjoy

One of the biggest problems with digital collections, quite frankly, is that they sometimes get difficult to access. If I buy a movie through Amazon, for example, I can’t watch it on an Apple TV. If I buy it through iTunes, then I can pretty much only watch it through an Apple TV. That kind of incompatibility isn’t just frustrating, but it also runs contrary to the feelings of completeness and finality that are vital to collecting. If I spend $500 on movies from iTunes, and I want to watch them on some other random device, then I have to buy them again through a different service, so my collection isn’t complete. My ownership of that movie feels restricted and partial. Worse, if the iTunes store goes belly-up someday or I decide to stop using it, then I just lose all of those movies. So my collection isn’t “final” in the sense that I can say, “I bought that movie, and now I’m done. I don’t need to buy that movie again.”

I can understand if content owners don’t mind that you lack that kind of finality. They wouldn’t have a problem with the idea that you might buy the same movie again and again. They’d love for you to repurchase your entire library every couple of years, because that would mean a steady revenue stream. However, insofar as their revenue relies on collectors, it’s counter-productive. People know that they’re just going to have to buy the movie again in 3 years, so they choose not to buy the movie this year.

DRM only adds to this problem. It locks you into a specific platform or a set number of devices. It creates the potential that your collection might simply be “revoked” at some point, and all of your time and money could go to waste. Instead, content owners should be distributing everything in future-proofed DRM-free open standards that have the potential to remain accessible forever on any device.

If content owners really want to release a new edition and sell it to me again, the improvements should be focused on improving quality. Digitally clean up errors in the print. Remaster the audio. Don’t add new scenes or characters. Maintain the original experience, but just make it clearer, cleaner, and better.

Help us show it off

As dumb as it might seem, one of the key parts of owning a collection is displaying it. People with collections like to see the collection themselves, and they like to show it off to others, but this is difficult to do when you have a digital collection. You might think it’s petty and silly and materialistic, and maybe it is, but most collectors have some desire to show their collections off.

I don’t have a great solution for this, and it may be insoluble, but if I were working for a marketing department at a content owner, this is what I’d spend my time thinking about: Can you bring a digital collection to the bookshelf or the display case?

In the most simple example, could you create a screensaver for computers and smart-TVs that somehow scrolls through a collection? If you create software or hardware to play the collection, can you design it in a way to highlight a view of the entire collection? Can you replicate the feeling of flipping through physical objects, looking for the right thing to play right now?

I think Apple’s designs are generally decent at this. They show off cover-art quite a lot, and cover-flow does as good a job as anything I’ve seen at replicating the act of “flipping through” things. However, I’m sure there’s still room for improvement, especially if ultra-thin displays get really cheap and touch-screens start showing up all over the place.

Perhaps, though, there are other non-traditional ways of showing off a collection. I could only come up with one illustrative example for what I mean, and it’s a terrible marketing-nightmare example that I hope no one ever tries: bring video-game-style achievements to collecting media. “David has watched every episode of Mad Men,” pops up in my Facebook feed, or “David has purchased every Christopher Nolan movie,” on Twitter. The idea turns my stomach, but I think something like this would probably drive collectors more than putting in behind-the-scenes extras.

Maybe find a way that we can customize it?

I don’t really know what to say on this one, but one of the important things about collecting is “making the collection your own.” Physical objects are not easily reproducible, so when you own something, it really becomes “yours” in a way that digital objects tend not to. Like if I bought an old record of the Beatles “White Album”, it kind of ceases to be the Beatles’ and becomes mine. It’s my particular copy, and any flaws or scratches belong to me too. If it’s an old used copy, then there’s a strange way in which I’m sharing it with the previous owners, too. If I give it to a friend, it’s still “my old copy” and the stain on the cover still came from my coffee spill. If you don’t really know what I mean, then I’m not sure I can explain it better.

But in my experience, this doesn’t happen with digital copies. Even if they’re watermarked with my name as a copy-protection scheme, it still feels like a very impersonal copy. It doesn’t wear out when I listen to it. It doesn’t acquire a dent when I drop it. It doesn’t sound slightly different than other copies because of a manufacturing issue. Digital copies are all the same, which disallows the kind of emotional attachment that we tend to form towards things that we own.

So I don’t know how to do this, but I’d like to pose the question as food for thought: Is there a way to make digital copies personal? Could things be contrived so that watching a digital movie or listening to a digital song somehow adds something to the copy to make it more unique and personal?

Some e-book readers allow you do highlight and make notes in the text, and it feels to me like that does add the the feeling of uniqueness. If I read the same edition of the same e-book on another person’s reader, my notes won’t be there. I think this is a good example, since the notes are non-destructive and they don’t hamper your ability to enjoy the book.

It seems like being non-destructive to the experience would be vital in inventing a good solution to this problem. I can easily imagine some marketing guy thinking, “This is a great idea! We could have digital movies degrade over time, which would make you have to buy a new one after a couple years!” Or maybe, “How about we interrupt movies with targeted advertisements? That way the experience would be unique to you.” But no, again, if you want to snag collectors, you can’t detract from the quality of experiencing the media.

Make it easy to buy

Aside from all the rest of these things, content owners should be paying a lot of attention to making it easy to buy their content. It would help to work on the quality of the storefront and media players. If you’re trying to sell e-books, you’d better be providing people with a beautiful, easy to use, bug-free e-book reader. Provide users with well organized easy-to-use media stores, along with discovery services that help your customers find new music/movies/books that they would enjoy. As I mentioned earlier, get rid of DRM and use future-proof open standards.

I also find it much easier to buy digital content when there is support for repeat downloads and an upgrade paths. Take the Steam video game storefront for example: once you buy a game, you can download it to a computer whenever you want. Their platform also provides upgrade patches and bug-fixes, and some game developers even include additional free content in those patches.

Apple’s iTunes provides a couple of other illustrative examples here. When they added higher quality encoding for their songs (256kbps instead of 128kbps), they allowed customers to upgrade to the higher quality version for a price. Eventually they dropped the low-quality versions and allowed users to re-download past purchases, effectively providing a free upgrade to the high-quality version.

Apple also recently upgraded their HD movie selection to include 1080p versions of the movie. It used to be that their movies were encoded at 720p, but again, they offered a free upgrade on past purchases to allow users to download the new higher-resolution copy. For me, providing this kind of upgrade makes me much more likely to buy a movie from iTunes.

Finally, if content owners really want to attract collectors, they’re going to have to lower their prices. I’m sure this is a contentious point, but it’s an important one. Many collectors, for example, seek to complete their collections, and quite frankly are likely to buy things that don’t like very much, assuming the price is right.

For example, I have a collector’s impulse that makes me want to own every Coen brothers’ movie. I love many of their movies, but not enough to pay $20 per movie. Some of them are being sold right now for $10, which is tempting, but not tempting enough. For me, the price that would get me to move is probably closer to $5, but even then, I’d only bother to buy a couple of their movies.

Even at $5, I wouldn’t buy “The Ladykillers”. I just didn’t like it enough, and I wouldn’t buy it on its own for more than $1 or so. Irrationally, if there were a complete package of the Coen Brothers’ films without “The Ladykillers”, and another package that cost $5 more and included the film, I’d probably buy the more complete package. That, in a nutshell, is what it is to be a collector: I would be willing to pay more for a complete collection than the aggregate of what I would be willing to spend on each item in the collection.

I think this is an important point because it explains one of the reasons why content owners might make more money by lowering prices. A collector’s impulse to buy increases dramatically when it becomes a reasonable option to attain a collection instead of buying as a lone purchase. Therefore, it’s possible that lowering the price of “True Grit” will not only improve sales of “True Grit”, but also spur potential collectors to consider the complete Coen brothers catalog, thereby increasing sales of “The Ladykillers”.

I can say, at least, that this strategy would work on me. I haven’t bought a movie in years, but I suspect that if movies were cheap enough, I would spend $3 here and $5 there until I’d found I’d spent several hundred dollars on movies I don’t watch. The same goes for music, books, and video games.