Book publishing is not commonly identified with the sort of risk-taking that one would associate with, say, the Sergey Brins and Steve Jobses of the world. And, the last company one might expect to see out on a proverbial limb would be a publisher of dictionaries (a tradition-bound format if there ever was one)—yet it was no less a player than the stalwart Merriam- Webster that over a decade ago risked it all, so to speak, by putting its dictionary online for free.
“One of the reasons we [offered early on] our biggest best-seller on the Web is that, if we take seriously that we’re supposed to be the premier dictionary of the American people, then we have to be all dictionaries for everybody, and that includes people who want to get their language information from the Web for free,” explains John Morse, president of Merriam-Webster.
The risk has paid off. While many other companies responded to the emergence of the Web by trying to shield their brand, thereby losing market share to upstarts with a stronger online presence, Merriam-Webster has remained the preeminent name in dictionaries (its “New Collegiate” is the nation’s best-seller, according to the company), effectively girding itself against the onslaught of sites like Dictionary.com.
Such a willingness to experiment, to anticipate trends and even to fail, lies at the heart of long-term success with a multimedia strategy, says Michael Jon Jensen, director of publishing technologies at The National Academies Press (NAP) in Washington, D.C. “The best practices have to do with embracing innovation and being willing to take risks, and trying things that do not seem necessarily obvious—to break the bonds between necessary profitability and any action,” he says.
This may be the most exciting (and nerve-wracking) driver of multimedia strategy—the inability to predict whether an initiative will remain in line with whatever trends are around the corner. Still, Jensen says, taking such risks is nearly always better than the alternative.