Differentiating The Information Commodity

One of the core components of creating a unique user experience is making it clear to the end user or customer that a product or service is differentiated from competitors so that it compels the individual to seek out this different experience. At DBL we’ve discussed the importance of identifying ways to differentiate the library. From the end-user perspective, what is it about the library that makes it different and unique from all other potential sources of information – especially the ones that are more convenient to use.

One of the challenges librarians face is that their primary product, information, is a commodity that is difficult to differentiate. It used to be that academic libraries could emphasize their scholarly content as different from what search engines offered, but Google Scholar changed all that. The end user perceives all information as relatively the same, especially when they can find it on their own, and it all seems to relate to the question or topic of choice. And even if it isn’t the highest quality information, if finding it is convenient and fast then it’s good enough.

The Branding Strategy blog explores how one might go about differentiating or branding a commodity. In fact, one of the bloggers there, Brad VanAuken, said “I am a firm believer that everything can be branded/differentiated. I have never encountered a product or service that I could not brand/differentiate”. In that same post he provided some examples of branding products for differentiation. In a more recent post VanAuken wrote more specifically about how to differentiate commodities. Commodities, like the information contained in articles and books, is difficult to differentiate. What is different about the information found in a book in the local public library and the same or a similar book found online via Google books or Amazon?

The answer is nothing, at least nothing much different than the vodka found in bottles from two different companies, or for that matter much of the water sold in plastic bottles. Can you really taste the difference between two brands? But why does one brand command a higher price and why do more consumers know the name or can recite its tagline? The reason is differentiation. It’s the same thing with information. It may be the same but one provider may have more brand recognition, another may offer great convenience and yet another may deliver unique packaging. Libraries offer books and other information for free. You’d think that would be a significant and desirable differentiating factor. But when you factor in questionable convenience, difficulty finding out what the library offers and some complexity in getting to the information, free looks like less of a bargain. Then again, the vodka example shows consumers will pay more if they believe they are getting higher quality or more value for their money. But will they go to more trouble and spend more valuable time to get it?

So what advice does VanAuken offer for how to differentiate any commodity? Some are the sort of things you’d expect: superior quality control; great customer service; best range of product availability. While all of these would be desirable for any library, doing them all well in order to compete with an Amazon or Barnes & Noble could be quite a challenge. He also says that one way to differentiate with commodities is to identify unique categories of customers and focus on meeting their unique needs. This is one area in which libraries of all types might be most successful. We often know our user segments (children, teens, college students, professionals), and we often know more about them and their research needs than the competition.

One way in which libraries, particularly academic libraries, might differentiate their information is to better connect the end user with highly specialized resources that may be linked to a specific issue or discipline. The same could be said for the mostly unique content in special collections. While Google is digitizing these unique materials from its library partners’ collections, there still remains much that is unique and valuable for differentiation. Promoting these unique databases and collections will present a challenge since they have small numbers of potential users. But reaching these smaller groups, over time, can convert to a large user base. We are challenged to differentiate the library’s core commodity – raw information – but as VanAuken says, “Everything can be branded/differentiated.”

4 thoughts on “Differentiating The Information Commodity”

  1. “He also says that one way to differentiate with commodities is to identify unique categories of customers and focus on meeting their unique needs.”

    In my blog, we are highlighting the changing role of the library in the next decade. I am calling it the “Public Library’s Identity Crisis.” I have some interesting email discussions with librarians about the role of the book in the library in the next decade. One library director pretty much told me what you have written about here. My question for you. Can libraries change fast enough to meet the needs of the next “unique category of customers.” What happens when they can’t change fast enough? Our core services of information and archival should always be retained. In this way, we will always have some value to the community despite the latest “category of customer” we are serving. In other words, we should be cautious and make sure to balance new services with our tradition core missions.

  2. Books, articles and other objects can be treated as commodities, but information as such? When I consume a shot of vodka, regardless of brand, it will do pretty much the same thing for me as for any other human. When I read a book my experience with it will be different from others, and even from my own earlier experience if I re-read a book.

    Information objects abound, but information itself exists in the process and the person. See Cook, http://www.comminfolit.org/index.php/cil/article/view/Vol3-2009ED5 .

    I’m still sorting this out, but perhaps the differentiation for libraries or a library needs to start with embracing the true nature of our goods and services. Focusing on customers and their needs and uses for informative sources is still key.

  3. Jim – I’d make a distinction between consuming the information and acquiring the information. In my post I’m focusing on information as a commodity that we acquire. The same way I’d acquire coffee beans – they’re just a commodity. I could get my coffee beans from any number of sources. Likewise, with a book – which you could look at as a compendium of information – I could get that from any number of sources – amazon, a barnes and noble bookstore, my local public library and coming soon – full-text on the Internet. The library needs to differentiate how it provides the commodity that makes it unique from all the others – and I mentioned that “free” is one of them – but perhaps not enough to encourage the consumer to choose the library over other options. I believe what you are referring to is the experience you have when you consume the information, whether it’s the first time or third time. That is a different matter. The library has no control over your personal experience. One person may love a book while another hates it. But what experience did each have when acquiring the book (information) in the first place. That’s the point about the vodka. You are right – when you drink it you may have an experience that’s no different from me. On the other hand, if I buy a premium, high-recognition brand and you buy the bargain basement brand, I may feel a bit superior and smug when I serve and consume my vodka – which would be a different experience than your experience – and I might even think I’m better when I go to the store and buy and spend more money – even though I’m not. That’s all part of the experience. So why should people go to libraries to get their information? How do we differentiate that experience? That’s the question we need to answer.

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