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Oct 04, 2001

PDF Document Versus Hard Copy Content Sales Online

SUMMARY: Do content shoppers online prefer to buy PDFs or do they prefer printed hard copies?And, if you make the PDF just $10 cheaper than a hard copy, will it significantly change buying patterns? This article reveals the results of a test campaign conducted over the past 60 days by MarketingSherpa.If you sell content online, you'll want to check it out.
When you're both a print and PDF publisher, sometimes one of your toughest calls is estimating how many hard copy versions to print before sales begin. You want to print as high a quantity as possible to take advantage of gross quantity discounts. But then, what if everybody goes for the PDF version instead and you're left with excess hard copies on your hands?

Over the past 60 days, MarketingSherpa's Knowledge Store has tested carrying two different reports on similar topics (Internet PR), both under 140 pages, both by name-brand authors, and both at about the same price point ($99-$129.) In both cases, hard copy buyers must pay $7 more than PDF for shipping and handling; but, while these charges are openly mentioned in the store, they aren't tacked onto the "visible" price tag until shoppers make their selection and enter the shopping cart process.

The first report cost between $99-$129 (depending on offer) with the hard copy and PDF at the exact same price at all times. 52% of buyers requested the hard copy. The second report cost $99 for the PDF and $109 for the hard copy. Less than 10% of buyers have requested the hard copy so far.

Now it's true that although $109 is just $10 more than $99, it does break the critical psychological $100 barrier. But even without that factor, these results make it clear a small savings can dissuade customers from requesting hard copies.

Interestingly, direct mail tests in the early 1990s by newsletter publisher United Communications Group (UCG) revealed that remarkably small savings "bribe" -- in this case $10 off newsletter subscriptions priced at $200-$500 -- substantially increased the number of responses that paid with order. (You had to pay full-price if you requested to be billed instead.) UCG tested bribe price points higher than $10, but discovered the affect was negligible. So it was the bribe itself, rather than the amount of the bribe that mattered.

Given these results, publishers' next business decision is whether to actively encourage PDF vs. hard copy sales with discounts or not. Here's a quick rundown of basic factors:

Basic PDF Pros
- Little upfront production investment
- No customs or tax hassles for international buyers
- Instant gratification is a powerful marketing tool
- Can be (nominally) locked against copying, snipping, printing, etc.
- Content can be updated/changed without wasting investment in pre-printed stock
- Online buyers now demand PDF even when you state it's not available

Basic Hard Copy Pros
- Everyone on this planet can "work" a hard copy no matter what type of computer, software, bandwidth, or printer they have
- Hard copies make online companies more "real" to customers, so buyers may be more likely to buy from you again
- Nothing beats the heft-value of a thick, printed document
- Can't forward via email (but can copy)
- No endless debates about what level of electronic security to use, and does it really work anyway
- Some people will always want it hard

In MarketingSherpa's case, we've decided to offer both PDF and hard copy for most of our own products (although we do carry some hard copy-only products from other publishers.) Although PDF customer service can be a pain, especially since PDF buyers want instant service to match their instant download, we've found customers outside the US are so grateful for PDFs that it outweighs the liabilities.

BTW: Why did other eBook formats not enter this article? Because if you are a publisher selling to a corporate audience, chances are their email systems automatically disable ".exe" files as potential threats. If you'd like to learn more about eBook options, check out this useful, past MarketingSherpa article which listed seven great eBook publisher resources:
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