The Book On First-Mover Advantage

The online book industry is a case study in cornering a market online via first-mover advantage. How can this be? The barriers to entry are low. Books are selling briskly online. There are plenty of bricks-and-mortar players. So how can we explain the AmazonBarnes & Noble duopoly online?

Books Sell Online

Online bookselling is the most popular category for e-commerce. A remarkable 41 percent of online purchasers cite books as one of the things they buy most often on the Internet, up from 24 percent in mid-1998, according to Internet User Trends: Mid-Year 1999, which will be released this week by The Strategis Group.

Books sell well on the Internet for several reasons. They’re easy to ship. They’re homogenous, since a given book is the same, no matter where you get it. Also, online search utilities make it easy to find a book online, even if you do not recall the title or the author’s name.

Where Are the Other Guys?

The Strategis Group recently published Advertising on the Internet: 1999, which contained The Strategis Net Presence Survey, a study of 6,972 ads from over 700 companies on the top 50 ad-supported sites. Among the 700-plus advertisers, there were countless merchandisers, scores of computer equipment sellers, dozens of financial firms

And how many booksellers? Nine. Only nine.

It seems that the big guys have sewn up the ad space online. Using the Net Presence index (an index of online advertising visibility), Amazon had an NP of 57.6 and Barnes & Noble had an NP of 56.1, which placed them #1 and #2 among all advertisers on the Internet. Borders, incidentally, was no slouch, garnering an NP of 10.0 and finishing twentieth among all online advertisers. Audio Book Club took fourth with an NP of 4.5. The bottom five – The Literary Guild, 1bookstreet.com, Doubleday (part of Random House), Crossings, and Fatbrain – combined for a tiny NP of 1.8. Click here for a pie chart of book advertising visibility.

Slotting Advantage

The big guys have already lined up major partnerships with the top portals and have a permanent presence on some home pages and in the portals’ shopping areas. And no matter what you search for on the engines of MSN, Lycos, HotBot, Snap, and WebCrawler, you’ll get a Barnes & Noble ad. Likewise, you’ll get a plug for Amazon no matter what you enter on the search engines of Yahoo, Excite, AltaVista, and AOL. Same for Borders on the GO Network.

Amazon and Barnes & Noble are going to be hard to dislodge. It’s like soft drinks at your local supermarket. Pepsi and Coke pay a slotting advantage to gain a zillion product facings at eye level, while RC Cola and Jolt Cola duke it out for that dusty space down near the mouse hole. RC and Jolt avoid the slotting premium, but miss out on the spotlight. Amazon and Barnes & Noble are betting that the Coke/Pepsi strategy will work for them.

Brand Name

It isn’t all about key relationships, however. Amazon has been a case study in using PR and marketing to build a brand name, which it has fully leveraged to gain first-mover advantage online. Barnes & Noble and Borders have been somewhat slower, but are making a substantial effort to leverage their bricks-and-mortar reputations into an online presence.

And books aren’t all they’re selling. Once you have the brand name and the traffic, you can leverage your early advantage by doing auctions, selling music, and providing toys, for example, as Amazon has. After all, they didn’t name the company “Books Are Us,” did they?

The Moral of the Story

What’s the moral to my story? I have three of them:

  1. First-mover advantage. If you want to be more than a bit player, you have to go in early and go in hard. Even if your product is ideal for e-commerce, if you snooze, you lose. Make up a new category, if you have to. If you’re a bookseller, for example, maybe you can still position yourself as the first major Spanish-language bookseller or the first seller of audio books to be downloaded onto CD-ROMs.

  2. Partnerships. You need to line up key influencers before the other guys do. Ask yourself which sites can you realistically partner with that will optimize your visibility.

  3. Brand name. Having a known and respected brand name is important in any business, but especially on the Internet. Customers often access sites by typing in the name of the site. This is a top-of-mind process, one in which brand name recall is key.

The bottom line is that a great business model for a popular product will only take you so far. Unless you have an early-mover advantage, the right partnerships, and a sterling brand name, you’re likely to be a minor player in the category and you need to scale your investments accordingly. And remember, Amazon and Barnes & Noble’s online units are still losing lots of money.

The next chapter is yours to write.

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