Can Siri and Alexa Help Breathe New Life Into Encyclopedia Britannica?

Guardians of History, a new voice-activated adventure, will furnish the answer

Guardians of History is available on Amazon Echo, Google Home and on smartphones. Encyclopedia Britannica

Millions of consumers have grown to rely on their virtual assistants with commands like, “Alexa, set the timer for 10 minutes” and “Hey Siri, what’s the weather forecast?” And soon, some of us might enlist the help of our voice-recognition devices for a noble task that basically amounts to: “OK Google, let’s help keep Encyclopedia Britannica around.”

Well, that’s not the literal command, but that’s the basic idea. The venerable encyclopedia company is introducing a voice-activated adventure aimed at kids ages 8 to 12 called the Guardians of History. Available on Amazon Echo, Google Home and on smartphones, Guardians is essentially a game with a healthy helping of learning thrown in.

More to the point, it’s a product that Britannica officials hope will eventually replace some of the revenue lost to the internet in general and to Wikipedia specifically.

“What we wanted to do,” said Britannica’s director of digital consumer products Ryan Bond, “was bring our heritage and our legacy of getting trusted, verifiable information into this new medium in a way we hope will attract families in a new era.”

Olympians in ancient Greece competed naked—hence, the shield.
Encyclopedia Britannica

Britannica has tapped into its considerable trove of historic information and, rather than spitting it out as an entry in a reference encyclopedia, packaged it as part of a participatory story for kids.

With a programming assist from AI firm Moonshot by Pactera, Britannica’s new series will let kids “embark on time-traveling adventures to explore the past, research lost knowledge, [and] investigate exciting mysteries,” to quote the promotional material. Among other things, kids can sail on the Titanic, fly on the Spruce Goose, help to build the Sphinx and compete in the Olympics in ancient Greece.

To kick things off, users ask their Amazon or Google voice-assisted device to “install Guardians of History.” The device then activates what’s called an “immersive audio adventure,” whose outcomes depend on the spoken choices kids make. Devices with screens such as the Echo Show, Google Home and Android phones feature a visual component as well.

Perhaps the most attractive feature of Guardians (for parents, at least) is the price: It’s free. The company wagers that boosting awareness of its brand will generate digital subscriptions to its online encyclopedia at “The hope,” Bond said, is “that if you enjoyed the kids’ product it might convert to a subscription.”

Getting into the realm of virtual adventure is a marked departure for a company that published its first encyclopedia in 1768 and, for most of its history, was the standard bearer for complete, accurate, verified information on nearly any topic you could name. At its peak in 1990, Britannica sold 100,000 sets of its encyclopedia at around $1,400 apiece.

Then things fell apart. Because personal computers started coming with built-in CD-ROM drives, consumer appetite for a 32-volume, 129-pound encyclopedia began to disappear. And once Microsoft began selling Encarta, its own CD-ROM encyclopedia, the writing was on the wall. Britannica responded quickly with its own CD-ROM product and, by 1994, Britannica Online.

But the company couldn’t overcome the arrival of Wikipedia. Though Britannica slashed its price, it wasn’t enough. As Britannica president Jorge Cauz recalled in the Harvard Business Review, consumers “could get ‘good enough’ content for much less—sometimes free.” And who wants to pay anything when a reasonable alternative can be had for nothing? By 2012, Britannica made headlines when, after 244 years, it suspended its printed volumes for good.

A full 32-volume set of the old Britannica weighed in at 129 pounds.
Encyclopedia Britannica

Nevertheless, the brand is far from dead. Britannica still sells online subscriptions to those who appreciate that crowdsourced information like the kind on Wikipedia isn’t always material that can be trusted. The company also has a vigorous division that develops curricula for schools.

But Guardians of History represents Britannica’s major push to regain some of its former footing in supplying intellectual content to consumers—principally by making parents aware of its existence and, of course, acquainting kids with the brand. After all, a generation or more has passed since Britannica enjoyed household-name status. And since Britannica may be hoping the free-of-charge Guardians can be monetized at some point, the project represents an ambitious investment for the brand.

Will it pay? “Their challenge is enormous,” said veteran brand guru Allen Adamson, cofounder of consultancy Metaforce and adjunct associate professor New York University’s Stern School of Business. “Not only does the Britannica brand name mean nothing to younger people, the word encyclopedia means nothing. Clearly, they need to do some reimagining of their business model.”

Adamson gives the company credit for getting creative by funneling its intellectual reputation into a voice-activated experience that will no doubt speak to kids far better than a set of books on a shelf can. But he noted that, by going the animated route with an adventure that is, for all intents and purposes, a game, they’re also competing with any number of highly sophisticated, deep-pocketed developers who are creating very slick products. Kids, he pointed out, are busy playing Fortnite.

In addition, because it’s in the information business, Britannica can’t get around the presupposition that meticulously researched historical content is still a commodity that’s valued by the public. As Adamson pointed out, for many people “‘history’ is Game of Thrones.”

For Britannica, there’s nothing to do but wait and see how Guardians of History flies. Bond—who pointed out that a digital adventure for kids is meant to augment, not replace, the looking up of reference information—remains optimistic. “We want to bring an educational experience that’s fun and whimsical—and has a sense of credibility,” he said. “Britannica can deliver a unique experience and the joy of learning in a different way.”

@UpperEastRob Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.