I used to buy ebooks from Amazon but now I read almost exclusively on Oyster Books. Years ago I subscribed to a bunch of magazines and now I read all but one of them through Next Issue (The Week is the only exception). It wasn’t that long ago that I bought CDs and music tracks but now I’m mostly streaming through Spotify.
Since I’ve wholeheartedly embraced the content rental model, what’s preventing me from dumping Oyster for Scribd, Next Issue for Zinio or Spotify for Rdio?
The answer is “almost nothing.” All of these rental services face the enormous challenge of building customer loyalty. Since I don’t own the content and I’m on a month-to-month agreement with them, I can easily leave at any time. And when I switch, I leave almost nothing behind.
Contrast that with the likes of Amazon, where they focus on walled gardens and making it hard to leave. If you’ve built a large Kindle ebook library you probably don’t want to abandon it for another retailer and another reading app, particularly since you can’t bring your old books with you.
You might figure this is no big deal as customers who leave for a similar service will be offset by ones who go the other direction and switch from the competition. As with pretty much any business today though, it’s generally far more profitable to maintain an existing customer than it is to acquire a new one.
So how will these rental services deal with this? The most obvious answer is to expand their catalogs. But they’re all doing that and we’ll eventually reach a point of equilibrium where catalogs are almost identical between the services. Publisher exclusives could impact this, of course, but I’d like to think publishers learned their lessons from walled gardens and won’t make a similar mistake with exclusive distribution deals.
Another way rental services can distinguish themselves is to create more unique features in their apps. The competition will likely copy those features though, so any gains here will be short-lived.
Lower pricing isn’t an option either as that can be quickly copied and is nothing more than a dangerous race to the bottom.
How will this all play out? As much as I hate to admit it, I think all of this only further strengthens Amazon’s position. Amazon specializes in customer loyalty. That’s why so many of us first look to Amazon when buying almost everything these days. They’re also terrific at linking services together. Look at how Amazon Prime has evolved from free two-day shipping to now include Prime Photos, Prime Music and the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library. Critics will argue that none of these add-ons are as good as what consumers can find through other competitors; the difference is Amazon offers them for free, as part of Prime, and you can bet these add-ons will continue to improve over time. Lastly, when it comes to low prices and losing money, well, Amazon is the king.
The lesson here is that while consumers will continue flocking to the rental model, the lack of customer loyalty means the leaders today may not even be relevant tomorrow.