For many industries, providing digital content on physical devices like USB thumb drives is proving to be a significant, untapped profit center. With the near-instantaneous distribution of digital content possible through downloads and streaming services, the role of physical media such as CDs and DVDs that reigned supreme for decades has largely been diminished. 

However, for industries that deal in intellectual or proprietary content such as software, training, educational, motivational, faith-based or how-to materials, providing a physical device that can be seen, touched, and – more importantly – owned, still has tremendous value. 

In fact, supplementing downloads with physical media back-ups can be a lucrative potential revenue source, particularly for companies that take advantage of on-demand fulfillment services that manage the entire transaction seamlessly with little, to no, inventory requirements.

Physical media has had its share of setbacks, to be sure. Perhaps the biggest blow was the elimination of the CD/DVD drive from many PCs and laptops in an effort to reduce overall size and weight. The proliferation of Smartphones and other devices have further cemented user’s reliance and acceptance on downloads and streaming for content delivery.

Yet there are many benefits to physical media beyond its primary purpose as a backup in the event of data loss or corruption, or for installing on other devices or new computers. Physical media is particularly useful if the content size is extremely large, customers are behind on their technical knowledge or if the end user has limited or no internet connectivity. 

Providing only a digital download also eliminates a prime branding opportunity. Physical media can be printed with a company logo and mailed in specially designed packaging that reinforces a corporate brand. In this way, a physical product used over time can have a long-lasting impression, while a digital download is fleeting.

According to Kevin Tuck of the Australian-based Fun Music Company, an ecommerce site that sells training materials to music teachers, customers still prefer the thrill and security of receiving a physical product.

Although numerous downloads are available through the site, music teachers regularly opt to pay an additional $50 to receive a physical backup as well. 

“Customers love the instantaneous nature of a download, but they also love the experience of getting something physical in the mail, plugging it into their computer, and keeping it on their shelf.  It feels more like a real product to them,” he says.

Despite reports of the demise of CDs and DVDs, physical media is not dead. 

According to Raj Barman of Acutrack, a 25-year old media reproduction and fulfillment company that was founded in the era of floppy disks, a USB flash drive is the ideal physical device for distributing content that can be operated off many platforms. USB flash drives, also known as “thumb drives,” are small, portable, electronic memory devices that resemble small plastic sticks or keychains. They use standard USB connections that easily connect and read on almost all personal computers and laptops.

Available in a variety of molded plastic shapes and colors, a single USB thumb drive can hold a virtual library of digital content.  Whereas a standard DVD stores up to 4.7 gigabyte, a USB drive can hold up to 128 gigabytes – equivalent to 32 DVDs. Barman is quick to point out that USB drives used for content distribution should not be confused with marketing swag, where inexpensive, low quality devices are screen-printed with a company logo and given away as storage devices for files, photos, etc.

For companies distributing digital content, “they want a consistent product throughout, so that there are no surprises and it works every time,” says Barman.

According to Barman, more technologically advanced providers can not only deliver high quality drives, but also program it to protect companies from pirating or malicious tampering of their content.  This includes, among other options, sophisticated security, write and copy protections that can be tailored to the requirements of each customer. Write protection means the consumer cannot alter, add, delete or remove a file – accidentally or otherwise – from the USB drive.  A write-protected USB is safer as it cannot be infected by any viruses or other malicious activity.

Protecting Intellectual Property

Copy protection allows a company to share its intellectual property without risk of Internet theft, reproduction or illegal distribution.  With this level of protection, users can access content from the flash drive, but cannot copy, print, take screenshots or otherwise distribute the material with permission. Files can even be set to expire at a specific date and time, ideal for subscription-based applications.  Administrator rights are not required and nothing is installed on the host computer, which is ideal for large corporations and government agencies.

“Copy protection is important for those that sell content in the form of videos or documents and do not want it illegally shared or uploaded to sites such as YouTube, where anyone can access it,” says Barman. “This can severely undercut the market for a product and take a bite out of the profits.”

Aside from the technological advantages of the drives ,Acutrack says that creative, personalized packaging added a powerful branding aspect. For example, if Fun Music Company intends to use a USB for a product worth several hundred dollars, they can package it in a hip metal tin with attractive printing on the exterior. Upon delivery, it makes a lasting impression and becomes a keepsake, as well as an educational resource. On the other hand, if the company is sending a free bonus, the thumb drive can be shipped in an economical cardboard mailer, he added.

Tuck also stresses the importance of partnering with a company that can simplify and manage the process without a lot of attention.  These services provide on-demand production through to fulfillment.

As its name implies, “on demand” reproduction means the device is created upon placement of the order, although some applications may require holding a small amount of inventory. This greatly reduces any upfront costs.

In addition to copying the content to the USB thumb drive, companies are able to tie into existing ecommerce engines to automate the process of fulfilling the order, with tracking. Acutrack, for example, is compatible with more than 40 shopping cart technologies.

For more information, visit