The Long Tail is a concept that was set forth in 2004 by Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of Wired, which was then turned into a 2006 book. In short, the idea is that because of the Internet and it’s infinitely wide and incredibly low-cost distribution capabilities, the big “hits” of popular culture (be they movies, music, books, etc.) are no longer the only things that will make money. Now, the “misses” will also be money-makers.
But a new article by Anita Elberse just published in the Harvard Business Review called “Should you Invest in The Long Tail“ is taking a closer look at the theory and suggesting that businesses really shouldn’t shift their promotional dollars to the long tail – and instead should stick to promoting the winners. She comes to this conclusion after determining that the tail, although long, is very flat and accounting for very few sales, and typically less satisfied consumers.
This is a very interesting debate, and one that should be followed by anyone who is involved in marketing or advertising online. Anderson and Elberse have taken a great deal of time looking at data and doing analysis on this concept, but here are some thoughts based on reading the articles.
- Anderson seems to be focusing on the fact that online retailers like Amazon.com will begin selling a lot of items in the long tail. Whether or not it’s true is practically irrelevant for the vast number of online businesses. Most businesses don’t have the reach of Amazon.com and are targeted at a much smaller audience. The people who run those businesses know that 80% of their business comes from the top 20% of their clients and customers - so they will continue to focus their attention – both time and money – on reaching those clients/customers. Now they have Elberse’s data to back them up.
- People buy stuff that other people like. This is why user recommendations (such as those on Yelp or TripAdvisor) are so popular, and why the head of the tail keeps growing in popularity. People like to have a choice, but when their time is limited, they typically will go with the easier choice. And it’s easy to choose something that has been recommended by someone they trust – or an online audience of their peers.
- The long tail does exist and consumers are benefiting from more choice – but the tail isn’t a place that any musician or artist or blog or business wants to be. And may not be a place where money can be made. According to the data collected by Elberse and cited by Anderson, “In music, of the 2.4 million digital tracks sold in 2007 in the US (most of them through iTunes) 24% sold only one copy and 91% sold fewer than 100 copies.” 100 copies sold through iTunes (at $.99 each) isn’t even enough money to buy a new guitar.
Popularity: unranked [?]