Thinking about the Long Tail (part 1)

Chris Anderson wrote a brilliant article, and was clever enough to post it as a ChangeThis manifesto: ChangeThis :: The Long Tail.

I can’t stop thinking about it, but in ways that are different than his original riff.

His point (for which he has data!) is that once we eliminate artificial bottlenecks like shelf space and the spectrum restrictions, the mass market effect drops off very quickly.

Give people 1,000 channels to watch, and they won’t all watch the same thing.
Give people 1,000,000 books to read, and they won’t all want to read a bestseller.

Yes, people read the DaVinci Code because everyone else is. Yes, people watch The Apprentice for the very same reason. But no, this effect isn’t as pervasive as most of us would believe.

Joe Krause (co-founder of Excite) jumped on the bandwagon with this insightful post about what he saw there: Link: Bnoopy: The long tail of software. Millions of Markets of Dozens. His data shows that 3% of the searches were about the same handful of things… and that the other 97% were all spread out.

Apple’s iTunes store has the same effect at work. They’ve sold more than a million different songs.

So, we see that:
1. hits aren’t what they used to be. Hit TV shows, hit music, hit books–it’s impossible to get the volume you could get 20 years ago in almost any field (even business to business stuff like consulting).

2. the choices are wider than ever before and the pickins for each producer are slimmer than ever.

Great. So what to do about this?

Well, unmentioned in these posts as far as I can tell is this:

It’s cheaper than ever (by an order of magnitude) to make a product and bring it to market.

Which means your hits can be smaller.
Which means you can make more variety.

So, when Coke launches Water Salad beverage in Japan, it doesn’t have to be a New Coke sized hit (or miss) in order to succeed. You can have a blog with 1,000 loyal readers and do just fine, thanks very much, on an ROI basis.

Our instinct is to push, to pull strings, to advertise, to hustle, to do whatever it takes to get to that top 3%. Hey, if you can write the Da Vinci Code, more power to you.

The better path, though, is to figure out how to be:
and low cost

enough to be quite happy with a whole bunch of long tail scraps. A dollar here and a dollar there and soon, it all adds up.

This is my best advice if you have a radio station, a supermarket, an insurance agency or run Apple computer.

PS Danny Sullivan has a nice piece on this. Link: Search’s Long Tail.