There it is again

Chris Anderson of Wired had the insight and guts to discover one of the two most important natural laws of the Net, give it a name, explain it and teach it to the rest of us. The Long Tail is a natural law, the sort of thing that just keeps showing up. Every time I crunch a set of numbers, every time I examine something happening online, I see it again.

(The other one? Metcalfe’s Law, which explains the network effect. It’s sort of like the long tail, but flipped in the mirror. The more people who connect to a network, the more it’s worth–squared. Facebook and fax machines are both network effect businesses).

A lot of people don’t seem to understand a key implication of the long tail: Given the choice, it’s better to make a hit.

If you have a choice of cutting a top 10 record or making a track of Jamaican polka music for iTunes, go for the hit.

If you have a choice between being on page 30 of the Google results for "Bolivian sushi" or the number one match for "buy life insurance", go for the latter. No brainer.

The problem, of course, is that you don’t have a choice. You can give the hit a shot, but it’s awfully crowded at that end of the curve.

The implications of the long tail have nothing to do with this false choice. What it explains in a powerful but subtle way is:

  1. Collecting many many products among the tail permits you to amalgamate a market that may be just as big or bigger than the short head. But you need a lot of them. Squidoo is my proof–a profitable site with no real short head. So are eBay and YouTube and dozens of other places. Which is going to be worth more in ten years: the leaky boat of a network TV franchise or the relentlessly growing collection of long tail video at YouTube?
  2. Within the long tail, there are micro long tails. The long tail permits entirely new micro-markets to emerge (exercise clothing, for example) and within that market there are hits and then the tail. It’s sort of a fractal curve of new markets living within markets. (Simple example: Amazon enabled an entire eco-system of books on presentations and graphics to emerge).

Aside: In the last few weeks, I’ve gotten a ton of email about an article in the Harvard Business Review and a companion slash piece in Slate about the Tail. A professor tried to poke some holes, and in my opinion, missed the entire point. The long tail is so clearly a force that the real work is in refining the definitions and expectations of those that are affected by it.