The dance between the long tail and the short head

When distribution is scarce, the hits are powerful indeed.

AM Top 40 radio meant that if you made that list of 40 hits, you were going to sell a huge number, and if you didn’t, you were gone.

Giant movie screens meant a few movies could play for months and own the market.

Limited independent bookstores kept a hit on the bestseller list for up to a year.

And then, when the long tail arrives, there’s a riot of variety, with most of the available offerings selling few indeed (most videos on YouTube have fewer than 25 views) but the ones on the shoulders do far better than they ever would before. This happened to movies in the 1990s when the number of screens multiplied, and to cable TV when the premium networks were okay with 3 million viewers for Mad Men.

Excited creators start to imagine infinity. There will be room for an unlimited number of Kindle books or YouTube videos or Netflix shows…

And that’s when the pendulum starts to oscillate a bit.

Because the media business remains a business, and it’s largely built on attention, and attention is scarce and it’s hard to scale.

So instead of an infinite number of successful titles, the market begins to segment. Instead of one blockbuster movie like Jaws that owns the summer for an entire nation, there are multiple markets, multiple audiences. But within those segments, there are still hits. Short heads built on multiple long tails.

Yes, having the most popular podcast in the world is quite valuable. But having the most popular podcast for a particular audience is valuable as well.

And we continue to segment for as long as the attention can be lumped together in valuable ways.

But, at the same time, we live in community, and we have a thirst for the big hit, the one that ‘everyone’ is talking about.

The disconnect occurs when producers and creators try to average things out and dumb things down, hoping for the big hit that won’t come. Or overspend to get there. The opportunity lies in finding a viable audience and matching the project’s focus and budget to the people who truly want it.

And the dance continues.