A New Look at the Long Tail

http://harvardbusinessonline.hbsp.harvard.edu/b01/en/images/hbr/hbrsa/current/0807/R0807H_A.gifEarlier this summer, Anita Elberse published a review of the Long Tail theory in the Harvard Business Review. Elberse concludes that:

Although no one disputes the lengthening of the tail (clearly, more obscure products are being made available for purchase every day), the tail is likely to be extremely flat and populated by titles that are mostly a diversion for consumers whose appetite for true blockbusters continues to grow. It is therefore highly disputable that much money can be made in the tail. In sales of both videos and recorded music—in many ways the perfect products to test the long-tail theory—we see that hits are and probably will remain dominant.

While a response from Chris Anderson debates the meaning of “head” and “tail,” Elberse reiterates her conclusion that while the tail has certainly grown, it remains very flat and that sales have become even more (relatively) concentrated in the head. She goes on to give some advice to producers and retailers, some of which is particularly interesting to media companies.

“Don’t radically alter blockbuster resource-allocation or product-portfolio management strategies. A few winners will still go a long way—probably even further than before.” While the cost to distribute content online is very low, the cost to produce that content usually is not. This, of course, is why we see media companies hoping that user generated content will fill out their long tail. This also argues for obtaining the technological capability to aggregate obscure content on the fly.

If one considers media companies to be information retailers, Elberse’s more interesting advice is that which she gives to retailers, building off of her finding that heavier customers are more active in the tail, while lighter customers stay mostly in the head.

“If the goal is to cater to your heavy customers, broaden your assortment with more niche products.” An obvious piece of advice based on the research, but the corollary shows up as, “Acquire and manage customers by using your most popular products.” Now think of the local news site. For the light news consumer, the most popular content tends to be major news stories. We see this expressed in focus group comments like, “I want to know enough to be able to discuss major events with friends.” These major stories, however, are typically national and international news, not local. The implication is to use these stories to draw in your audience while then marketing the full breadth of content throughout the site. The real question is can major local stories be used to draw in the light reader? Are there enough local stories the light reader would consider major?

Finally, Sean X. Cummings at iMedia makes an interesting point about Elberse’s work when he notes that she doesn’t consider the “phenomenon of choice:”

What gets people in the door is often not what they eventually buy. Product differentiation is often key in consumer choice. Sexy products sell the less attractive and less expensive ones.

Noting that a large slice of Campbell’s Soup sales come from Cream of Mushroom and Tomato, he says that it’s the huge swath of red and white cans in the grocery aisle that draws the consumer in.

It comes back to marketing that breadth of content.

One thought on “A New Look at the Long Tail

  1. Mark…I think some of what is missing from the long tail discussion is the power of choice from the consumer. Long tail markets are digital in nature or aggregated from many sources. Most websites miss the search, filter, personalize part of the long tail. For example, me?…I have no interest in Falco – Rock Me Amadeus, but I have a lot of interest in extended mixes of the song…from DJ’s in NY…etc, where probably 99.9% of others don’t care. Same with online content..it is digital, long tail for sure but the value is in the details of the consumer power…not the control and decisions of the editor, producer, store owner, whom ever drives availability. I still think LT is untapped…

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