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2/23/2005
01:35 PM
Mitch Wagner
Mitch Wagner
Commentary
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Tale Of The Long Tail

It's either a revolutionary economic force, or a bunch of horse hooey, or an old idea with new legs.

The "Long Tail" is either (a) the current ongoing revolution that will turn the economy on its head and change our way of life or (b) the latest pseudo-intellectual tripe being promoted by the self-important self-appointed intelligentsia of the Internet.

I vote for (c) myself: It's a fascinating transformation in commerce whose latest phase is driven by the Internet, but whose tail nonetheless reaches back 150 years. Or more.

What is the Long Tail? The phrase refers to the right side of the standard demand curve. Check out the illustration on the Long Tail blog.

The left (red) part of the curve contains the blockbuster bestsellers: "Titanic," "Desperate Housewives," Coca-Cola, Microsoft Windows, and Converse All-Star Sneakers.

The right (yellow) side of the curve is the long tail. It represents everything that isn't a bestseller. It's the TV shows, soft drinks, and consumer products with small, but devoted, followings.

Each of those niche products generates trivial sales compared with any individual bestselling product. But the total market share of all niche products, taken together, is as big as, or bigger than, the market share of the few big hits. The long tail stretches potentially endlessly to the right.

For more information, check out the blog, the definition on the blog, the definition on Wikipedia, and the Wired article by Chris Anderson that started it all.

The Long Tail is nothing new, and it's always been enabled by the best technology of the day. The first department stores opened in the mid-19th century, providing customers with a broad selection of products, shipped to the store by the new technology of railroads. The first true supermarket was King Kullen, opened in 1930, in New York. Founder Michael Cullen summed up the philosophy of the Long Tail with his six-word slogan: "Pile it high. Sell it low."

Much later, when direct marketing took off in the 1980s, it was driven by the availability of cheap shipping, fax technology and phone banks for customers to conveniently send in orders, and general-purpose credit cards like Visa and MasterCard, which enabled consumers to pay for catalog purchases cheaply.

The Long Tail has been entwined with the history of the Internet from the very beginning. Longtime followers of e-commerce will remember a time back in 1994 when it seemed like there was a lot of hype about e-commerce, but only two merchants actually on the Internet selling stuff. And they both sold niche products: HotHotHot.com, which sells hot sauce, and the Vermont Teddy Bear Co. You could get anything you wanted on the Internet, so long as what you wanted was hot sauce or a personalized teddy bear.

Two of the biggest successes on the Internet made their bones in the Long Tail, selling niche products: eBay, which sells niche products including collectible lunchboxes,1960s-era toys, and lamps made from Popsicle sticks.

Google is a more recent success story of the Long Tail. It has built its business on handling obscure searches well. The most popular search terms on Google last year included "Britney Spears," "Paris Hilton," and "Christina Aguilera." Any decent search engine will give you plenty of good results on those search terms. But how many will give you good results on, say, Etruscan pottery? Google will, and that's key to Google's ultimate success.

We base our search-engine loyalty not on who does the best with the easy searches, but with the obscure ones. We all make obscure searches, looking up medical conditions, niche products, and obscure facts — it's just that we all make different obscure searches. That's what makes them obscure.

Google is aware of the Long Tail, and aware that the concept is key to its strategy. In its first analyst briefing as a public company early this month, CEO Eric Schmidt referenced the Long Tail. The San Jose Mercury News reported:

Schmidt is a fan of a concept, popularized in a Wired magazine article last year, called the "long tail," which says that a large number of products with low sales volume can collectively make up a sizable market.

For Google, the long tail includes the tens of thousands of businesses not being served by conventional means of advertising. Schmidt believes Google has an opportunity to appeal to those businesses by offering them the ability to create highly targeted ad campaigns.

The Long Tail is also a key reason for the success of the original Napster and other illegal file-sharing services. Sure, it was nice that the stuff you got on those services was free, but people who've shelled out $1,000 for a PC and $50/mo. for a broadband Internet connection aren't going to quiver at paying a little bit more for content. The key to the success of Napster — and follow-up file-sharing services — is the selection. Most of the services carry the popular music (and, later, video), but the best services are the ones that offer obscure media, media that you simply can't find elsewhere. Legal music download services are struggling to catch up.

TechCentralStation gives a couple of more examples:

For example, your local Borders is likely to have, say, Miles Davis' Kind of Blue, Porgy and Bess, and a few of his other titles available on CD. Amazon has virtually every CD that he's played on that's currently in print (or available used) as well as almost every disc released by his myriad sidemen. (And if some of their albums aren't available on CD, they're likely to pop up in LP form on eBay from time to time.)

Journalist Chris Anderson, who coined the phrase "the long tail" notes that because Netflix doesn't have to worry about shoving as many bestsellers into a limited store space as Blockbuster does, he's helped pump new life into documentaries that had brief theater runs, or shorter exposures on television.

The TechCentralStation article has some more fascinating bits on the Long Tail, including how blogging fits in and how the phenomenon relates to the decline of TV networks: "It's not just television entertainers and their audiences that are turned upside down by the growing 'demassification' of the media. The economist Thomas Sowell noted last year that during Tom Brokaw's long tenure as NBC News anchorman, he took his show from last place among the big three broadcast networks to number one. But he had more viewers when he was in the cellar, more than 20 years ago, than he had in first place this year when he retired, because fewer people now watch NBC, ABC, or CBS News. First is not always biggest if the pie has shrunk."

The roots of the Long Tail are deep, but the trend is causing social change. We're no longer in a mass-produced society, where everybody wears the same clothes, listens to the same music, and watches the same three TV networks. We're seeing the end of mass culture.

That's what proponents of the Long Tail say. But is it true? Throughout the 20th Century, we saw distribution costs going down. This should have resulted in a proliferation of small businesses, but the opposite happened: domination of media by big companies, domination of the suburban landscape by big corporate franchises. Every mall in America has the same darn stores in it, every highway has a Denny's, McDonald's, and KFC. Every town has a couple of hundred movie screens in it, but they're all showing one of the same dozen or so movies.

Cable TV offers us hundreds of channels, but they all seem to be showing the same programs. Half of them are showing cop procedurals, and half of those are "Law and Order" reruns.

So will the 21st Century really see the end to mass-market culture? Or will it just bring us more of the same uniformity: more Starbucks, more Outback Steakhouses, more reality TV, more bare-midriffed girl pop stars? Write and let us know. We'll publish the best of your letters.

Mitch Wagner is TechWeb Pipelines' senior editor.

The TechWeb Spin TechWeb's editors are busy assigning and editing and linking and otherwise creating the content you see on TechWeb.com and the Pipeline sites, but we wanted the chance to tell you what we see and what we think about it directly. So, each week, The TechWeb Spin will bring you the informed insight and unique perspective of a different TechWeb editor: Fredric Paul, Scot Finnie, Tim Moran, Stuart Glascock, Mitch Wagner, and Cora Nucci. We hope you like it, and even if you don't We hope you like it, and even if you don't, we hope you take the time to tell us what you think about it. Check out The TechWeb Spin Archive.

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