The Long Tail: The Island of Misfit Hits

One of the great things about graduate school, is I am constantly introduced to such interesting material, that I’m always reading, learning, following, and understanding more about marketing and communication. One such topic is consumer behavior. Why do we buy what we buy? How does advertising affect that? And what can marketers do to more efficiently communicate with stakeholders?

I’ve come across the topic of the The Long Tail (thanks to my Strategic Communication class) This has really piqued my interest. It’s the idea that in this new era of unlimited digital opportunities, content is unlimited as well. No longer do the “hits” or the “best-sellers” completely dominate the market. There is a wide swath of people who purchase, stream, download, read, etc. all the other “misses.”

See Chris Anderson’s take on this: The Long Tail.

I haven’t followed through on this extensively, but plan to do so because it raises an interesting point about consumer behavior:

“Unlimited selection is revealing truths about what consumers want and how they want to get it in service after service, from DVDs at Netflix to music videos on Yahoo! Launch to songs in the iTunes Music Store and Rhapsody. People are going deep into the catalog, down the long, long list of available titles, far past what’s available at Blockbuster Video, Tower Records, and Barnes & Noble. And the more they find, the more they like. As they wander further from the beaten path, they discover their taste is not as mainstream as they thought (or as they had been led to believe by marketing, a lack of alternatives, and a hit-driven culture).

What’s really amazing about the Long Tail is the sheer size of it. Combine enough non-hits on the Long Tail and you’ve got a market bigger than the hits. Take books: The average Barnes & Noble carries 130,000 titles. Yet more than half of Amazon’s book sales come from outside its top 130,000 titles. Consider the implication: If the Amazon statistics are any guide, the market for books that are not even sold in the average bookstore is larger than the market for those that are (see “Anatomy of the Long Tail“). In other words, the potential book market may be twice as big as it appears to be, if only we can get over the economics of scarcity. Venture capitalist and former music industry consultant Kevin Laws puts it this way: “The biggest money is in the smallest sales.”

The Long Tail Graphic, Chris Anderson

So this raises the question of how prolific the Long Tail is. Is it limited to marketing, social media, entertainment, etc.? Or is there a market for say, the Long Tail of rental cars? or collectibles? or fashion? And how can this relate to marketers deciding on tactics to attract more customers? Might have to add this book to my Christmas list to find out more.