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The Long Tail

Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More (2006) examines the new market of products, services and information that the Internet has made widely available. Our culture has increasingly moved online. Businesses that take advantage of digital technologies, which enable the sale of a much wider inventory than physical retail stores do, are doing incredibly well. For example, Amazon and eBay save themselves the distribution costs of physically storing and shipping goods by having the people who sell products through their site do so. Their inventory is dispersed, while information-based goods such as music and movies require no physical storage or shipment at all.

What the virtual storefront allows, Anderson writes, is for us to sell an enormous array of niche products. This was never possible with the limited space in retail stores. We can avoid the bottleneck of selling only what is predicted to be most popular, and just sell everything.

All the stuff that couldn’t have been sold in-store, seen in a movie theater, played on the radio, etc. can now be accessed online. And it can be accessed wherever we are, whether we’re geographically distanced from storefronts or searching for information and goods on the go. This book made me aware that my client should maximize web and mobile distribution of its message to make sure it’s available everywhere.

This accessibility is creating demand – a huge amount of demand. It’s not that one niche product will necessarily have an enormous customer base, but the aggregated bulk of these products adds up to a much greater demand than there is for the most popular “hits” and goods. Sometimes, web user-generated content does go viral, but this often happens through active promotion. Though it’s not about viral Internet phenomena, specifically, Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point is a great resource on the basics of social epidemics.

Consumers are no longer limited to the goods that hit-makers like Hollywood and big music labels push out to them. It’s becoming more and more evident that people have unique tastes, and therefore want unique goods, whether that’s 1970s horror film or musical subgenres like breakbeat hardcore.

Anderson talks about three major forces that have made this possible – the democratization of the tools of production, the democratization of the tools of distribution, and the connection of supply and demand via filters. For example, most of us now have access to the technologies needed to record a song or a short video, and upload it to YouTube. Then, filters such as search engines and recommendations for similar content direct web users to and between our creations.

These filters are necessary because although it’s now more likely that people will find the products or information they want, the long tail also includes a great mass of things they don’t want. Filters allow us to sort through everything so it isn’t overwhelming. They guide us deeper into niche content, to both find what we are looking for and discover new items of interest.

They use actual data from user click paths to measure behavior, where traditional marketing relied simply on predictions of consumer behavior that often led to business mistakes. Furthermore, while goods in physical retail stores can only be organized in one way, people can navigate the long tail of the web in a variety of ways. For example, web radios categorize music by artist, genre, user playlists, click path behavioral analysis, and other means.

Here, SEO (search engine optimization) and appropriate tagging of online content are of utmost importance for increasing visibility. My client can take advantage of this by integrating keywords into website code, and coordinating with similar campaigns and relevant blogs to increase inbound links.

All of this can increase the likelihood that web users will arrive at the campaign amidst the highly competitive field of information on the Internet. And when they get to the campaign web pages, Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think is an excellent resource on how to make websites user-friendly and effective in generating action.

Along with the expanded market for niche products, marketing itself is becoming fragmented. Companies are no longer as in control of their image. The Internet is taking us back to an earlier time when word of mouth, not public relations departments, dominated product and brand perception. As emphasized in Brian Solis’ Engage!, this is regularly occurring through social media sites like blogs and Twitter. Companies need to pay attention and respond to the online community, and Anderson gives various examples of successes and failures in this arena.

My client also needs to monitor conversations that are taking place online to determine the best way to contribute, and to get influential web users interested in and talking about it. In The User is Always Right, Steve Mulder and Ziv Yaar demonstrate the importance of developing online personas to predict how the largest segments of your audience will think. We can plan for optimal click paths and how we will align our needs with theirs, but ultimately we need to measure user behavior and refine our tools – all made possible through Internet technologies like Google Analytics.

Some things have changed since Anderson’s book was published. For example, as he predicted, Netflix’s reach is no longer limited by mail-exchange of DVDs. It’s now all digitized, and its inventory is immediately accessible.

This is what he describes as the elimination of production costs by selling content that exists as information bits instead of physical atoms. This article in the Huffington Post describes the amazing possibilities of 3D printing and the “democratizing of manufacturing,” which Anderson briefly discusses.

The central point of Anderson’s book is that we as consumers tend to inaccurately perceive cultural conventions as choice. This explains the wider popularity of limited-variety goods such as Hollywood hits, print newspapers and top-brand kitchen appliances prior to the advent of the Internet. Now that we know there is so much more available and have access to it, we no longer accept the status quo of lowest common denominator goods, services and information. The long tail is everywhere, even in search keywords.

We seek something different, and what each of us seeks is unique. Rather than try and predict what will be popular, Internet-based companies and organizations can maximize their business or information transactions by making everything available. For my client, this means framing its message in ways that are targeted to different niche audiences, rather than pushing out a one-size-fits-most message to all web platforms.

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