(Not so) Long Tail.

Written by Herra Vuorensola on Saturday, December 27th, 2008

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In 2004, a man named Chris Anderson came up with a theory he was calling The Long Tail. It was an idea of the future of shopping in the environment where shelf space is unlimited – that is, of course, online.

Mr. Anderson’s theory dictated that in the future people will start buying a much wider spectrum of products online, now that they are easilly available, and they don’t have to stick with blockbusters – suggesting that in the future the blockbusters would die, and the future of business would be “selling less of more”.

Anderson called this Long Tail, because, instead of the traditional way where people buy what’s popular, so you need to sell popular stuff in order to make money, consuming habits scatter through a much wider range of products along the long tail of the marketing curve (as shown on the graph on the left, stolen from New Scientist.)

Now, the latest results of the Internet shops claim that mr. Anderson was wrong: it is still the blockbusters that rule. For example, Internet music business, that was one of the great examples of the long tail in effect, shows that out of 13 million tracks only 52,000 (0,4%) cover over 80% of the sales made online, and rest remain virtually untouched. And the same phenomenon keeps on repeating through most of the products on the Internet.

As an example, let’s take HIM and Älymystö, and a music store owner who wants to sell great ambient industrial noise. According to the traditional way, he’d have to sell HIM instead of Älymystö, because that’s what people were buying and that’s what kept him paying the bills. Now, according to Long Tail theory, he takes his shop off the street and moves it to the Internet, and starts selling Älymystö and hundreds of other noise musicians in addition of HIM and The Rasmus, and he would’ve believed he’d make the same income by more people buying only few units of different noise musicians that are wonderfully available through his webstore.

But what happens, he still finds out it’s the HIM the people buy, and nobody buys any units of Älymystö or other great stuff he’d loved to sell. So no matter the fact that now there’s a much wider range of stuff available, people still stick to the big sellers instead of exploring the tail.

This is also shown with Levyvirasto’s recent statement of the inexistent Long Tail effect there: half of the small bands at Levyvirasto don’t sell any units.

According to New Scientist, who wrote an interesting article on this topic, it’s because buying blockbusters is, in addition of being easy way to get entertainment, a way to belong to a bigger group, and that’s what people are all about: belonging to a group. Sort of depressing, but not very surprising.

But I still believe that Long Tail effect does exist, it just takes a much, much longer time for it to actually work. The evolution of consuming is, in the Internet era, always thought of taking maximum of 5 years and after that everything is changed. I’m much more skeptic, and even most of the small changes will take at least 6-10 years to actualize. Also, I think there’s a problem in the marketing – people are still fed with this blockbuster mentality, and the idea of “start exploring” still means “oh, HIM has done other albums, too!”, instead of really getting people excited of digging deeper into the long tail.

12 Responses to “(Not so) Long Tail.”

  1. I have also always felt that the traditional Long Tail -thinking is a bit too neat and simplistic, but that it does definitely exist. Not in a way that would make me bet my income on it, though. Certainly someone selling only non-blockbusters can’t get the same kind of income as a shop selling the latest top 10 of music or whatever.

    The thing is to keep material available, since especially bands tend up to spring back from obscurity after their songs are featured in, say, a movie. Having a fuckton of old CD’s lying on storage for this eventuality is infeasible, but having the same albums available on an on-line store is much more so. So, essentially I don’t believe the long tail philosophy works as a steady stream of income, more like an added bonus of surprising spikes for certain products. Of course, packaging stuff well and selling bundles might help other, less known stuff get traction.

    But in any case, it’s important in my opinion to keep stuff available, although no-one is buying it at the moment. The steady everyday revenue stream obviously comes from stuff that’s on the headlines – but you never know when something is going to pop up in the charts. For this it’s important that the actual shops don’t have to pay just for the pleasure of having something on their virtual shelves, only for the items actually sold. Then it’s just the matter of paying for the hard drive space.

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