Selling To The Long Tail Doesn't Mean You Ignore The Hits

from the understanding-business-models dept

There's an interesting new article in the Harvard Business Review that looks to challenge Chris Anderson's well-known theory of "the long tail." In it, a Harvard professor, Anita Elberse, talks about how hits still make a lot of money, and the idea that all the money is now over in the long tail doesn't seem supported by reality. Chris himself makes some very good points in response, noting that some of this depends very much on where you "draw the line" between the hits and the tail. Since there's a sort of "fat middle," small changes in where you draw the line of what counts in which category can have a big impact. Chris makes a compelling argument that Elberse chose to draw the line in the wrong spot. He uses the inventory of various brick-and-mortar stores to determine where the line should be drawn, rather than at the somewhat arbitrary 10% and 1% lines that Elberse used.

However, I'd like to argue from a different angle as to why the HBR piece is missing the point. I don't think that anyone ever said that you completely ignore the hits. Perhaps it's a problem of the name "the long tail" but it starts to make people focus all the way at the end of the tail -- the part that is the least profitable. It's the point where only one copy of something is sold every so often. The companies that suddenly announced they were going to focus on the long tail seemed to think that you focus only on that tip at the end. That was not the point at all. You don't ignore the hits -- you just recognize that with infinite shelf space, you can now supply much more beyond the hits -- and that aggregate amount can add up to a substantial sum that no store with limited shelf-space can match. So, Elberse is completely correct in suggesting that companies don't just focus on the tail end of the tail -- but anyone who did so in the first place was misinterpreting the point of the long tail concept.

Even more to the point is that the concept of the long tail changes the shape of the market. When shelf space was limited, it made it that much more difficult to even get a creative work produced at all. You had to be able to convince someone that your work would make it into the "hits" category, and then get them to finance the creation of the work. And, anything that didn't actually become a hit fell off the chart completely. You basically had a bimodal distribution of content: the hits that sold, and the crap that didn't and was no longer available. But there was a hidden third category that most people didn't think of: the stuff that didn't get created at all because it wouldn't sell enough alone to justify it.

Yet, with the combination of cheaper tools for content creation, combined with cheaper distribution tools and infinite shelf space, that third "hidden" category started to exist in the open, where it was invisible before. And, on top of that, many of the works that fell into the "crap" end of the old model, could migrate into the long tail and make enough sales to be decent. But the point remains that it spread out the distribution, made it possible for much more content to both be created and sold -- and there are plenty of companies capitalizing on that. That doesn't mean that the hits go away or that the long tail concept doesn't make sense. It just means that you don't focus on the long tail by only focusing on the crap end of the long tail -- but on the entire distribution.

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  1. icon
    Mike (profile), 30 Jun 2008 @ 10:00am

    Re: "Crap"?

    Not exactly. I'd argue another way actually, in that a big problem with the industry has been that the crap was often the stuff that did sell, while some quality work was left ignored.

    That's a good point... I was basically using "crap" facetiously, but your point is one that should be highlighted as well...

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