A Short Story of The Long Tail

Image courtesy of Robert Nash via Wikimedia Commons

Getting a better understanding of The Long Tail has helped inspire me to seek my own place in the niche market economy, and since I know many of you are also small business owners and supporters, I hope this summary will help you as well. The Long Tail by Chris Anderson describes how internet, database and search engine technologies have combined with human power to access niche markets in a way that was impossible previously, where mega-hit driven products competed for limited, expensive shelf space. Using Amazon, iTunes, Netflix and Zappos as the main exhibits, Anderson describes how each has profited in niche markets by using a combination of technology and community.

Short Head, Long Tail

Image courtesy of Hay Kranen via Wikimedia Commons

The concept of the long tail is illustrated by this graph, which began a humble slide in one of Anderson’s presentations. The short head at the far left of the graph is where only the top selling products get precious shelf space in brick and mortar stores. But with a virtual catalog such as Amazon’s, the vast majority of non-hit products – the long tail of the graph – become available to the shopper who may be looking for other qualities than popularity. In the case of music, through iTunes, Amazon, Rhapsody and other services, thousands of artists who would never have had a spot on the old Tower Records shelves are given equal footing in the online catalog. In the case of movies, Netflix does the same to Blockbuster, beating the convenience of a brick and mortar location with a deep catalog of movies that Blockbuster cannot afford to display on a shelf. The long tail market is now moving beyond media to many industries, where portable, online distribution on virtual shelves allows access to every conceivable product, if you only can find them. That is where filters come in.

The Great Filter

As search technology has improved with Google, customers in untold niches along the tail have been  given access to goods, services, markets and knowledge. We are all familiar with searching, but Anderson’s emphasis on search more as a filter rather than a finder provided me with a new perspective. Keeping out the noise from the search results to leave only the most relevant is a mighty task, but Google has achieved that and upped the level of search engine performance. Now you can be sure to search with a greater chance than ever of finding your niche, or marketing your niche in the case of the business owner. Further, as permission based preference searching becomes more common and trusted, such as suggestion lists at Amazon, Zappos and Netflix, niche goods and services are marketed and delivered based on a real demand through word of mouth, reviews and recommendations. But for recommendations, you need a community.

Powered By The People

Photo by Tara Ward, used with permission

This is where the book really got interesting for me, as it had been written while MySpace was still fledgling and Facebook barely on the map. However Anderson’s prediction that products and services will live and die on reviews and feedback has been amplified on the social internet and shows no signs of slowing down. From the rating systems of the pioneers Amazon and Zappos to a plethora of up and coming review services in every field, comments and reviews are a key element to separating the gems from the rubble.

It’s the people power of the long tail that intrigues me most because it treats customers as more than consumers and makes them active participants in the business cycle. It uses technology to create a new market place driven by demand and gives fair access to those willing to learn how to use the tools. It is counter to the culture of lowest cost and most popular, and benefits businesses and customers who value quality services and customer loyalty.

How do you participate in the long tail economy? These days it’s almost hard not to. Do you buy products based on reviews? Do you leave reviews? Do you recommend services by word of mouth, status update or tweets? Are you finding a niche and making your own business?

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About Mike Ward

Connecting the digital to the local - website management, social media and event promotion.
This entry was posted in music, small business, social media. Bookmark the permalink.

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