Tuesday, July 11, 2006

The Long Tail: The Book, The Movie, The Sequel...?

Marketing for Chris Anderson's new book on "The Long Tail" hits full stride today, with splashy ads in major papers and coverage through USA Today, other major outlets, and, of course, Chris' weblog. One of the more interesting takes today comes from Stephen Bryant at Publish. Bryant critiques some of John Cassidy's critique for the New Yorker magazine, in which Cassidy questions whether the Long Tail phenomenon is really going to degrade the position of large media properties in various media forms. Cassidy notes that Web aggregation has created a handful of portals that people use as "go to" sources for long tail content, creating a new system of oligopolies that dominate access to this information. But Bryant counters that it's a little different when you have infinite inventory available through such portals - inventory that's oftentimes beyond the commercial control of the portal provider.

This infinite supply of online content tends to put pressure on what Cassidy calls the economic theory of "increasing returns," in which the big get bigger and the rest fight for the scraps. Economic theories built on the assumption of limited supplies available via limited distribution channels tend to fall apart in the Web universe of content: the "scraps" turn out to be as lucrative as the "meat" when they're marketed properly. And unlike a typical closed economic system the Web neutralizes most arguments about distribution control: it becomes advantageous in a Web environment in many instances to maximize distribution through as many channels as possible rather than to restrict distribution to a handful of outlets, since demand is far more difficult to create on the Web than supply.

Where both Bryant and Cassidy come to agreement is in the belief that blockbuster content will continue to thrive, pushed in part for the need for people to have something in common to talk about in a world of niche interests (witness traditional media's success with the recent World Cup coverage). That may be true, but as the Long Tail phenomenon allows the only truly finite content resource - audience attention - to be focused on a much broader array of information and experiences it becomes increasingly difficult for traditional, distribution-oriented media companies to accept investments in anything but the lowest of least-common-denominator products and services.

Somewhat the opposite of Cassidy's argument, the real problem seems to be that the blockbuster phenomenon creates a need for certain success at a very specific moment in time that makes the duration of interest in such over-homogenized content highly limited over longer periods. A recent article on Physics Web points to research which demonstrates that news content lives in a mass-media sense for about 36 hours on the Web: blockbuster movies get a little more grace than that, but not much. Mass marketed media - and mass marketed merchandise in general - is concentrating on generating momentary universal value so fleeting that it is threatening to evaporate all the way up Anderson's exponential curve into nothingness.

So how do media companies create value in this era? In a word: patience. Successful media companies are used to trying to create scalable products that can be called upon for renewed mass sales. This is the core of the sequel phenomenon. But what if media companies focused more on developing long tail content that can create more stable audiences over longer periods of time though its inherent value? What if the blockbuster phenomenon was just a high point in a continuing phenomenon that arose from grass roots interest and creative forces over months or decades or centuries?

We can see a rough analogy to this in recent Bible-focused movie epics and synthetic legends such as "The Lord of the Rings" that make their way into films after long exposure to broadening audiences. To take it back a notch further, the Bible stories themselves were synthesized through centuries of development, with each generation adding its own twists and chapters. It's through the development and contextualization of content over time that the real value for publishing is coming to life through search engines and user- and community-driven content services.

So what's going to be the next great hit? Don't worry. The audience and the authors will figure it out over time. Maybe that time will be fleeting, maybe it will be enduring, but instead of media companies trying to drive audiences to the product increasingly the audiences will drive media companies to the product. Instead of people worrying about whether a new movie - or a new book like Chris' - will be a hit or a flop perhaps we'll move to an environment in which the property has evolved and been monetized more incrementally with the participation of increasingly large audiences over time such that we will rarely have any surprises with box office numbers again. In that day we will see the blockbuster as the end of an already highly successful evolutionary process that makes its success in the moment of greatest fleeting attention of only passing interest. This is why a property like Google is so valuable - it is highly disinvested in whatever content is tops in its search rankings at any given moment and highly invested in letting it surface as efficiently as possible over time.

Patience, dear publishers, patience. Your audiences are there. Go listen to them and they'll tell you where to go next - and you'll make money along the way a step at a time. The key is in the process, not the product. In the meantime I hope that Chris' book is a huge success - not because of any splashy ads or mass marketing but because the book's concept has proven itself over time and will evolve over time. Hopefully its a good enough idea that people will be patient with its evolution.
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