Friday, July 28, 2006

Long Tail Doubters: Is it Really All about the Hits?

While Chris Anderson's book on The Long Tail is streaking to the top of Amazon book sales - today number twelve on overall sales and number two in business books - detractors and scrutinizers are mounting. Lee Gomes argues in the Wall Street Journal argues that a closer scrutiny of data from online content vendors and stats gatherers such as Bloglines reveals that it's still very much a "hits" economy, with a thin slice of content accounting for the lion's share of profits (I believe that his Bloglines analysis is faulty: measuring which weblogs have feeds fails to account for readers who visit a weblog and do not take feeds). Tim Wu on Slate doubts the concept's extendibility into arenas beyond content and argues that standardization into "hits" is more important in other industries such as information technology where it's allowed mass access to content.

Interesting points, but perhaps the most comely retort comes from AlacraBlog, which has generated its own analysis of its sales of business information reports and presented it in graphical form. The chart is actually a more extreme plot than Anderson's examples: the top 1000 companies which business information searchers retrieved only account for 17% of the company snapshot page views, with the tens of thousands of other companies covered in Alacra's content sets accounting for the bulk of accesses. Like many business information providers Alacra's business model is not built around "hits" but around helping professionals find the needle in the haystack that's going to make a difference to them in very contextual situations.

But of course these users needed the organization of content provided by Alacra or other services to find these gems. Michael Andrews on Modules and Wholes notes that to navigate through and evaluate the long tail, people must rely on logical organization or social organization (the opinion and behavior of others). In other words, tools such as search engines, weblogs, text mining and social bookmarking have been able to highlight content based on the interests of much more focused communities - and the more focused the service providing servicing those interests, the better. This is why the content companies in business sectors succeed when they take the most agnostic attitude possible towards high-end content services: the curve of popularity matters far less than the curve of content that produces value for an organization.

Lee Gomes' analysis has merit, but only insofar as it focuses on marketing chains that are geared towards hits in the first place. It's a self-predicting model, one which is skewing ever more heavily towards a micro-slice of content that makes mega-profits. In short, organizations focused on making hits will continue to focus on making hits for ever-shallower demographics, whereas organizations focused on letting hits make their own popularity based on the interests of a community will create new types of popular content whose monetization potential is barely touched. In sum the Long Tail will prosper wherever people focus on immediate interests and needs that are largely self-marketing through the tools and communities enabled by today's content services.
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