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The Long Tail: Long and Fat or Just Long?

Posted on July 11, 2008

Anita Elberse, an associate professor at Harvard Business School, recently published a new study in the Harvard Business Review that challenges Chris Anderson’s Long Tail theory. Elberse’s main claim is that the positive feedback loop created by hits will continually perpetuate media companies (movies, music, etc.), and companies like them, as hits-based businesses whereas Anderson’s Long Tail theory suggests that more and more sales will be derived from niche products that make up the tail.

Myself and others in the business have had the inking for some time now that the Long Tail may not be as interesting or profitable as once expected. A lot of startups that launched with the Long Tail as a premise for their businesses haven’t reaped the profits they thought they would (yet at least) and the hits still seem to be a bigger part of business like media as people are able to communicate more efficiently and effectively about the hits. After all, as Elberse suggests, the hits are hits because they appeal to the masses and the stuff in the tail is in the tail because it only appeals to a small base. Put another way, people like to talk about common things when together and if they were consuming more and more from the tail the social nature of consumption would be lost.

I was ready to write a long piece about this phenomenon. About how the Long Tail seems to make a lot of sense given what the internet has enabled but, if one thinks about it, the long tail may not be what the people really want. They may still want common experiences so that they can connect with their fellow people. Thus, hits will continue to dominate sales and, while growth of sales in the tail will continue as well, the growth won’t be as significant as once thought.

As I sat down to write just that a post came up that intrigued me. The post was written by Anand Rajaraman and summarized both Anderson’s and Elberse’s arguments very nicely which is why I am not going to jump into a similar analysis here (his post is well worth the read). However, Rajaraman doesn’t just summarize both sides, he also proposes that the internet may not create the fat long tail of consumption Anderson talks about in his book. Rajaraman instead theorizes that the internet may actually create a fat long tail of influence.

A long tail of influence. That is an interesting idea and one that can been seen in action throughout a myriad of examples in recent time. It is also something that makes sense when taken in the context of what the internet was designed to do: facilitate communication, collaboration and the easy exchange of data.

Since the internet allows us to be hyper-communicative and easily share our voice with the world it means that any one of us at any time have the ability to be an influencer. This is the power of the web.

This power also taps into Elberse’s data. She found that we tend to perpetuate more hits as time goes on (and that these hits generate more and more of the overall sales) and that only heavy consumers of a particular item will dive into the tail (but those users don’t derive as much pleasure from the tail than from the head - the hits).

It seems that Elberse and Rajaraman’s theories, when put together, may yield some interesting insight into what the web really enables. We can all agree that the long tail on consumption still exists but it is uncertain if it will ever be as fat (i.e. garner as much of the sales) as Anderson theorized. I am leaning more toward Elberse and Rajaraman at this point and am looking forward to seeing more research on the subject.

Side note: See Anderson’s rebuttal to Elberse’s work for his side of the story (Anderson seems to argue that the issue between Elberse’s theory and his has a lot to do with semantics). Also, Elberse makes a point in favor of hits still being overly important where she uses Anderson’s own book as an example of a hit that made a publisher’s year and spawned a whole discussion that people passionately participate in as much today as back when the book was out (bottom line: people like to talk about common experiences with each other and that is just fundamental human behavior).

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