I’ve always believed the Long Tail is real (even before the concept had a trendy name and a piece in Wired). Maybe it’s some sort of subconscious iconoclasm on my part; perhaps it is the desire to not fit into any well-defined bucket.
I suppose marketers would call this a desire for “differentiation” in both my personal and professional personas.
Most of discussion so far around the long tail is tied to consumerism. That is, long tail economics seem to make sense when one is a consumer (in the strictest sense of the word) of “stuff.” Most of Chris Anderson’s additional writing on the subject centers around this idea as well. The long tail gets invoked when figuring out what is marketable, what is saleable, what is interesting, and to whom.
After further reflection, and at its core, I think the long tail discussion is about personalization, and the human need/desire/want/jones for experiences that uniquely resonate, emotionally, within an individual.
“But most of us want more than just hits. Everyone’s taste departs from the mainstream somewhere, and the more we explore alternatives, the more we’re drawn to them. Unfortunately, in recent decades such alternatives have been pushed to the fringes by pumped-up marketing vehicles built to order by industries that desperately need them.” – from the Wired article
This inherent tension between the “hits” and the long tail is not going to cause a mass jump to “only” long tail scenarios, however. There are still plenty (30%? 40%?) of things that will be hits. And 30% of “everything” is still “a lot.”
What we will see, I think, is a bifurcation. A split. A schism. This will occur not only in the way things are “marketed” to customers, but, moreso, in people themselves. One group, a fragmented set of loosely connected folk (“small pieces, loosely joined,” some might say) will be the “long-tailers,” actively seeking out and creating experiences for themselves that are unique and personalized to them. These folk, in aggregate, will be the majority. (But at the same time, they won’t. Each small community of like-minded folks will be teeny-tiny in comparison to the “mainstream.”) The other group will be those firmly rooted in the mainstream.
Of the long-tailers, there will be a particular set that completely eschews the mainstream. These are the ones who will rail against the monoculture that still, when compared to any particular long tail subgroup, is many times larger. And will continue to be.
Why is this? Why is it easier to be a consumer of the mainstream, rather than creating one’s own experience in the long tail? I think there are a few reasons.
Reason #1: It’s easier to be a customer of the monoculture. Search costs? Zero. Everything is marketed on the billboards, right to your front door, right to the TV, and blown into the most recent issue of People. Information about the mainstream is everywhere. If these are the products and companies you know about, they are the ones that are most familiar.
Reason #2: It may be cheaper, in monetary terms, to be a customer of the monoculture. For items that have signifcant fixed costs of production, spreading those fixed costs out over more units makes things cheaper to produce.
Reason #3: Depending on where one is a customer, the suppliers themselves may actively discourage long tail activity. Anderson’s article states that Wal-Mart, in particular, needs to sell at least 100,000 units of an item to make it worthwhile for them to carry it. It’s hard to be a customer in the long tail if you are never exposed to it.
Being a customer in the long tail takes work.
Now, traditional marketing tries to provide what matters to a buyers who are stuck in the monoculture that exists in a “hits-driven” marketplace. In the absence of local knowledge (e.g. a recommendation from a trusted source), one needs to draw one’s own conclusions. If the only information you have to go on is what is beaten into your head via thirty second spots, those are the products and relationships that you are going to engage with.
This is why technologies such as social networking are lowering the barriers of entry to the long tail. If you have visibility into the movies, the music, the people that other members of your community find worthwhile, you have not only awareness of things that were previously obscured in the long tail, but also an implicit recommendation. Your community has supplanted the traditional marketing machine.
Now, here’s the money shot. Organizations have been hung up on producing products that are “the hits.” We are now on the verge of getting hung up on a similar thing, but in the long tail…because everything that has been discussed about the long tail so far is about stuff. And the long tail really isn’t about stuff. It’s about relationships.
Being a customer in the long tail is not as much about acquiring the things that are unique to you. It’s about connections. It’s about doing business in the unique way you want to, on a day-to-day basis, with organizations who get it. (And, in this case, “get it” means that they offer you exactly what you want, in the way you want it, when and where it’s convenient to you.)
It’s also about building relationships within a community of like-minded folk. When you find out about the amazing Liz Phair B-side, you immediately want to share it with your friends. It’s not about you anymore. It’s about building a community. A community of individuals whose connections will span vocation and time and distance.
Listen up, vendors. If what you’re trying to do is serve only the mainstream, and everybody in it in exactly the same way, you’re about to miss the boat. Trying to build the exact same, cookie-cutter relationship with every one of your customers may work for your organization. But it’s only going to work if you have “the hit.” And people get bored with the hits after a while, and look for something that is different. So, it’s your choice. If you enjoy life on the treadmill, keep doing what you’re doing. Otherwise, you need to have the courage to change your game, and start building some bridges. And fast.
Ross Mayfield has complementary thoughts on this here and here.