Harvard Business Review Criticizes “Long Tail”

Yup, apparently the fine folks at the Harvard Business Review have been looking, and the mantra of web marketing, “The Long Tail” apparently may be long, but it’s also very flat, almost impossible to monetize and it smells really bad (okay, maybe it doesn’t actually smell…).

The patterns that emerge in my research suggest that we won’t soon leave what Anderson calls “the water cooler era.” These patterns are far from new: They were described by William McPhee in the early 1960s, in Formal Theories of Mass Behavior. McPhee’s “theory of exposure” (see the sidebar “Consumers in the Head and Tail”) offers two relevant empirical generalizations: First, that a disproportionately large share of the audience for popular products consists of relatively light consumers, whereas a disproportionately large share of the audience for obscure products consists of relatively heavy consumers; and second, that consumers of obscure products generally appreciate them less than they do popular products. McPhee explored his theories in settings that typically provided fewer than a dozen alternatives. But my research reveals that his findings also hold true for the enormous assortments found online, even when sophisticated recommendation engines aim to stimulate demand for long-tail products.

Yeah, what he said… From what I get, he’s saying that we ought to concentrate on our popular products.  The  folks who by the strange deep catalog stuff are a flash in the pan.  It kind of makes sense to me…

To make it even more interesting, Long Tail author Chris Anderson responded :

Let me start by saying that the paper looks rock solid and I’m sure her analysis is accurate. But there is a subtle difference in the way we define the Long Tail, especially in the definitions of “head” and “tail”, that leads to very different results.

The best example of this is in what she describes as a growing “concentration” of sales around a relatively small number of blockbuster titles. In the Rhapsody data, she finds, the top 10% of titles (out of more than a million in that data sample) accounted for 78% of all plays, and the top 1% account for 32% of all plays. That sounds pretty concentrated around the head, until you reflect, as she notes, that “one percent of a million is still 10,000–[…]equal to the entire music inventory of a typical Wal-Mart store.”

Basically it comes down to the matter of defining “head” and “tail” which Anderson notes in his piece.  I strongly suggest reading both if you’re into marketing. After all. who doesn’t like a good marketing rumble.

Okay, I’m now wondering why I am blogging from my office att 5:45 on a Friday…see ya.

2 Replies to “Harvard Business Review Criticizes “Long Tail””

  1. One area where the Long Tail concept works is for advertising. I have tried with help from my friends at eCairn, and it works very well thank you: there is such a wealth of blogs that it is very hard to track what is good and what is not, but if you can, you have a gold mine.
    Take Google Ads: they offer ads based on keywords. But keywords are obviously not always relevant to a specific campaign. For example if I want to sell iPod accessories, the iPod keyword will get me on pages where people with the Zune hang out, and the reference to iPod is just there for comparison purposes. Or the keyword will get me on sites where people discuss various MP3 players, and again these guys are not my target. But on a blog where the guy owns an iPod and discuss the cool apps he is using, then I have a winner.
    Now there is a few big sites where it is clear who the audience is and why they come visit, but then the keywords on these blogs are expensive because everybody want to be there. And then there are many smaller sites, but they are hard to identify.
    However, if you can come up with a list of 2000 blogs that are relevant, with an average for each of 1000 visitors a month (not much, clearly not highly visible but quality blogs none the less) then you have a similar audience as for a big site (2M visitors in this example), and the good news is that nobody is fighting to advertise on these, so keywords are a lot cheaper. More bang for your buck.
    I have seen it happen in a real situation, and believe me in this example the Long Tail makes a lot of sense…

  2. In response to the previous comment:

    The HBS work is not about exceptions where it worked. It is about the generalization that Chris Anderson makes from these isolated incidents. Lee Gomes of WSJ said it nicely,

    “‘The Long Tail’ seems to have followed the template of many Wired articles: take a partly true, modestly interesting, tech-friendly idea and puff it up to Second Coming proportions.”

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