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.