Sunday, June 29, 2008

Is the Long Tail toast?


The title of this post is inspired by that of an article -- Is the Tipping Point toast? -- about another hot phenomenon that didn't stand up to experimental scrutiny.

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This HBR paper by Anita Elberse provides some pretty solid evidence against the Long Tail hypothesis (if you can't access the article, try reaching it through Chris Anderson's response on the HBS blog). Elberse's research leads to a pretty blunt conclusion:

For Chris Anderson, the strategic implications of the digital environment seem clear. “The companies that will prosper,” he declares, “will be those that switch out of lowest-common-denominator mode and figure out how to address niches.” But my research indicates otherwise. Although no one disputes the lengthening of the tail (clearly, more obscure products are being made available for purchase every day), the tail is likely to be extremely flat and populated by titles that are mostly a diversion for consumers whose appetite for true blockbusters continues to grow. It is therefore highly disputable that much money can be made in the tail. In sales of both videos and recorded music—in many ways the perfect products to test the long-tail theory—we see that hits are and probably will remain dominant. ... [Bold emphasis added by me]

As the article progresses, you can see that it keeps pushing the knife deeper and deeper into the heart of the hypothesis, and it ends with what can only be described as a killer twist:

How appropriate that proof of this can also be found in management literature. Over the course of 2006, Hyperion Books, which publishes adult trade fiction and nonfiction, brought dozens of original hardcovers to market. For a handful of them it spent heavily on acquisition and marketing, hoping for the profits that only blockbusters can provide. One was Mitch Albom’s novel For One More Day, which became the single best-selling hardcover of 2006. Another was a business title that had engendered an intense bidding war. Hyperion was determined to get it; New York magazine quoted an industry insider as saying that “jaws hit the floor over how much they paid.” Everyone recognized it as a high-stakes gamble in a high-risk genre. But ultimately it paid off big. It was, of course, The Long Tail.

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Elberse's research findings arrive at a time when Chris Anderson's next half-baked Big Idea -- that the scientific method has been rendered obsolete by the petabytes of data in the internet clouds -- hit the internet; this time, though, it has been declared dead on arrival almost immediately. If you are not familiar with this episode, start with Tom Slee , and work through the links.