There’s nothing like a good controversy to make best use of the Internet. Opinions can race across the world in a nanosecond. Next thing you know, the planet is engaged in a heated conversation about, well, just about anything.
Here’s a juicy one, right up our alley. Someone had the nerve to actually put Chris Anderson’s “Long Tail” view of the world to the test. That someone, Harvard Business School’s Anita Elberse, actually did the research, crunched the numbers, and, as we were taught in 8th grade Algebra, shows her work.
In a nutshell, Professor Elberse says that technology can’t trump behavior. Consumers still flock towards blockbusters online, and she has the numbers to prove it. By and large, even online, and perhaps especially online, people want to do what they believe others are doing, so that’s what they do. Big hits get bigger, and obscure items stay very, very obscure.
To which Chris Anderson says, in very eloquent, conciliatory language, “phooey.” There certainly is a Long Tail, and Professor Elberse has simply differed with his determination of which items comprise the “head” and which comprise the “tail” leaving the core of his theory (a theory that has made him a LOT of money) intact.
To which I say, can’t we all get along?
Here’s what ties these two points of view together, and validates both: The answer all depends on the product. There IS a “Long Tail” market for a hexagonal screw 24” long and 6” in diameter. I’m making up the dimensions, but you get the point – somebody, somewhere, at sometime, has gotta have that screw. And, because a screw is a screw is a screw, and, except for dimension, screws are all largely undifferentiated, the buyer has Objective Means of Understanding (OMU) the purchase. No opinion leader, authority figure, or comparative guide is required. No reviews need be read. No research need be done. No one will care at the office water cooler the next day. And while your local True Value store is better off not carrying such an obscure SKU, that big hardware store online will have it for that occasion when the Long Tail customer passes through.
Ah, but you say that Anderson was explicitly speaking about entertainment content? Books, Music, Movies? Not hardware? Therefore, products without OMU? Well, he may have some ‘splainin to do.
See, many of us, maybe even you, if you’re honest, don’t really know if we like our content until someone else tells us it’s good. (This is perhaps a contentious point, because no one likes to think they’re anything but independent in their thinking, but if you want a simple example that proves the point, I give you exhibit A: The sitcom laugh track. Enough said.) So, if customers can’t evaluate the worth of a title, or CD, or DVD, what will cause them to buy? And if this is true, how does the critical mass develop such that the viral nature of the web can allow the awareness of the quality of the work to grow?
Moreover, a while back, I posited to my marketing class that I couldn’t quite figure out how the Long Tail theory adequately accounted for awareness generation of unknown products expected to sell only a few units. Surely marketing spend on the part of the producing entity would be minimal, so how would awareness, which must precede demand, be created?
For those of you waiting for the self-serving portion of this screed, wait no longer. We’ve figured out how the Long Tail works just to our advantage here at SharedBook. And I’ll tell you all about it. In my very next post…