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The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More Paperback – July 8, 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
Wired editor Anderson declares the death of "common culture"—and insists that it's for the best. Why don't we all watch the same TV shows, like we used to? Because not long ago, "we had fewer alternatives to compete for our screen attention," he writes. Smash hits have existed largely because of scarcity: with a finite number of bookstore shelves and theaters and Wal-Mart CD racks, "it's only sensible to fill them with the titles that will sell best." Today, Web sites and online retailers offer seemingly infinite inventory, and the result is the "shattering of the mainstream into a zillion different cultural shards." These "countless niches" are market opportunities for those who cast a wide net and de-emphasize the search for blockbusters. It's a provocative analysis and almost certainly on target—though Anderson's assurances that these principles are equally applicable outside the media and entertainment industries are not entirely convincing. The book overuses its examples from Google, Rhapsody, iTunes, Amazon, Netflix and eBay, and it doesn't help that most of the charts of "Long Tail" curves look the same. But Anderson manages to explain a murky trend in clear language, giving entrepreneurs and the rest of us plenty to think about. (July)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Audio CD edition.
From Bookmarks Magazine
In The Long Tail, Chris Anderson offers a visionary look at the future of business and common culture. The long-tail phenomenon, he argues, will "re-shape our understanding of what people actually want to watch" (or read, etc.). While Anderson presents a fascinating idea backed by thoughtful (if repetitive) analysis, many critics questioned just how greatly the niche market will rework our common popular culture. Anderson convinced most reviewers in his discussion of Internet media sales, but his KitchenAid and Lego examples fell flat. A few pointed out that online markets constitute just 10 percent of U.S. retail, and brick-and-mortar stores will never disappear. Anderson's thesis came under a separate attack by Lee Gomes in his Wall Street Journal column. Anderson had defined the "98 Percent Rule" in his book to mean that no matter how much inventory is made available online, 98 percent of the items will sell at least once. Yet Gomes cited statistics that could indicate that, as the Web and Web services become more mainstream, the 98 Percent Rule may no longer apply: "Ecast [a music-streaming company] told me that now, with a much bigger inventory than when Mr. Anderson spoke to them two years ago, the quarterly no-play rate has risen from 2% to 12%. March data for the 1.1 million songs of Rhapsody, another streamer, shows a 22% no-play rate; another 19% got just one or two plays." If Anderson overreaches in his thesis, he has nonetheless written "one of those business books that, ironically, deserves more than a niche readership" (Houston Chronicle).
Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc. --This text refers to the Audio CD edition.
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The good news is that the one or two insights of the book really are insightful.
We've all heard the 80-20 rule of thumb that 80% of the wealth is health by 20% of the people. (The two numbers don't have to add up to 100 BTW, but we'll pass on that.) The distribution of wealth scales. In a total economy worth one billion dollars for one hundred thousand people, that means that the richest 20,000 people have 800 million dollars. But the rule can be applied to a situation as many times as we wish. 20% of 20,000 is 4,000 people who would have 80% of 800 million, or 640 million. We apply it again and find that 800 people have 512 million.
When you plot this on a graph, you'll find yourself drawing a curve that is very thick at the left (the rich few at the head) and peters out to a long thin tail (the many poor). This is called a power law distribution and many processes in nature and in economics follow it, in particular for consumer markets. Wal Mart & Sears are in the left's fat head, while the fusion jazz record store is in the curve's tail on the right.
Anderson's insight is that the internet has thickened the long tail for markets. Fifty years ago if you wanted to listen to Ethiopean jazz, you had one option: fly to Ethiopia. Thirty years ago you had the second option of going to import jazz record shops in large cities. Today, you can live in Medecine Hat, Alberta and instantly order Ethiopique No. 4 from Amazon. The demand was always there: in a population of millions there's always one or two eccentrics who want something unusual. More than that, in a population of millions on top of the ordinary necessities found in the fat head, everyone wants something special that belongs in the long tail. The long tail is thickening and the 21st century's gold mine is probably in it.
Vincent Poirier, Dublin
The basic premise is that internet marketing makes it possible to promote a wider diversity of content than a brick and mortar enterprise can afford to do. The classic example is Amazon.com, and Amazon quite consciously knows that they are different than retailers that came before them. Remarkably a big Barnes and Nobles location can stock more than 100,000 titles, but Amazon keeps millions of titles on hand, and all of those less popular titles make Amazon a lot of money.
What is surprising is that even though many new readers, like myself, know the premise before page one, there is still a lot left to read about. Anderson makes a very careful job of it. His arguments were honed via live and web discussions over a long period of time. The second surprise is there is something of a cultural shift going on. Even in industries that would not seem to benefit from the same phenomena, The Long Tail appears. Blockbusters of every stripe still exist, but niche products are more and more of every company's revenue. This is why it is still an important book, and why this book is not just for internet retailers.
I was on a project recently that involved products that were found, sold, and delivered electronically. Clearly, The Long Tail is especially salient in such a market. Even Amazon still has to physically deliver their products. I found it so critical to my thought process that I bought copies for key members of my client team, and gave my copy to a coworker. One of the points that Anderson brings home is that the factor preventing the niche choices from being overwhelming is effective filtering. Search engines, and their equivalents, are what make The Long Tail work. I read, and read again, the sections on this since one of the things that I do as a Data Miner is build recommendation models.
If you are a Data Miner, and haven't heard Anderson's entire argument, you really need this book. If you are an analyst of any kind, I highly recommend. If you are a manager in an effected industry, and Anderson argues that it might well be present in all industries, then it should be on your reading list. Finally, if you are a consumer, perhaps with a technical bent, you will probably find it an enjoyable read. Highly recommended.