After witnessing much misuse of the Long Tail phrase, this silly post has finally pushed me over the edge. It's time to draw the line. Long Tails are found everywhere, but not, you know, actually everywhere.
There are many distortions of the term, but the most common one is to use it as a newly-positive synonym for "fringe". Invoking the Long Tail is not a magic wand to explain away the apparent lack of demand for what you've got. The Long Tail is not a get-out-of-jail-free card for poor-selling product. Or weak sectors. Or bad ideas.
The fact that something isn't popular doesn't mean that
it's just a matter of time before it will benefit from all sorts of powerful demand-creation
Long Tail effects. More likely, it's just not good enough to be commercially interesting, and probably never will be.
Most of the "niche" products in the tail are simply crap.
That's okay, because some significant fraction of them aren't and with
a functioning way to separate the good from the bad, they can be found by
those who will appreciate them. But note the essential element: a functioning way to drive demand.
As I've mentioned in the original article, for Long Tail effects to work, you need both a head of relatively few hits and a tail of many niches, so that recommendations and other filters can lead consumers from one to the other.
A tail without a head is too noisy and apparently random to get consumer traction; people need to start with the familiar and then move, via trusted recommendations, to the unfamiliar. Likewise a head without a tail is too limited in choice; the odds of finding a niche you want are too low to bother exploring much beyond what you already know.
Thus the two big Long Tail opportunities are:
- Aggregating hits and niches into a one big curve, from head to tail.
- Creating content and products that can plug into someone else's aggregated curve.
If what you're selling is fringe, it may well enjoy Long Tail benefits, but only if it can fit nicely into an existing market that has the capacity to drive demand. If that market doesn't exist, it's unlikely that throwing some niche products out there is going to create it. Even if it does exist, those products will only reach their audience if the filters and recommendations are good enough to find them.
While I'm at it, here are some other things the Long Tail is not (to protect the guilty I will refrain from linking to the offending examples):
- The LT is about nicheification, which is different.
- Simple variety
- Offering a few different choices or a bit of customization (like the sandwich filling options in the risible example above) is not enough. Long Tail effects kick in when you're expanding variety and choice by orders of magnitude--from 10x to infinity.
- The case for an all amateur, self-published future
- The LT will probably have as much commercial content as ever. It will just be joined by far more amateur fare, forming a relatively seamless continuum from pros to ams.
- The actual end of hits
- The LT ends the tyranny of hits, shifting the market equally to niches. But it certainly acknowledges that some things will continue to be a lot more popular than others. Powerlaw distributions are as natural as diversity itself.
- A focus on small markets at the exclusion of large ones
- Again, you need both hits and niches to allow the filters and recommendation engines to work, driving demand down the curve from the known to the unknown.
- Just any powerlaw
- Powerlaws are ubiquitous. Long Tails are not. The first shows up anywhere you have variety, inequality, and network effects (word of mouth). The second requires massive variety and a wide range between the hits and niches. After all, many short tails are simply truncated powerlaw distributions. They just aren't, er, long.
Venture capitalists who are tired of bogus Long Tail pitches are invited to point the hapless entrepreneurs to this post.