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June 27, 2008


Jean-Marie Le Ray

Well, it could be a good bet to Turning the Tail... http://adscriptum.blogspot.com/2008/06/turning-tail-from-long-tail-to-big-tail.html

Jean-Marie Le Ray

Sorry, Turning the Tail

David Cushman

Chris, Here's some illustrations I think explains why the 'Hit' MUST be worth (proportionally) less in a networked world.
Here's a link to the slide deck:

Amal Dorai

I agree that the analysis is flawed because it is based on percentages rather than on absolute numbers.

The same technological progress that has enabled the Long Tail has also lowered the cost of producing media entities such as songs and movies. I recently had a few ideas for an electronic music beat; twenty years ago, I would have had to borrow or buy a Roland drum machine to test it out, but instead I just downloaded a program called FruityLoops and had a song going in under two hours.

Thus, Long Tail markets are simply much bigger today in terms of number of members, and the top 1% will constitute a much bigger number of songs. Yet the memory capacity of humans, and the number of memes or acts who can be considered "pop culture" has not changed nearly as dramatically. The Long Tail is real; the Madonnas and Michael Jacksons of the 80's give way to the Tay Zondays and Obama Girls of the 2000's.

Elberse's analysis breaks because it mathematically incorporates what is culturally irrelevant; the large mountain of unknown garbage at the bottom of the distribution, which nobody knows about or consumes.


"Much of the paper is about consumer satisfaction in the head vs tail. In the Quickflix data, she says, "customers give lower ratings to obscure titles...it is a myth that obscure books, films and songs are treasured. What consumers buy in Internet channels is much the same as what they have always bought." That may be true for the specific example of the Australian DVD data, but it is not clear from the paper why she feels able to extrapolate that to all Internet commerce."

This is particularly true for products, part of whose value is novelty, like wedding dresses, women's jewelry or any other type of fashion.

Los Angeles Real Estate

I agree. The information seems flawed.


I think you're being way too generous on the author! It shouldn't even need pointing out that looking at percentages misses the entire point of what the long tail is about. In markets where the barrier to entry for content producers drops to zero, percentages are not a meaningful way to measure *anything*, let alone head and tail.


"Hit products are also liked better than obscure products. It is a myth that obscure books, films, and songs are treasured."


"Products that are liked better are more likely to be hit products than products that are liked worse. It is a myth that poorly liked books, films, and songs are popular."

Which makes more sense?

Are these books, films, songs permanently stuck in their decile?

A completely indie release of a film, record comes out with no advertising budget and goes right to the end of the long tail. However, those who like niche products, obsurities, etc., view it, hear it, buy it, and give it good reviews, if its good. Others respond to the good reviews and view, hear, buy the product. If it's good, they like it, they give it good reviews. After this happens a few times, The product becomes a hit, no longer obscure. Why? Because people were driven to consume the product by the good reviews.

Bad reviews cause obscurity, obscurity does not cause bad reviews.


This debate is only becoming more interesting (and relevant). For anyone curious to know how the Long Tail theory can be applied to the writing biz, I've just posted on its economics and utility when it comes to authoring history books (itself a bit of a Long Tail-y niche subject . . . )




Will the market crash or rally?


The Saudis have already said they believe current demand is being met, despite the high prices — suggesting that

high prices alone might not be enough to warrant the increase in supply.


The only way to tell which view is right (and odds are both are not entirely wrong right) will be to live the change. I've always worked in a niche. The internet has made it more visible. Its also made competitive niches more visible. In the short term we're working like made to make our niche stand out. Will it be enough to enable our business to transition from paper to online fully?


It is still not easy for consumers to tell which tail is gold for them but not junk. A more sophisticated tool that provides the solution would dramatically change the result of this kind of study.


When you do a 'statistical' analysis, you should never forget about the context of the data collection. In the case of data for product purchases, you should never forget that, in most cases, the data collection process is biased by the quality of the recommendation engine (and measuring this quality in a formal way is a very tricky and open problem). A poor quality recommendation engine will allow only 'hard core' users to find out what they are looking for, and, guess what, statistical counts will show you that only hard core and heavy users buy both blockbusters and niche products. If your start using a better (choose your metrics here...) recommendation engine, you may very well see that the relative weight of the long tail increases, and the purchases distribution will be shifted to the tail.
So, in a nutshell, this article, starting from the same data, could conclude that the recommendation engines of the two proposed examples could be improved...
Besides the fact that I am a firm believer that going long tail without a proper recommendation engine is useless (and potentially harmful), what I wanted to insist on is that, when you want to confirm, through the numbers, a statistical hypothesis, you must show that your hypothesis is better that other alternatives that could explain equally well the effects, and this has not be done in the article.
The other remark is that drawing general rules by looking at two examples is (statistically?) very questionable (dangerous?)...
Finally, all the remarks on the economics of the long tail are OK (cost of niche products should be minimized, etc.), but they are not new.

Joe Chiang

I am working on a project whereby I am making and posting a new paper toy every day for a year, and providing the PDF for anyone who wants to make the toy to download for free.

Here's the data I collected since I started the project more than a month ago:

Number of items: 40
Total downloads: 30,263
Total downloads for the top 10% (top 4): 8,976 (which translates to close to 30%)

I will update it at the end of the one-year project and see if the long-tail theory works in my case.

Chris Skinner


Since your book came out, I’ve been gathering thoughts on the long tail in banking and spotted Anita Elberse's thoughts, so blogged a quick note on Sunday about it: http://www.thefinanser.co.uk/2008/06/arguing-about-t.html

Result is that I was asked to explain the long tail in banking which you can find here:

Bottom-line: I also disagree with Anita and believe the idea of ‘free’ and ‘long tail’ will fundamentally change banking and finance as much as any other industry or market that depends upon technology and the internet for its business model.

Denis Hancock

Interesting discussion.

I agree with the majority here in that the percentages aren't neccesarily the best way to approach the problem in markets where production and distribution costs are approaching nil (i.e. digital music). At the same time, I'm not sure the other definition of "head" - tied to availability in bricks and mortar outlets - makes that much sense anymore either.

I was kicking around ideas for a bit until a rather obvious sounding idea jumped out at me - what lies between the "head" and "long tail" is the "body". Could this body, at least at a conceptual level, be the most important of all?

For example, in the Rhapsody data, the top 1% account for 32% of the sales, and the bottom 90% 22% - leaving 46% for that 9% jammed in the middle. Might this group be interesting to look at in their own right?

I realize there's still the same % problem, and I'm not sure how you would come up with the proper dividing lines, but there's something compelling to me in regards to carving out a middle ground.

I posted more on this if you follow the URL link below.


now is when you need an itegral spiral dynamics model

she tracked lower consciousnesses, you wrote about higher

pretty simple .. the hard part is embracing the fact that not all humans are on the same level

Michael F. Martin


Had you considered that the demand function could be modeled as a cumulative distribution function corresponding to a poisson distribution in the frequency of consumption?

On my view, supply and demand can be modeled as cycles, and consumption of information is higher-frequency, but still poissonian in shape. Hence, there is not algebraic, but exponential decay at the long tail.


Phil Leigh

The Harvard seems to ignore the point that consumers are naturally attracted to stores with a large inventory. Moreover, this is not an Internet-era phenomenon. For example, consider how the "supermarket" led to obsolesce of the neighborhood grocery store. Another example is the impact of Barnes & Noble and Borders on the neighborhood book store.

Essentially consumers are drawn to the stores with a wider variety (longer tail) of merchandise even though the bulk of the money they spend might be on the most popular items. They choose to go to the store with the bigger inventory because it permits them to also get the hard-to-find items. This applies to Internet retailing as well. We may spend most of our money on the popular books at Amazon.com, but we choose the store (partly) because we know they will have most any book that might be on our shopping list.



Elberse's response to Chris is up:


she really addresses it point by point. what is the defnition of the long tail? the largest retailer?

Chris Anderson


Yes, I've always used the inventory of the largest retailer as the definition of "head". But to be honest any absolute number that's tied to traditional blockbuster channels will do, as long as you hold it constant. What will NOT do is to use percentages or deciles (which is the same thing), because that means the dividing line between head and tails moves as the number of products in the market grows, making it impossible to do any head vs. tail analysis over time.

It's been the one constant problem with her research, and I'm afraid it tends to obscure her many other excellent points and data.


i think she is pretty convincing. Lee Gomes had a good piece this morning in the WSJ too.

Chris Anderson


Could you explain which part you found convincing? (Or, alternatively, which part of my answer you found unconvincing?) Happy to drill down to help explain the differences.

dJ Chang


The economic premise of the Long Tail is that the Internet allows more people an opportunity to distribute their product, service, or content -rather than the conventional wisdom hypothesis of increased concentration among top brands. Quantified success of top brands on the Internet does not negate the positive impact on the Long Tail.

Ironically, is Ms. Elberse not a member of the Long Tail? Has she used the Internet to gain distribution for her content? Is the discussion about the Long Tail, an example of discussions that may never see the light of day without the Internet?

Newspapers and magazines have had difficulty maintaining share on the Internet. Social networks and informal blogging continues to claim increasing share.

Brian Hayashi

Hi Chris,

The Long Tail has helped me visualize how increased efficiency in product discovery improves the ability to sell less popular items to an increasingly geographically fragmented audience.

I laughed when I saw Michael F. Martin's comment and link to his post on backward bending supply curves. A company I worked for in the 90s had an experience with VOD that kind of proved his point: we had two different VOD trials that might have debunked the Long Tail had you published it in 1992. In those two trials, we saw how a VOD library composed of a smaller number of hits proved to be more successful over the medium term than a larger library. But times change, and as you point out it's clear how heavy DVD users make use of the Long Tail today. And I can see it...I'm one of them!!

As someone that has watched this space for awhile I do wonder how this plays out over time. Let’s look at search queries. The average search query is growing in both number of terms and complexity. Does it mean that people are getting better at finding niche sites in the Long Tail? Or does it suggest people are getting better at using search tools to sample new experiences and once visited, that they may not necessarily return to a site?

As a former TV guy, I'd see, firsthand, how the studio model enabled companies to bear the risk of developing new shows. I know the music label model is far from perfect but I don't believe that every song can be a hit if you just throw enough money at it. I guess I'm concerned that the Long Tail seems to have become a facile way of decrying old fashioned distribution without considering how approaches like syndication, along with understanding how the Long Tail influences discovery, can improve the hurdle rate of a new product or business.

I cover search and how it affects the risk associated with developing new forms of media on my blog. I’d appreciate your comments.

Michael F. Martin


As far as I have observed, people consume information the same way they consume ordinary goods -- i.e., with a characteristic rhythm, or frequency pattern. If you looked at a group of people within a window of time, and counted how often each of them listened to a particular song, then you'd see a poisson distribution:


The integral of that poisson distribution up from zero to whatever quantity is a cumulative distribution function. If you substitute number of people for currency (which is possible so long as there is scarcity), then you have an aggregate demand function. The same one we talk about in introductory economics.

The point I want you to notice about this demand function is that it is sigmoidal in shape -- i.e., has exponential curves at the fat-head and long-tail. You can model it with a power law at short quantity-scales, but any particular power law will fail to describe the entire aggregate demand curve.

I believe that the poisson distribution for the frequency of consumption nicely accounts for the long-tail characteristics that you observed in your book and the deviations from the long tail observed by Prof. Elberse.

@Brian Hayashi:

The point of the post about backward bending supply curves was to show how if you looked at the poisson distribution within different time windows, you will see the peak and standard deviation in frequency shift. This is important because without that, there would be no way to explain the phenomenon of diminishing marginal utility, which is an empirical fact.


Fascinating stuff. I will leave the economics to others, but the thing about online communities helping us make better choices, as opposed to hypsters doing it for us, fascinates me. I'm heartily sick of online promotion of creative work when it's being done by creative people who want to get attention. For me, that totally pollutes the communities that share interests and could share honest opinions if there wasn't always this lurking suspicion that one is being manipulated. Or just being inundated with obnoxious advertising.

The gems I find in the long tail are through an online community that bans self-promotion. Beyond that, I have to count on individuals who I trust. But there are very few online communities that aren't spoiled, and that for me is THE big challenge for digital communities that support the long tail. What's the tail that wags the tail? If it's "try this good thing, because I liked it," it works. If it's "try this good thing because I made it / my friend made it / I want the maker to like me / I'm getting paid under the table" - it's a pack of lies, and I can't trust anything coming from that community.

I just blogged about it at http://barbarafister.wordpress.com after reading this post and the comments. I think if tails could have Achilles heels, this would be it.

Benjamin de Menil

As the person who introduced Anita Elberse to Chris Anderson (and vice versa), I feel a duty to weigh in on the debate.

Anita, as she points out in her rebuttal of Chris Anderson's rebuttal, does mention in her article that the data indicates a large portion of total sales are now coming from titles too obscure for physical brick and mortar retailers to carry. However, this point is made almost parenthetically to her larger conclusion that the long tail isn't all that relevant - based on percentile data which, as many here have pointed out on, doesn't offer a fair comparison if the catalog sizes are not equivalent.

For me, the strongest point Anita makes is in the Neilson data indicating that 91% of the transacted digital music catalog is downloaded fewer than 100 times. While in aggregate, these 'long tail' titles may represent a large part of overall sales, on the individual product level the media business model makes such low volume unprofitable for producers. How can the investment (fixed costs) in production and marketing of one of these products ever be covered by such low volumes? Yes, the variable per unit cost is low - especially for digital - and this makes the tail profitable for large catalog retailers. How producers should adjust their strategy in an era of decreasing sales of hits (in absolute terms) and low volume in the tail remains a difficult question. Clearly those already in possession of large catalogs stand to profit - if they can surmount the legal hurdles to distributing these digitally.

Finally, a point often overlooked is the changing shape of physical retail - where a large portion of music sales still occur. For music, the large deep catalog music retailers, Tower, Virgin, etc, have been disappearing and the brick and mortar business has largely transferred to mass-merchants with very shallow catalogs - ie Walmart and Target. This is creating an effect inverse to the long tail in the physical market. The result is a greater concentration of hits (The head) being sold by brick and mortar. Less obvious but also important is that brick and mortar stores play an important role in music discovery and promotion - so less retail space, fewer stores and smaller catalogs mean that it has become much more difficult for more niche/obscure/independent titles to gain visibility in this channel. The blockage of non-mainstream titles from this important not only sales, but marketing arena spills over into the online and digital channels - hurting sales of the non-mainstream there as well. What's clear despite all this is that the shape of the sales curve is changing and that the long tale effect is real. Again, what is less clear is how producers of new products - either mainstream or niche - can adapt and benefit.

Petter Widmark

The danger of chasing the big tail

Customer satisfaction ultimately drives all business, watch out for the danger in the long tail concept.

Very interesting article and especially that measured by percentage the long tail doesn´t exist. I think that tells as an important thing and may point out a danger in the search for the big tail. By my own definition the market available(e.g. the music market) is all music ever created. Online music stores can capture some of it, a brick-and-morter even less. How would the graph look for all music ever created? I would be surprised if not less than one percent stood for the lion share of the music consumed every year. An even flatter long tail…

The long tail phenomena is not a question of a long tail or not but how you earn money on a successful product. If I define “the head” as all popular music songs ever made, how many aren´t they? How should you be able to have all of them in your “head”. With an online store you can of course capture a bigger portion of all popular music ever created, thus an online retailer has more products too earn money from compared too an brick-and-morter store. This is the true value in “the long tail” that maybe in reality is quite a bad namn(sorry) for an interesting theory. With digital channels you can sell more from a vast product base and earn good money on it.

However, my concern is that people starts ignoring the fact that ultimately customer satisfaction drives business and start selling junk in a belief that the will earn big money.

Instead start analysing what kind of products “the head” of the online music store consists of. You may be surprised to find a lot of ex poplar products, product that have been labelled popular at the brick-and-morter store, maybe not today, but for several years ago.

Chris Anderson, I would love to hear your thoughts in the matter of the danger in chasing the big tail, especially as I don’t have data to back up this theory.


At my office we use the theory of the long tail EVERY DAY.

And Harvard or not.. i still think the long tail is the way to go..

why? because i do search engine marketing, (organic search engine optimization), and the majority of clients' business comes from the long tail.. also known as "qualified leads" as opposed to "tire kickers"

I wrote an article on it here (http://www.mccom.com/technique/archives/July2007/article_3.html) as it relates to my company and Our business to attract new customers.

for those that don't want to look.. it's an example of the specific to the general.. the long tail being the specific and the general, well it's not the long tail...

I honestly don't think the examples i have seen from the article or from Lee @ WSJ really can provide an accurate comparison.. for example..

"The sad truth is that the blogosphere is as hit-driven as the rest of the world, with a tiny percentage of blogs getting a huge chunk of the traffic, and with many blogs simply going unread."

- ok.. so Lee,(@WSJ), what was the total number of hits on ALL THE BLOGS?
(without a complete number of hits on the blogs, I can understand where, 50k unique visitors a week, vs. 50k unique visitors every day, but how do we know that of all the blog hits in the world, all the traffic goes to the top 10?)

i find the logic somewhat flawed and a bit presumptive?


p.s. my data? many clients in varied industries whom get multi-million dollar sales off of keywords that may account for 1% of their traffic, (usually a 1 out of 645,000 results), as opposed to those "popular (or general) terms" that may be 1 out of 479,000,000 results, which may brign more traffic but NOT a more qualified prospect.. and didn't i read something this weekend about Google saying the average search phrase now consists of 4 words?


Anand Rajaraman

Chris, part of your early insight was spot on: the internet will transform the media industry. But you're wrong in assuming it will do so by changing the shape of the consumption surve.

Both you and Elberse are missing the bigger point. An analysis of the statistics of Facebook apps shows that the feedback loops do in fact lead to class short tails. But the way it's done is very different from old media. More here:


Ori Fishler

I'd like to bring another point into the discussion: the importance of the long tail for the savvy consumers. Anita points in her study to the fact that people who watch a lot of movies go into the tail. More than that, the heavy users, prosumers, Savvy consumers, Buffs whatever you may call them are the BEST customers a service/brand can have. They purchase a lot and generate most of the buzz. They need to long tail otherwise they will get bored and go somewhere else. Focusing on the low usage visitors that consume the hits is a short sighted strategy. Encouraging your savvy consumers by helping them find interesting things in the tail will keep them coming (and bring their friends!).
More at:


Having gone through the HBR paper, I do have to agree with Chris that Anita did annex quite a significant portion of the tail in her definition of the head.

To effectively mine the Long Tail, the appropriate environment and tools have to be in place failing which, it is not the Long Tail theory that is at fault, but the application of it. It is exactly the same with mining for gold or oil – if its existence of and location has been pointed out but if the application and tools are incorrect, then surely the true benefits won’t be realized. This is what Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail theory is about.

Where there is an absence of any effective tool to better recommend songs in the Long Tail, the Paradox of Choice kicks in and paralyzes the user, so much so that the inertia results in low common denominator fare being consumed more. So instead of reviewing Rhapsody and Quickflix, if say, eMusic or Pandora had been analyzed, there would have been a greater chance of confirming the Long Tail. Pandora has already reported that a large proportion of the music played is non-mainstream and this also implies a fat Long Tail which is always precipitated by a leading head.

One fact, quantified by Anita's research is that the top titles are consumed by almost all groups, and my conclusion is that this serves a role just as a staple food. The misapplication of the Long Tail has it that the staple will be forsaken for niches, but in actual fact, they are not fully dichotomous and are complementary with the staple always being consumed, but in lower quantities as more niches are made known to and MADE RELEVANT to consumers for consumption.

Towards the end of the paper, Anita quoted Chris “The companies that will prosper will be those that switch out of lowest-common-denominator mode and figure out how to address niches”, and then she subsequently reiterated quite a number of points that Chris has already made in her “Advice To Retailers” section. So the question is, since Chris had already highlighted the potential of Rhapsody to address the niches in The Long Tail book, the question is whether Rhapsody attempted to realize this potential and effectively mine the Tail or has Anita’s research just highlighted the fact that both Rhapsody and Quickflix are simply ill-equipped for it and in effect disqualifies them from being an appropriate case study to disprove the Long Tail?”


Chris, can we expect a more detailed response? I'm a bit disappointed that you can't give us anything more substantive than "a quick read" and some blockquoting.

Chris Anderson


I think calling my response "some blockquoting" is a bit ungenerous. I read the paper, analyzed where she and I disagreed, and explained why. I think I've responded to every substantive (ie, backed with data) point in the paper.

I didn't, however, respond at length to her assertions about ratings because there's not enough data there to know what she means. For instance, she writes:

“When I differentiate between artists on smaller, independent
labels and those on major labels, I find that the former
gain some market share at the tail end of the curve as a result
of the shift to digital markets. However, that advantage quickly
disappears as we move up the curve: A more significant trend
is that independent artists have actually lost share among the
more popular titles to superstar artists on the major labels.
(These results hold when I control for the number and type
of titles that artists brought to market.) Thus digital channels
may be further strengthening the position of a select group
of winners.”

Sadly those sentences, rather than being evidence, just raise questions such as these:

1) Does that data just reflect digital sales, or is it a mix of digital and physical (which is much larger)? If the latter, it may be explained by the shrinking shelf space available for music in B&M over the past few years, between the bankruptcy of Tower Records and many independents, and the ~30% decrease in music shelf space (and thus number of titles) at Wal-Mart over the past three years. In other words, that shift may reflect changes in the B&M world, not the digital world, as indies find it hard to get physical shelf space.

2) If it’s just digital sales, I’d need to understand her sentence a bit better. What does “most popular artists” mean? Is that a percentage or an absolute number like top 1000? For instance, if she’s saying “Four years ago, 50% of the top 1000 digital tracks were major label. Now it’s 60%” that would be very interesting and we’d need to bring a music industry expert in to explain it. But if she’s not saying that, then I’m not quite sure what she is saying.

In short, those assertions are meaningless without hard numbers, and so there's really not enough there to respond to.



This long tail is not a new phenomenon as far as atleast the film industry is concerned. If it was not long tail, we would only see concepts or stories that are only a slight deviation from the big hits all the time. But we have audiences for indy films, we have audiences for wide range of genre-s etc. Moreover, there are always new concepts coming up that create a niche.


This long tail is not a new phenomenon as far as atleast the film industry is concerned. If it was not long tail, we would only see concepts or stories that are only a slight deviation from the big hits all the time. But we have audiences for indy films, we have audiences for wide range of genre-s etc. Moreover, there are always new concepts coming up that create a niche.

Mario  Carpo

Re: Lee Gomes, Revisiting 'Long Tail' Theory
WSJ Europe, Wed 2 July 08, p. 33

Long Tail, Architecture, Computer Aided Design

Architects and designers have been familiar with something similar to the notion of a digitally induced "long tail" before Chris Anderson created the term. Instead of, and before the long tail, digital architects had "mass-customization" (a term also borrowed from economic theory, but to which digital architects gave a different technical meaning in the 1990s). A more recent architectural term is "non-standard seriality", meaning: the serial mass-production of non-identical parts.

The old notion that mass-production and economies of scale required product standardization (a mantra of 20th century modernism in architecture and design) does not apply in a digital environment. Using digital tools for design and manufacturing, we can now mass-produce variations at no extra cost. This theory was intuited by some technologists, postmodern and post-structuralist thinkers in the 1980s (among them, Gilles Deleuze), before it became an actual technical possibility.

However, the architectural approach to the matter is limited to the supply side. Using digital technologies we can now produce infinite variations of the same object, all at the same unit cost. To date, we cannot prove that there is a demand for this. With the exception of some highly technical applications (mostly in engineering and structural design), there is scant evidence of a social demand, or even of a market demand, for unlimited product customization, even when it comes at no cost. This is where the architects' predicament crosses paths with the critique of the "long tail" you discuss here.

Mario Carpo
Paris, France

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The Long Tail by Chris Anderson

Notes and sources for the book

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