September 12, 2006
Anderson's Long Tail
Chris Anderson's newly published book, The Long Tail.
Yes, I actually finished it.
The primary focus at the beginning was centered around traditional retail markets versus new long tail markets, and how and why the old 80/20 rule is now a 98% one.
Anderson talks about existing products and services that have tapped into the Long Tail phenomena and are achieving significant revenue from the sellers at the bottom of the list. Online distribution models, more choice and the ability to find the obscure has contributed to this shift.
Like some of the recent social media and Web 2.0 books I’ve finished in recent months, the Long Tail was a must cover-to-cover read given the fact that so many long tail businesses have a direct impact on my consultancy, not to mention my clients’ products and services.
Early on in the book, I found myself wondering about a different impact of this e-evolution (made this up). For example, we see evidence of success from large players where the 98% rule applies and is working – eBay, Amazon, Rhapsody, Apple, Real….yet given the focus on emerging niche markets, I started to contemplate how obscure the service or product could be and still have a successful long tail outcome.
Take a local wedding planner in a mid-west town, who is currently only servicing her immediate area. While her service may currently be best served in a local market, she could start to offer sub or related wedding planning services, which could appeal to a much wider audience. And now, she has the ability to reach that audience in ways that were previously just not compelling. Or possible.
In other words, she could develop a very obscure niche that may have more appeal in the south than her own region. And so on. How obscure could the market go and still reap benefits of the Long Tail? What might that look like and how creative will the creation be?
Says Anderson, “The Long Tail promises to become the crucible of creativity, a place where ideas form and grow before evolving into commercial form.”
What would a future look like if Long Tail market success continues at this rate, in a world where distribution and availability to endless content prevails, here and abroad. What about developing countries where the trickle effect has not yet been realized? Isn’t it inevitable?
The creative outcome might be really interesting in a place where they missed a trend or phase we already passed through or are still in the middle of, i.e., TiVo, Napster, AOL chat, Rhapsidy, MusicMatch, etc., and suddenly they have endless choices overnight. Access is immediate. Distribution is immediate.
Consider the immigrant who lands in the U.S. for the first time and walks into a grocery store? Or suddenly has online purchasing power at their fingertips, something they can now buy that is of value to them locally?
Abundance, choice, diversity, variety – I agree that the Long Tail provides us with all of those things, and yet in the midst of all this choice and abundance, I continue to feel overwhelmed and suffocated.
When I lived in the third world – and even during my stint in Europe – every day tasks were less stressful and complex. Simplicity and fewer connections were honored above numerous relationships and ‘outbound touches,’ i.e., services like MySpace, LinkedIn, Friendster, Yahoo Groups – enough already.
Thanks for more choices Long Tail e-evolution, but a part of me (which gets stronger as more stuff comes my way), says No More. Enough.
Certainly, this opens up the whole Attention Trust discussion and the notion that in a world of infinite choice, context, not content is king, an ongoing discussion in my industry circles.
I’m not saying that I don’t welcome radio to iTunes, or a world of hits moving to a world of niches. Filters are getting better – on and offline, to help me more efficiently discover new niche products, services and people. Until it gets to a point where it frees me rather than cripples me, I remain frustrated and impatient with the process.
Tags, filters and online recommendations can lead to fabulous outcomes, such as me buying a new book or CD by an author or musician that matches my preferred taste. Anderson uses a playlist as an example, where you can “catch a magic carpet ride on someone else’s taste – which can take you to another genre, where you can settle in and start the process again.”
I really resonated with his section on the dangers of ‘hitism culture,’ despite the fact that today, I can connect with Anderson and others in my generation despite our geography, economic status or education. We grew up in a hitism generation, simply because we had no other choice. With it however, comes sweet memories like The Brady Bunch, I Dream of Jeannie, Dallas, Gilligans Island, Boston and Journey to name a few. (some may disagree that these were sweet memories of course :-).
Today, the tastes are so fragmented, a common conversation across one generation wouldn’t be quite the same as it was for us a generation ago. Or serve as strong reference points the way they do for us today.
I also loved the section of the book on "Too Much Choice." You think? Am I the only one in my professional circles who feels this way? Barry Schwartz’ Paradox of Choice, argues that too much choice is not “just confusing, but downright oppressive.”
See my blog post on “It’s All Too Much," which will go live tomorrow.
Law professor Cass Sunstein says, “As the customization of our communications universe increases, society is in danger of fragmenting, shared communities in danger of dissolving.”
And from Christine Rosen. “In our haste to find the quickest, most convenient and most easily individualized way of getting what we want, are we creating eclectic personal theaters or sophisticated echo chambers? Are we promoting individualism or a narrow individualism? An expansion of choices or a deadening of taste?”
So much of the gain seems to be immediate rather than gratifying over time. How do you feel when you’re given so much choice that you now have more tasks, more commitments, more decisions to make every day, every hour?
Chris talks about jam varieties and how in one experiment, too much choice resulted in fewer sales, whereas feedback from his local supermarket manager suggested otherwise. He notes that in this store alone, there were more than 300 varieties of jams and Starbucks has over 15,000 coffee varieties.
How exciting to have tomato cinnamon clove and pear fig over strawberry and orange, but at what point does it become so daunting and confusing that it takes me four times as long to search for the item on or offline? Even with great filters, I sift through more choices, read more reviews, data on how it works or differs from other like-products.
My supermarket experience, which I write about in detail in tomorrow's “It’s All Too Much” post, left me feeling so overwhelmed that I remember slowing down to a snails pace when I entered a grocery store for the first time after living in the Third World. Longing for fewer choices and the need to make less decisions, I left not knowing whether I got the right item or not. Did I mention that this was more than fifteen years ago?
Of course I assimilated back into the world where I was originally conditioned and once again, it became the ‘norm.’ The question is not whether we can assimilate to a world with more choices and a growing niche culture, but how it makes us feel ‘over time’ about our environment and whether it erodes at the human side of our daily lives.
Anderson points out however that a world of niches is indeed a world of abundant choice, and that powerful guides in the forms of recommendations and other filters have emerged to encourage more exploration not less.
I think the benefits of this statement are clear: “this is the end of spoon-fed orthodoxy and infallible institutions, and the rise of messy mosaics of information that require – and reward investigation.
Truths? Maybe. Good for us over time? Hard to say. I’ll end with this Barry Schwartz quote, which I referenced earlier this week, but its so good and relevant, it is worth repeating.
“As the number of choices keeps growing, negative aspects of having multitude of options begin to appear. As the number of choices grows further, the negatives escalate until we become overloaded. At this point, choice no longer liberates, but debilitates. It might even be said to tyrannize.”
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