Towards the end of 2004, the Editor in Chief of Wired Magazine, Chris Anderson, published an article entitled The Long Tail. In that article, Anderson argued that “in an era without the constraints of physical shelf space and other bottlenecks of distribution, narrowly-targeted goods and services can be as economically attractive as mainstream fare” (Source). The model presented in Anderson’s article has consequences for ecommerce stores.
Since the publication of his article (and a book by the same name), the long tail has attracted substantial attention from economists.
The academic consensus seems to have undermined the theory.
Ironically, the website that Anderson launched to explore the idea, LongTail.com, has disappeared as well.
This article explores both what happened to the idea, and what happened to LongTail.com.
The Idea Behind The Long Tail
In 2006, two years after publishing his article, Anderson published the book The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More, where he expounds his theory (Source). The book’s subtitle puts the tactical implications in a nutshell. With the advances in technology that now allow customers to access products that appeal to their tastes, Anderson advanced the argument that more money could be made from selling many niche products than selling a few products sold in large volumes. Therefore, a prudent company would consider relying less on bestsellers and concentrate more on the earnings to be made from the Long Tail—niche offerings that would otherwise not have been profitably in the past when the only way of selling goods was through brick-and-mortar channels.
The Long Tail philosophy presumes that our culture and financial system is gradually moving away from a focus on a relatively small number of “hits” (typical products and marketplaces) at the head of the demand curve and to a large number of niches in the tail. As the expenses related to production and distribution fall, especially online, many goods that sell slowly can remain on the shelves for longer periods without incurring extra costs (Source).
A careful inspection of the website LongTail.com shows that it was last updated in December 2009. At this time, Anderson announced: “This blog is on hiatus.”
The blog would never leave that status until this day when an attempt to access it shows that it is not available.
The academic challenges that faced the theoretical model of the Long Tail started in 2008 when Anita Elberse, a business administration professor at the Harvard Business School, published an article in the Harvard Business Review questioning the model.
Elberse had explored data from the music service Rhapsody and discovered that “the top 10% of titles accounted for 78% of all plays, and the top 1% of titles for 32% of all plays.” She found that while it was true that there was a long tail in music consumption, it was shallower and flatter than Anderson seemed to suggest, with a massive concentration in the head. The data provided by Elberse could be considered the blow that derailed the Long Tail model. Her ultimate recommendation for producers and retailers was to continue to invest in blockbusters.
Even though Anderson is reported to have said that he was happy that his theory was receiving serious academic attention, he was dismissive of most of Elberse’s findings. Slate.com, an online magazine that publishes news about culture, business, politics, and technology, reports that Anderson contended that Elberse is picturing a much bigger “head” of the demand curve than he is. The same site also reports that he also argued that all songs which people buy elsewhere but are not for sale at Wal-Mart are examples of the Long Tail. Anderson attempts to argue that such sales make a considerable chunk of the business of music (Source).
Implications Of The Long Tail Theory In Commerce
Even though some have questioned Anderson’s model, several writers have argued that it holds for smaller businesses. This is a view supported by writers like Andras Marcell Marko, who writes for Yuspify.com, a website dedicated to ecommerce and big data. Marko argues that while large ecommerce stores can afford to ignore the Long Tail model, because of their power to buy large amounts of goods at wholesale prices, those who want to sell products that have less competition have no choice but to “unleash the long-tail potential” (Source). He argues that the online auction site, eBay’s, success is credited to the presence of lots of auctioneers selling small quantities of “non-mainstream” products.
Products that can be stored with zero or near-zero inventory prices, like digital movies, books, and music, can gain from a Long Tail-like approach. Netflix and iTunes are put forward in one article on Nextbigwhat.com as examples of companies that have shown the implications of the Long Tail Theory in ecommerce.
What Then Happened To The Long Tail And Longtail.com?
It looks like the Long Tail lost steam when Anita Elberse poured cold water on its claims. In a follow-up book titled Blockbusters, Elberse continued her persistent opposition to the Long Tail model, offering more ideas about why the digital tipping of scales in ecommerce, predicted by Anderson, is not likely to be realized.
When Mark Mulligan, a technology and media analyst reported in his blog that in 2014 the top 1% of music artists were responsible for generating 77% of all income made by recorded artists, there was further proof that the Long Tail model may have missed the mark (Source).
While the Long Tail model seems to have generally been dismissed, the advent of music through streaming services and subscription services for music and films may, in the future, lead to a discussion as to whether the Long Tail idea was that bizarre. For instance, there is potential that the curated lists and the music station model being applied by Apple Music may force more traffic towards the tail.
With regards to Longtail.com, it looks like the site lost steam as the Long Tail idea itself seemed to fizzle out. Anderson then abandoned the site in 2009 with a promise that it would soon be back. However, this promise has not been fulfilled for close to a decade.