Is 'The Long Tail' a Misnomer?

futurelab default header

by: Iqbal Mohammed

[An excerpt from my recent paper entitled ‘The Elongating Tail of Brand Communication: An approach to brand building incorporating Long Tail economics.’]

"Misconceptions and misnomers
One of the most common misconceptions about the long tail is that it requires the Internet as a precondition for it to work. It’s true that the Internet has given rise to the most visible and celebrated examples (ironically, the hits) of the long tail phenomenon. But its existence (or involvement) isn’t a necessary condition for the working of a long tail.

In his book, Chris Anderson begins narrating the history of the long tail with Sears and Roebuck and how in 1906 they revolutionized shopping with their mail-order catalog business. From their gigantic warehouses in Chicago they could stock and deliver over 200,000 items, compared to the mere couple of thousand at the nearest general store. And what’s more, their efficiencies meant that people could buy them at as much as 50 per cent lesser, even after shipping.

Mail order catalogs were the long tail of general stores and so were the supermarkets that emerged soon after. Correspondence courses and degrees were the long tail of college education before online education took over. Credit cards are the long tail of the money lending industry.

In fact, as Chris Anderson mentions, “The story of the Long Tail is really about the economics of abundance – what happens when the bottlenecks that stand between supply and demand in our culture start to disappear and everything becomes available to everyone.”

This process of easing of bottlenecks is gradual and wherever supply and demand are making light of the hurdles (with or without the help of the Internet), there’s a long tail blooming.

The second misconception about the long tail is that it’s an absolute term – that in a given market there’s one concrete, well-defined and addressable block that responds to the name of ‘long tail.’

The truth is that the long tail is a relative term – and the long tail is in fact made up of hundreds of long tails, each with heads of their own. And no matter where you are on the curve there’s a long tail waiting to be unearthed further down the tail.

In that sense, time and technological progress are the twin engines that gradually dissolve the barriers to supply and demand until a time when we’ll simply have “culture unfiltered by economic scarcity.”

In my opinion, one reason why these misconceptions exist is because of the name. Chris Anderson picked up the name from statistics – curves with characteristics of these power law distributions are called “longtailed distributions.” Chris merely turned it into a “proper noun” and the Long Tail was born.

I think a better-serving name would have been ‘the elongating tail’ – an adverb + noun pairing capturing not just its present tail state but also suggesting the permanence of movement inherent in it.

With this name, the birth of the internet would have just been an incident (albeit a significant one) in the history of the Elongating Tail. A history that dates back to the times when man first started gathering at marketplaces for barter and trade, instead of settling for whatever his neighbour could offer."

You can download the paper here. And you can read what Chris Anderson says about the paper here.

Original Post: