Long Tail FAQ

  • Do you really need both ends of the curve?
    I argue in the original piece that successful aggregators have to have both hits *and* niches. But for aggregators of user-created content, like photos or blogs, community may be more important.
  • What's a "filter"?
    Filters are people or software that help you find what you want in the long tail, driving demand from hits to niches. They come in many different varieties, many of which I describe in this post.
  • How finely can you slice aggregation?
    Most of the Long Tail aggregators, such as Netflix, Amazon and iTunes, completely dominate their categories. They are, in a sense, hits. But the Long Tail is about the shift from hits to niches--doesn't that apply to aggregators, too? If so, what might a niche aggregator be?
  • Does the Long Tail apply outside of media and entertainment?
    It does, big time. Think eBay (the Long Tail of physical goods) or Google (the Long Tail of advertising). Media and entertainment are just the easiest industries to understand, with the longest-running data sets to analyze, which is why I initially focused on them.
  • Why is this blog so, well, wonky?
    Hey, the search for the grand unified theory of abundance economics is no walk in the park. Rigor, baby. Plus I'm saving all the fun stories n' stuff for the book.
  • What the Long Tail isn't
    Is the Long Tail a magic incantation that can make every low-selling product category a viable market? No. Click for more on this and other misconceptions.
  • Is the Long Tail full of crap?
    There's a lot of junk out there in the Long Tail. Isn't that a problem?
  • What's a powerlaw?
    The Long Tail is a powerlaw that isn't cruelly cut off by bottlenecks in distribution such as limited shelf space and available channels. But what's a powerlaw and under what conditions does it appear?
  • The origins of "The Long Tail"
    Statisticians have talked about "long tails" before, but not the way we're using it here: to describe the consequences of the abundance boom created by technology.
  • Does the rise of the LT = the fall of mass culture?
    What does the shift from hits to niches means for the future of mass (hit-driven, mainstream) culture in America?
  • Is that 57% Amazon figure right?
    Not quite. It was based on good forensic economics, but seems with further research to be a bit high.
  • Does the LT increase demand or just shift it?
    Does the growth of the Long Tail increase the total area under the curve, or just shift demand from hits to niches?
  • What about producers?
    I can see what the Long Tail offers consumers and distributors, but are there equal advantages for producers?

Contact

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Biography

I'm Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of Wired Magazine. I wrote The Long Tail, which first appeared in Wired in October 2004 and then became a book, published by Hyperion on July 11, 2006. You can order it here. My next book, FREE, was published on July 6th, 2009 by Hyperion. You can buy it here.

My speaking engagements are handled by The Leigh Bureau If you'd like to have me speak at a commercial event, please contact them directly.

Some of The Long Tail is available online for free:

The Introduction and Chapter 7 ("The New Tastemakers") are here.
An updated version of the original article, which forms part of Chapter 1, is here.
An adaption of Chapter 2 ("The Rise and Fall of the Hit") is here.



The Long Tail, in a nutshell

The theory of the Long Tail is that our culture and economy is increasingly shifting away from a focus on a relatively small number of "hits" (mainstream products and markets) at the head of the demand curve and toward a huge number of niches in the tail. As the costs of production and distribution fall, especially online, there is now less need to lump products and consumers into one-size-fits-all containers. 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.

One example of this is the theory's prediction that demand for products not available in traditional bricks and mortar stores is potentially as big as for those that are. But the same is true for video not available on broadcast TV on any given day, and songs not played on radio. In other words, the potential aggregate size of the many small markets in goods that don't individually sell well enough for traditional retail and broadcast distribution may someday rival that of the existing large market in goods that do cross that economic bar.

The term refers specifically to the orange part of the sales chart above, which shows a standard demand curve that could apply to any industry, from entertainment to hard goods. The vertical axis is sales; the horizontal is products. The red part of the curve is the hits, which have dominated our markets and culture for most of the last century. The orange part is the non-hits, or niches, which is where the new growth is coming from now and in the future.

Traditional retail economics dictate that stores only stock the likely hits, because shelf space is expensive. But online retailers (from Amazon to iTunes) can stock virtually everything, and the number of available niche products outnumber the hits by several orders of magnitude. Those millions of niches are the Long Tail, which had been largely neglected until recently in favor of the Short Head of hits.

When consumers are offered infinite choice, the true shape of demand is revealed. And it turns out to be less hit-centric than we thought. People gravitate towards niches because they satisfy narrow interests better, and in one aspect of our life or another we all have some narrow interest (whether we think of it that way or not).

Our research project has attempted to quantify the Long Tail in three ways, comparing data from online and offline retailers in music, movies, and books.

    1) What's the size of the Long Tail (defined as inventory typically not available offline)?
    2) How does the availability of so many niche products change the shape of demand? Does it shift it away from hits?
    3) What tools and techniques drive that shift, and which are most effective?

The Long Tail book is about the big-picture consequence of this: how our economy and culture is shifting from mass markets to million of niches. It chronicles the effect of the technologies that have made it easier for consumers to find and buy niche products, thanks to the "infinite shelf-space effect"--the new distribution mechanisms, from digital downloading to peer-to-peer markets, that break through the bottlenecks of broadcast and traditional bricks and mortar retail.

The Wikipedia entry on the Long Tail does an excellent job of expanding on this.

The shift from hits to niches is a rich seam, manifest in all sorts of surprising places. This blog is where I'm going to collect everything I can about it.


Personal background
I live in Berkeley, California with my wife and five small children. Prior to taking over Wired in mid-2001, I was with The Economist for seven years in London, Hong Kong and New York in various positions, ranging from Technology Editor to US Business Editor. My background is in science, starting with studying physics and doing research at Los Alamos and culminating in six years at the two leading scientific journals, Nature (where I met my wife) and Science. A more personal history is here.

[Disclosures: Many. First, financial: I am the non-executive Chairman and a shareholder of BookTour, a company I co-founded in 1997. In March 2009 Amazon took a minority share in the company.


I am also the founder of DIY Drones and 3D Robotics, a company that makes robotics equipment. Our business partners include Sparkfun and Make Magazine.


More importantly, I am, unavoidably, conflicted because I live in the world I write about. I have friends, sometimes close, in many of the companies I discuss. I've run brainstorming sessions for some of them and spoken at others. Although I own no shares in any company mentioned on this blog, the book, or Wired Magazine (aside from my two startups mentioned above), I do speak for hire. I used to refuse money for speaking gigs, donating it to charity or sending it to my publisher in the form of book sales, but then my wife rightly asked how, exactly, she benefited from me spending most of my life on the road. So now I travel less (only half the time, as opposed to 80%) and usually get paid for it.


When I feel that my connection to a company, whether through a friendship or a business relationship, risks coloring my judgment as an editor, I usually recuse myself from that story. (I do so with Amazon, for instance) When it risks doing the same as a writer, I try not to write about the company at all. But there are plenty of examples, such as Google, Yahoo! or eBay, where this is not possible--I can't avoid writing about them nor can I not associate with their people (let that be a disclosure, then; I have friends at all three). I frankly don't know what to do about that. The list of my potential and real conflicts is impossibly long and I find it arbitrary to only list the conflicts that involve money (such as a paid speaking gig), since the friendships are much more likely to influence me.


So for those of you who care about such things, be forewarned: I don't follow (or believe in) j-school standards of impartiality. The only thing I will promise is that I have no financial stake in the future prospects of companies I write about, which means no investments of any kind in them (again, the startups mentioned above aside). If I praise them it will be because I'm honestly impressed, not because I hope to share in their financial success.]



By the way, there is no better way to spend $10 than to subscribe to Wired. But don't take my word for it. It's the wisdom of the crowd.






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