The Long Tail, Hits and Buzz

Posted on July 26, 2006

A Wall Street Journal article by Lee Gomes slams the Long Tail saying it may be a long time before the Long Tail is "wagging the web." Long Tail author Chris Anderson defends his theory in a post here on his blog. Some bloggers, such as Rough Type, are saying both the WSJ and Anderson both make good points.

The Long TailIs the steep slope of the Long Tail graph really ever going to change? Once a product gets enough buzz it might be picked by a company with much more marketing power. A self-published book that gets a buzz may eventually get picked up by a major publishing house. It will then start to sell many more copies thanks to the distribution and marketing powers of the publisher. At that point this product is no longer part of the Long Tail but part of the Head. Arguing about whether the Long Tail is more valuable than the Head or vice versa may be pointless because once a product hits a certain sales point it leaves the Long Tail and becomes part of the Head. But where exactly is this point?

The Guardian blog points out that you can argue just about any point you want by where you decide to divide the head and the tail.
Gomes makes one basic point, which is roughly that Anderson has overstated the economic value of the tail. This may well be true. Anderson's response is, roughly, that Gomes has misunderstood the statistics, which also seems to be true. But the plain fact is that there is no definitive division between the head and the tail, there's just one long powerlaw curve (above), and you can try to prove whatever you like by making an arbitrary division and moving it around. How many angels on the head of a pin, again?
It seems to almost depend on what your definition of a hit is. What's far more interesting about the Internet is buzz. Snakes on a Plane already had New Line Cinema and Samuel L. Jackson behind it but the online buzz has made it bigger than it would have been. It is hard to believe there ever would have been expensive Snakes on a Plane jewelry without the Internet. But how do you quantify this? You can't but you still know that this immeasurable impact exists. On a smaller scale online buzz helps push new artists and their products so they are recognized by more and more people. Eventually, with enough buzz, an artist may reach a point where a publisher or producer is interested and a deal is made. The publisher or producer puts advertising and marketing behind the artist's product and the product leaves the Long Tail for bigger and better sales. The marketed brand - or artist's name - by then has likely become big enough that it can generate sales on its own.

The Long Tail is helpful for large ecommerce companies like Amazon.com. It probably also helps authors and bands sell their backlist and early albums. But new artists probably can't sustain themselves on the Long Tail alone. At some point they will need a hit. The Internet is used to look for hits everywhere you look -- the top blogs on Technorati, the top videos on YouTube, the top podcasts on iTunes and the top stories on Digg. So far, the publishers, tv networks and studios are still looking for hits. When publishers look for bloggers to pitch book deals they look for authors with buzz. When Carson Daly looked for new talent he looked for a YouTube star. As long as everyone is looking for buzz and hits the slope of the Long Tail graph isn't going to change much. On the positive side, maybe blogs and the buzz they generate can push higher quality products up to the top.