Thursday, September 28, 2006


“Long Tail” May be Great for Publishing, but Not for Printing... Unless Printers Act to Make It Otherwise

A hot book this year has been The Long Tail by Christopher Anderson. He initially wrote about the concept in an article of the same name in Wired magazine about three years ago. Basically, he uses a concept of the statistical dispersion of observations to describe a world where “big hits,” like best selling books or the blockbuster movies. This large amount of sales is the head of the curve. Anderson's thesis, illustrated by examples ranging from the creation of the Sears catalog and its impact on early 20th Century rural consumers to today's examples of and NetFlix, among others. It's no accident that Apple's iTunes is thriving and that retailer Tower Records has declared bankruptcy. Rather than the “big hit,” the back catalogs of older offerings and specialty and niche products will have greater total sales than the “big hits” but dispersed over many, many products. This “long tail,” or the longest, flattest, and lowest, part of sales will have the greatest return.

Anderson does a superb job of making his case, acknowledging the contributions of decades of business and demographic innovations. This is contrary to the stereotypical Internet book which starts off with the assumption that these times are different than any other, and if you don't get on board now, you're dumb and you'll be out of business next week, or sooner.

There's only one area where I feel that Anderson is neglectful: there is virtually no mention about the revolution in logistics that companies like FedEx and UPS have created, where almost anything can be shipped for next day delivery. The connectivity of the Internet aside, which is a near-miracle itself, if a product can't be digitized, then you need these companies. Without them, for example, would be just an interesting order entry process, and then a plodding delivery system. The idea that you can track your package with a few keyboard strokes and mouse clicks is incredible.

The book reminded me of the calls I would get whenever a printing plate company had a new controller or CFO. Predictably, I would get the question “Do we need all these plate sizes? Can't we standardize on a few plate sizes?” The answer would be negative, of course; the variety of press vintages, models, modifications, and operator preferences all conspired to create finishing and inventory nightmares for plate companies and their dealers. They all found ways to cope with these problems through the years, but this would indicate that not all products can be “long tailed” with the beneficial effects that the concept offers in other categories, but even Anderson is aware of that.

The “long tail” is creeping into the things that we do and the way we look at business practice. For example, magazines have always touted their circulation and readership, broadcasters have referenced the reach they have with audiences. In a long tail world, targeting to very narrow audiences is all the more possible, and all the more essential. Micro-niches aren't “sexy” from an advertising perspective, and they challenge implementation tactics and budgets. We should remember, however, that the ultimate small niche marketing is the traditional one-person/one-client sales call. If sales people have been tailoring their pitches to customers based on the unique requirements of that specific client, then question is how to multiply that capability with other communications methods.

To do that requires that marketers create situations for individuals in microniches to become entities that facilitate efficient communications. Sometimes these are events or other promotions. The development of e-communities is an obvious one. Trade associations and users groups are others. Do these entities exist in a manner worth supporting to the ends you need as a marketer? If not, work to create them. This is one of the reasons why public relations has gained in importance in the Internet era.

Publishing is probably the most obvious focus of The Long Tail. Because audio, video, text, and graphics can all be in digital form, the cost of maintaining them is constantly declining and means of accessing and transmitting them is always improving. Content creation is the ultimate “long tail” business.

In a recent interview in Folio:, Anderson, still an editor at Wired, responded to a question about the “long tail” concept as it applies to publishing with “...I don’t look to the publishing industry for guidance. I look at what the readers are doing. Once upon a time I used to compete with magazines and newspapers. Now I compete with magazines and newspapers and 20 million blogs. Readers have choices out there—some of them professional, some of them amateur. The name of the game is attention and I’m fighting for attention share with a vast, increasing number of competitors.” The lesson is one that marketers have known for a while, and one that I have used many times in presentations: ignore your competitors, stay ahead of your customers. It's hard to implement in a market that is so reliant on its “big iron” investments in presses. The press you buy, its size and capabilities, is an expression of where a print owner believes opportunities will be for the next ten years. To ask printers to be willing to walk away from their hard-won purchase in an attempt to satisfy every twist and turn in a fickle marketplace is certainly asking a lot.

In the same interview, Anderson reminds us that the nature of the Internet distribution of information has changed dramatically: “The day when you could shovel your stuff onto the Web site and people would bookmark it and come back are pretty much gone.” Most people visiting sites today are referred from somewhere else. Google has changed the whole concept of branded portals. Audiences can't be taken for granted, and the serendipitous audience traffic from search engines puts new pressure on communicators to make sure that one visit they might get from that person makes positive, satisfying impression. The search engine phenomenon means that more people are being delivered to a specific web site page, and not to a home or landing page. It also means that site visits are topic-driven and not event-driven. Not that there isn't interest in news, of course, but the “long tail” looks at news as the daily addition and enhancement of topic-accessed archives.

An article in The Wall Street Journal applied significant scrutiny to many of Anderson's claims in the book. Some of them poked holes in the book's data, which Anderson defended and refuted. It has to be remembered that The Long Tail, like many other business books point out trends and concepts. It's for others to take them up and run with them if they see fit. The marketplace is constantly changing: Anderson is not writing a history, but expressing ideas about things as they have happened so far. As business people we have to walk with one foot in the past, another in the present, and a hand reaching for the future. All of our future sales will come, by definition, sometime in the future, and we have to remember that the technologies that make the “long tail” possible also affect the costs in the head. Competition from the products in the tail, affect the nature and design of the ones in the head. Business is not a lab experiment where we can control one variable. The business environment is almost chaotic, which is why such a premium is placed on good forecasting. Anderson's are just his ideas, and there will certainly be others opposite his. The world economy is so large and diverse that conflicting paths to success can always be found.

What does all this mean for print? Again, knowing why and how people use print, and ultimately the information contained in print media, is a valuable service that printers can provide. When there are no printed materials, the printers can be creating the electronic versions for clients, hosting them on their servers, but also providing wise counsel about how to provide the right access on web sites. It's obvious that the “long tail” concept is an underpinning of ondemand book production and all ondemand documents. If you've ever thought of getting into those businesses, this is a must-read.

As stated earlier, The Long Tail might be considered by some to be a warning of the demise of the printing industry. But printers who understand the concept can start building the capabilities and innovative services that their customers will need as the “long tail” continues its slow integration into everyday business practice and life. Instead an eerie premonition, think of it as the foundation for a blueprint that can be used to create a print business' next strategic leap forward. We have to stay ahead of our customers, don't we? Otherwise, the tail wags us.

Get the book The Long Tail at

The original article

Tower Records' bankruptcy

The Folio: interview

The Wall Street Journal that questions the book

Anderson defends himself

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