I’ve heard this phrase–the long tail–tossed around, and I never fully grasped what it meant until I started reading the first four chapters of Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail. The long tail basically refers to niche marketing and its importance in our current economy. Thanks to online companies like Netflix and Amazon that rival their store-only competitors (well, what started out as store only), these online giants have perfected the idea that people can customize their profiles and have their choices actually come to them rather than seeking out movies, books, etc.

I loved the way Anderson opened his book with the example of the mountain climbing book. A twenty year old book has been given a second chance thanks to generous online distribution, niche choices, personalized suggestions, and its presence on the long tail. Amazon turned the book into a best seller by coupling it with a similar selection. Like this book? Try this one, too. It works. And so does the long tail.

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In a world where virtually everything–information, books, knowledge–is easily accessible, the long tail demonstrates that niche marketing and consumption is as important as ever. Everything around us is personalized now–from our Google homepages to our Nike shoes to the engraving on the back of our colorful iPods. Most of the websites I use every day require some kind of log in information, and continue to provide me with choices that will be of interest to me.

The long tail is important because we’ve come not only to expect a vast selection of choices but to demand it. It’s frustrating to go into a store and be turned away because the selection you want isn’t in there…and it’s so easy to log in to your Amazon account and find not only what you’re looking for, but also a few more options you didn’t even know pertained to your interests.

What’s popular in our culture (iTunes Top 10 Songs, and so on) will continue to attract the majority of people, but after a certain point the choices taper off. Those choices to the right of the graph–away from the head and defining the tail–contain niche fragments. Consumers can belong to different parts of these niches. The overload of information and the sheer volume of choice makes these niches absolutely essential to our lives as consumers and online users.

Amazon and Netflix both started out with overwhelming choices, personalization, and customization. Others such as BN.com–which started as physical stores and later tapped into the online world–have followed suit with more selections offered online than in the stores. Blockbuster succumbed to the pressure of Netflix by offering their own expanded online mail services for movies.

I’m all for the long tail and niche marketing, but I can’t help but wonder what will happen as more companies adapt a bigger inventory in an effort to customize and personalize the selections for their customers. Netflix and Amazon have been so successful because they were the pioneers of this new type of economy. I am interested to see what will happen as this slowly becomes the norm, and the tail might taper off for the big guys so that the newcomers can participate in the long tail.

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