Chasing the long tail

The concept of the ‘long tail’ (a term popularized by Chris Anderson in a Wired article in 2004) is becoming almost a buzzword, and everyone wants to know how their site is taking advantage of the long tail, as if it was a new technology or search engine algorithm. Demystifying this simple concept is extraordinarily helpful to many businesses, especially those with a regional/geographical focus but hoping to drive national sales as well.

The long tail refers to all the less popular items, whether they are books, music, cooking utensils, or search phrases. The “head” is made of a few very popular items that make up 70-80% of the entire volume of searches or purchases. Everything else—from obscure, out-of-print titles to very specific phrases for uncommon items—makes up the long tail. In the traditional economy, it is difficult to find items in the long tail. Record stores can’t afford to build a store large enough to fit all the CDs and bookstores couldn’t be big enough. Without even getting into the issue of major publishers and their relationships with retailers, the sheer reality of limited physical space made offering the entire long tail impossible. However, the web’s changed all this.

Digital technology makes it as easy to carry 100,000 products as 10,000 (for argument’s sake), and the decentralized nature of the Internet makes it easy for a regional producer of widgets to reach a global scale. None of this would be compelling, however, if it wasn’t estimated that the gross volume of “long tail” sales can make up to 60% of all sales total. As Chris Anderson named his book, “…the future of business is less of more.”

What this means to smaller companies, or companies with very specific products, is that they have greater access than ever before to the niche customers that keep them in business. And since data suggests that long tail searches are by users much more ready to purchase, being positioned to offer that extremely specific item is crucial. This means that existing businesses can expand their customer base exponentially and niche stores need not be limited by geography. While exotic, multi-flavored snowcones might not sell in Alaska, if you can ship them successfully there’s no reason why a good website can’t make that business thrive.

This radical paradigm shift accompanies changes in the way consumers respond to advertising. The popularity of Web 2.0 demonstrates that people are more interested in choosing what they find interesting, relevant, and hip, rather than the forced-response advertising that has dominated television for the last 30 years. With greater availability of alternatives, the logic follows that consumers will choose more of them.

This is all great news for our customers, who we help reach the infrequent but extremely specific customers as well as campaign for the bigger terms. A strategy that incorporates the consumer who is looking exactly for your product and the consumer that has a general interest in your category is essential to surviving in this changing world. As more and more of the mainstream stumbles off the beaten path, we work to make sure those diverse stores are there to meet their interests.