Long Tail Marketing

by Mike Levin

It’s amazing how quickly controversies flare up and play themselves out. The Lee Gomes Wall Street Journal old-school response vs. Chris Anderson’s long tail book lit up the blogosphere. The WSJ article is available for direct linking, something you can never assume to be true with the WSJ. They essentially “lock up” their content, allowing it to be searchable via Google (as a content partner), but not always reachable. I guess when they need to be a player in the blogosphere, they let articles out on a case-by-case basis.

These are all old topics by now, but epitomize the message behind long tail marketing. Large mainstream press is still the 800 lb. gorilla of media, and a Lee Gomes article can make quite a stir. But the reaction is swifter and broader than the mainstream media has a backchannel to handle. All the activity that would normally be routed through letters to the editor now take place online and in real-time. And where Chris’ longtail site is no WSJ, it’s perhaps a 400 lb. gorilla of the blogosphere.

And that epitomizes the battle. Chris was the self-proclaimed winner, because he was able to respond to the WSJ article through a blog that he controlled about as quickly as the WSJ hit the news stands. And his site already had considerable reach and notoriety, and so was able to make his voice heard instantly. Everyone knew where to look. It all played out in a single day, and Chris’ voice boomed like a Chicago hardline rocker across the Internet. Lee’s voice on the other hand was quiet and delayed, relying as he did on an associate Nick Carr to get out his response the next day.

And this in essence summed up the debate. Yes, the old school way of doing business isn’t going away. Chris never said that it was. Sure, there was some bombastic exaggeration in promoting the book. Language like “the new shape of business” and “the hit is dead.” But Chris constantly makes the concession that the long tail effect is strongest where product is electronic, or otherwise lends itself to the new model. If I recall correctly, he has a chapter dedicated to this fact.

Hits play an important role in our national psyche. They give us common currency for that water cooler discussion. It turns a diverse population into a global village. The same technologies allowing long tail successes also have an amplifying effect on true hits, and allow rapid global distribution. Before long, the $100 laptop and global Internet mesh will allow people in any country in the world to see blockbuster hits. Unmitigated, this could result in global homogenization, and put culture and tradition in jeopardy.

So, the long tail effect actually plays an important social role in mitigating the homogenization that comes with better technology, economies of scale and gentrification. It’s actually a shame in some ways that the long tail phenomenon is most effective with online economies. I would love a multitude of high quality niche specialty shops. Problem is that a shopping mall that could even begin to rival the diversity and choice available online would have to be not the size of The Mall of America, but the size of Minnesota itself.

And this ultimately is why the long tail is so often coupled with the concept of marketing. The actual transaction takes place with a combination of online payment and fulfillment through either electronic or physical means, such as shipping. In many ways, once the prospect makes their purchasing decision, these details of the transaction are of no consequence. The place where the long tail effect was most important was in the marketing phase. The processes of marketing and sales have been brought closer together than ever before in history.

A person has a need. This person turns to the Internet and performs a search. They find one or more sellers. Relationships are formed. Relationship deepen as the person continues their research, and becomes a prospect. One particular prospect-seller relationship strengthens, based on the merits of the product, pricing, or some other factor. The prospect places the order and becomes a customer. If handled properly, the customer becomes a repeat ongoing customer. And therefore, the Peter Drucker mission of any company is fulfilled: to get and keep customers.

This is the dream of almost all marketers: a nearly automated customer-finding, relationship-managing, deal-closing, up-selling, success-story manufacturing machine. The level of automation that can be brought to the process is at unprecedented new levels, and the case studies that Chris put in his book, such as Amazon and Rhapsody are excellent examples. For Lee Gomes to latch onto the 98% rule as an attempt to invalidate such a fundamental shift in the way business MAY be conducted is silly.

Business is changed forever, and Marketers are in the drivers’ seat. There are unlimited products and services. There are factories across the globe that will manufacture them, and talented workforces across the globe to provide service. The most precious resource in all of business is shaping up to be natural search traffic. It’s the oil of the knowledge worker economy. It’s the finite natural resource that’s there waiting to be tapped into by the prospectors of the information age. And Marketers are the new long tail prospectors.

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{ 1 comment }

Michael Markman August 1, 2006 at 6:04 pm

No doubt that rapid response and Chris Anderson’s own reputation were critical here. But it doesn’t hurt that he has the better argument. ;)

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