Saturday, October 07, 2006

Internet: 'The Long Tail'

This insightful book, by the editor-in-chief of Wired magazine, describes three trends that are changing the way we produce things and shop for them:
  1. It's easier to produce stuff (think of how much easier it now is to publish music, books, films, facts, opinions than it was in the days when traditional media ruled)
  2. It's easier to store this material (for example, Amazon can 'store' over approaching four million books, four hundred times better than the biggest Borders store.)
  3. It's easier for customers to find this material (through search technologies and recommendations, for example).
The result is the Long Tail, the idea that via the Internet we can all access an almost infinite inventory of products and ideas. It turns out that, when we are given this choice, we use it. This in turn means:
  • Bestsellers are less important, as are all the power-structures devoted to the care and feeding of bestsellers -- editors, agents, publishers, stock-buyers, advertisers
  • There's money in that there Tail. For example, Chris Anderson quotes the figure than around 750,000 Americans rely on Ebay as their primary or secondary source of income. All these people are supplying specialist goods and services that would be hard to find in the high street. He gives examples of self-published books that are selling between 5,000 and 50,000 copies without bothering agents or mainstream publishers or high street bookstores at all. This is fascinating because of 1.2 million books being sold in 2004, fewer than 25,000 titles sold more than 5,000 copies in that year.

His final chapter suggests some ways to succeed in the Long Tail world. Briefly:
  1. Make everything available
  2. Help me find
Or slightly less briefly:
1. Stock everything
2. Get your customers to help -- for example by holding stock themselves (like Amazon's marketplace) or by their input and criticism that helps people find their way around your site.
3. One product, price, and location doesn't fit all. Try to offer as many different flavours of everything that you can.
4. Stock everything, and track sales, rather than trying to guess what to stock
5. Don't underestimate the power of free. You can build a business that involves 90% of your customers not paying anything (like Yahoo or Skype).


Some random ways in which the Long Tail affects my little world:

Some book agents are going to get the idea soon that the best way to find a possible best seller is simply to look at the self-published books that are selling well on Amazon, and then offer the author a contract, rather than trying to figure out what we sell well (and usually getting it wrong).

We should adopt Long Tail thinking when we come to marketing ourselves and our books in the mission agency I work for. For example, we can target Google ads at people we want to recruit. Our website will be enhanced by free stuff and by areas where users can put in their own material, for example missions mobilization ideas.

I've worked in the past in writing and compiling information about the Church worldwide, putting the material into a series of books called Briefings. These were great fun to do and have sold many tens of thousands of copies. See, conveniently, my website. But they have many limitations. It would be much more authentic and quite a lot of fun to set up a Wiki system where people around the world could write about their own cities and countries, passing on information, asking for prayer, and supplying links to videos and so on.

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