There's a thought-provoking article over at the Wall Street Journal (subscription required) that takes a pretty tough look at the online reality of the theories espoused in Chris Anderson's mega-hit "The Long Tail." The article features author Lee Gomes doing some digging up of stats at popular etailers and then comparing them to Anderson's theories from the book. The results certainly aren't what one might expect to hear. In fact, many will interpret them to mean that online gold is better found in the "short peak" than in the long tail.
So what's so shocking about Gomes article? Well, take a gander at a few snippets from it...
Let's start this discussion where Mr. Anderson starts his book, with his discovery of what he calls a paradigm-changing statistic. In the introduction, he tells how he learns from Ecast, a music-streaming company, that 98% of its catalog gets played at least once a quarter -- much more than most would predict.
This "98 Percent Rule," as Mr. Anderson names it, suggests the remarkable prospect that no matter how much inventory you put online, someone, somewhere will show up to buy it. He writes, "Everywhere I looked the story was the same. ... The 98 Percent Rule turned out to be nearly universal."
Except it's not. Ecast told me that now, with a much bigger inventory than when Mr. Anderson spoke to them two years ago, the quarterly no-play rate has risen from 2% to 12%. March data for the 1.1 million songs of Rhapsody, another streamer, shows a 22% no-play rate; another 19% got just one or two plays.
It doesn't stop there... in fact, the more data that Gomes shows, the more you start to see holes being poked into Anderson's theories..
By Mr. Anderson's calculation, 25% of Amazon's sales are from its tail, as they involve books you can't find at a traditional retailer. But using another analysis of those numbers -- an analysis that Mr. Anderson argues isn't meaningful -- you can show that 2.7% of Amazon's titles produce a whopping 75% of its revenues. Not quite as impressive.
Another theme of the book is that "hits are starting to rule less." But when I looked online, I was surprised to see what seemed like the opposite. Ecast says 10% of its songs account for roughly 90% of its streams; monthly data from Rhapsody showed the top 10% songs getting 86% of streams.
Bloglines, the widely used blog-reading tool, lists 1.2 million blogs; real ones, not computer-generated "spam blogs." The top 10% of feeds grab 88% of all subscriptions. And 35% have no current subscribers at all -- there's clearly no 98 Percent Rule in the blogosphere.
Now, before you go tossing out your copy of the book, or decide that the long tail isn't important, it's important to think things though a bit further. It's also important to go back to the source and to see what Anderson has to say in response to these criticisms.
The book doesn't claim that there are any cases where sales of products not available in the dominant bricks-and-mortar retailer in a sector (my definition of "tail") are larger than the sales of products that are available in that retailer ("head").
What it does say is that the current data at Rhapsody, Netflix and Amazon show that the tail amounts to between 21% and 40% of the market, with the head accounting for the rest. Although I don't discuss this in detail in the book, in the case of Rhapsody, the trend data suggests that the tail (as defined above) actually will equal the head within five years.
In response to Gomes claim that just 2.7% of Amazon's titles make up 75% of its revenues, Anderson rightly points out that Gomes doesn't have a full grasp on the statistics involved in online verses offline inventory. (Since with online inventory, your inventory numbers are basically limitless.)
Let's say you have 1,000 items and the top 100 (10%) account for 50% of the sales. Then you add another 99,000 items to the catalog, and the sales of that top 100 fall to just 25% of the total, while it takes another 900 items to make up the next 25%. I would say that demand has shifted down the tail, because those top 100 items have dropped from half the market to just a quarter of it and the rest of the demand is spread over more items.
But by Gomes' math, we've gone from a market where 10% of products make 50% of the revenues to one where 1% of the products make 50% of the revenues--in other words, it's become more hit-centric. I think this is simply a misunderstanding of basic statistics, and I'm disappointed that Gomes, despite many emails from me and at least one economist to him on this point, chose to simply say that I don't agree with that approach (but not why).
At face value, the Wall Street Journal article appears to be a hard-hitting "got ya!" piece of journalism. The points made appear to be valid and do a great job of calling into question the validity of the long tail claims. This will especially hold true in the eyes of retailers that have no experience tracking or testing the long tail. With that in mind, Andersons' response points more than one instance where Gomes purposely misrepresents his findings in order to support his own point.
Overall, it will be interesting to see how this shakes out in the blog world and in the industry. Chances are high that most believers in the long tail theory will go to Anderson's comments to read the rebuttal and will quickly understand that things are not always as they are "reported" in the media. The long tail may not be the magic key to online success, but it's also far more than the whimsical theory of a guy that wanted to sell a lot of books.
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