The Long Tail of Chris Anderson

< ?php amm_getMediaID(‘amm_default_output’,24);?>The latest blow to the longstanding preeminence of the bell curve and ‘normal distribution’ comes via Chris Anderson. longtail1.jpgI first ran across the term “Long Tail” as it described the boats that transported me along the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok. More recently Lazlo Barabasi has brought the term to prominence in the context of power law distributions. Barabasi refers to each website in the network of Internet websites as a node. Those nodes to which other nodes are most frequently connected are referred to as hubs. Yahoo, Google, and AOL function as hubs in that, most people who are looking to be connected to another website, will pass through one of these portals or search engines on their way to other, less popular nodes.

The significance of the power law distribution, or the Long Tail, is that the popularity of the, relatively few, hubs does not limit the number of websites that people ultimately connect with. While a only a small number of websites will attain hub status the number of possible nodes to which people connect is virtually limitless.

Chris Anderson does a wonderful job of describing the processes that allow these Long Tails to manifest and has brought the discussion into the realm of economics and commerce. Anderson delineates three forces that have catalyzed the “emerging Long Tail marketplace”.

    1. Democratizing the tools of production.
    2. Cutting the cost of consumption by democratizing distribution.
    3. Connecting supply and demand.

Having spent a number of years as a buyer for a brick and mortar retailer, I can truly identify with, what Anderson refers to as the “tyranny of the shelf”. In a traditional store there is only so much shelf space and, as a buyer, your mandate is to fill the shelves with merchandise that will sell. The trick is to be able to buy the items that will appeal to the greatest number of consumers. Methods such as “good, better, best” and “narrow and deep” are widely recommended techniques for optimizing a buyer’s purchases.

A buyer’s lot isn’t an easy one. Guessing correctly, predicting trends, and finding the “right” products are skills that are crucial when shelf space limits your choices. Much to the chagrin of less influential buyers, Wal-Mart latched onto a formula that has served them very well in the world of limited shelf space. Wal-Mart’s buying power has allowed them to transform many of the marketplace’s high-end, feature rich products; products that would normally have been out of reach of the pocketbooks of the average consumer, into lowest common denominator, mass-market versions of their former selves. In the process the high-end progenitors and their manufacturers would inevitably be driven towards extinction.

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