Long Tail theory debunked – NOT…!

Chris Anderson’s “Long Tail Theory” has been debunked by two economists who have conduced an exhaustive statistical analysis, according to The Times.

If you’re not familiar with this theory, it suggests that thanks to the Internet we will now be able to benefit from millions of tiny business “niches”, rather than have to go for the “big traffic” items. In other words, for instance, in the real world we’d find it hard to sell left-handed knitting needles aimed at the under-5s, but online, hey, there’d be a ready market.

Ever since The Long Tail was published people have been trying to disprove the theory. Noticeably, these are mostly people whose own livelihood is threatened by the Long Tail idea, people who depend on the notion that most of the money is made from large numbers of people buying a small range of items.

Central to the opposition are economists – and they are in the frame again in this latest analysis which is designed to prove Chris Anderson wrong. Economists, of course, are the people who have been “advising” governments for the past decade telling them that all was fine and that the notion of “boom and bust” had disappeared. Mmmm. Economists are the people who have been telling us for goodness knows how long that if we create lots of rich people in the world it will “inevitably” motivate the poor people to become richer. Mmmm. Economists are the people who have been telling us that we actually need debt in order for the world to function. Mmmm. Well, perhaps we ought to tell economists a thing or two.

Like the fact that their latest analysis against The Long Tail is flawed. They state that there are 1.23 million albums published, but only 173,000 of these actually sold. OK, find me an bricks and mortar retailer who can stock 173,000 different albums. Few, stock more than the Top 100 which suggests that most of those sales came online in several “long tail” niches.

Equally, the economical analysis shows that only 52,000 singles tracks were sold to provide 80% of the revenue. Again, the record industry produces only around 4,000 singles a year – so most of the 80% sales figures are coming from the long tail effect.

Furthermore, this is only an analysis of record music sales. Would it apply to books, cars, or nuts and bolts? Music sales are still dominated by what traditional radio playlists have on them. As people move away from listening to “old-fashioned” radio, towards online radio, social network dominated music, the ability of the record industry to promote only a few tracks will disappear – and that will have a significant impact on sales. If the economists who performed this recent debunking of The Long Tail were to repeat their study in 10 years time, it would produce startlingly different results.

And, of course, these economists don’t have a past analysis for comparison. Prior to the online world of music downloads you would have only been able to buy The Top 40 – indeed when I was a lad only The Top 20 was on sale in Boots The Chemist…! They would have been able to “prove” that almost all of the sales came from The Top 20…!

It is of course all nonsense; all this latest analysis tells us is that people buy what’s available and what they have heard about. As more people use the Internet and hear about more things, those things will sell. So forget about the debunking of The Long Tail theory – and concentrate on honing your skills to reach your specific market. There are always people who will buy what you want to sell – you just have to find them.

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