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June 10, 2005


Simon Griffiths

OK, so you get upset when people mis-understand what you mean by the Long Tail. But if you take where I am - Johannesburg - I have never heard anyone else talk about it - personally, radio/TV, or in print. So I reckon people are going to mis-interpret what it means until it gets more known.
BTW, aren't there some areas which are nearly all tail - eg, medical profession. In this country you can't advertise about it so it's all network driven.
As for VC getting long tail presentations, back in the mid 1990s a colleague in Silicon Valley told me how many proposals VCs got that were not for the main markets which they targeted.


After all, short tails are powerlaws, too. But they aren't, er, long.

I think you are wrong here. Power law, Pareto, and Zipf distributions are by definition long or fat tailed, compared to normal distributions which have short tails.

chris anderson


I've revised that point to clarify that I'm referring to y=1/x style demand curves that have been truncated by distribution limitations. For the sake of this post, it doesn't matter if that fits the exact definition of a powerlaw.

Jack Krupansky

This post provided a great service by clarifying that it's not an either or (head *or* tail), but that the "creature" has *both* a head and a tail and that exploiting the tail occurs in the context of the exploitation of the head.

Instead of focusing so much attention on the "tail", it might help to come up with better terminology that captures that essence of a long-tailed creature.

-- Jack Krupansky


Powerlaws are ubiquitous. Long Tails are not.

Really? I can sit and think of lots of long tails that occur in nature. E.g., Y axis: total biomass, X axis: species.

Offering a few different choices or a bit of customization (like the sandwich filling options in the risible example above) is not enough. Long Tail effects kick in when you're expanding variety and choice by orders of magnitude--from 10x to infinity.

Chris, if you allow the customer to include/exclude 10 toppings, that makes for 1024 possibilities. 1024 > 10.

Sure, that the sandwich blogger appears to hitch his ideas to your boat seems a tad amusing. But the fact is, Subway sandwiches do form a kind of long tail. Which gives your post the appearance of a Long Tail purification campaign to defend future book sales. At least to me. Tell me why I'm wrong!

Jakob Nielsen

I disagree with Gabe's conclusion in the above comment, but I think that the point raised is of some importance:

Offering customization choices is/isn't sufficient to provide a set of Long Tail choices.

I think customization ISN'T enough, even though it can easily lead to an astronomical set of choices through the magic of combinatorical explosion.

Take an ice cream store like Baskin Robins with 31 flavors of ice cream. Assume that a banana split includes 3 scoops of ice cream and that you can choose between 3 toppings (they probably offer more).

This leads to 119,164 different banana splits, if "no topping" is a choice and you otherwise get to pick one topping. If you can combine toppings, there are 238,328 different banana splits.

The reason this is not Long Tail is that you don't really pick between 238K different products. Neither from the perspective of user experience nor the perspectives of manufacturing and retail are there 238K choices.

As a user, you make 4 choices: 3 scoops + topping, selecting between 31 options for each scoop and 3 options (that can be combined as desired) for the topping(s).

This is a fair amount of choice, and certainly much more variety than a restaurant that had only one menu option, our special banana split. But it's still fairly limited.

So that's my explanation for why customization options are not Long Tail: when you make each choice independently, there's no combinatorical explosion in the user experience. Cognitively, you make narrow decisions, even if you have to make a sequence of decisions.


C'mon everyone, get a grip! Mark's original post on 'Subway's Longtail' is very tongue-in-cheek and certainly a satirical response to all those who do misquote/misunderstand Chris' great work.

I forwarded Mark's post to Chris as a humourous aside, not as a serious application of Chris' work!!


I think that this is going to be the biggest issue with understanding the idea of The Long Tail(TLT). Powerlaws are common, and it's easy to put one into a presentation, but that doesn't mean the situation is really about TLT.

You have to start somewhere on the journey of finding stuff you want to get. It makes sense to start with the popular stuff, thus the head. But then you want to dig down a bit and find other things.

What makes the concept of TLT different is that it's as much about letting the consumers *find* the product than about having the products themselves. The ability to drill down with intelligence, to build on the fly a map of the jungle that is the end of the tail (90% of which is crap), that seems to be one of the definitions from original Wired article that lots of folks seem to miss.

Terry Rock

I've been using it as an example of an application of long-tail thinking:

A Business Revitalization Zone in a city is thinking strategically about its future. It has a lot of niche stores, funky restaurants, etc. but not enough traffic for the shop owners to really make a go of it. One strategy might be to invite a "big box" store (or stores) to the 'hood to increase traffic. The dynamic would be that what the big box cannibalizes from the purchases of any one consumer would be made up by the increased traffic (and diversity of interest) of those attracted to the area by the big box.

Does this work for you? I've seen the biggest opportunity/challenge of long-tail thinking is that somehow you have to "enter the curve." The economics only work if the future customer "enters the curve" at the head. In effect, sales occuring in the tail are free-riding on the marketing spending of those in the head. And then, once the curve has been entered, there must be enough diversity in demand (not only supply) to enable moves down the tail. Another critical factor is that products must be horizontally differentiated (ie, "taste" driven).

As a niche player, then, I'm looking *hard* for ways to leverage the good work of my big brothers up there in the head... though not necessarily a new strategy, technology makes it much much easier for the small guy to employ it.


I think it's absolutely wonderful when people try to explain to you what your theory actually means. I had someone re-explain one of my own comics to me recently. :)


You guys still don't get it. To have a "long tail" you must have a _ratio_ scale for the independent variable. A set of items is a _nominal_ scale and, since nominal scales can be ordered in any manner, their display on a "long tailed" distribution is arbitrary - they can also be displayed an infinite number of other ways.

Here's how to display any nominal "long-tailed" distribution as a central (normal-like) distribution:
1. take the maximum value and plot it in the center of the chart,
2. take the 2 next-highest values and plot one to the left of the max value and one to the right,
3. repeat step 2 until out of values.

Now your effin' "long-tailed" distribution is a "normal" distribution. Wow! So what's that mean? It means that there _is_ _no_ _such_ _thing_ _as_ _an_ _intrinsic_ _long_tailed_ _distribution_ for nominal data!



To your point, are you saying that nominal data such as (most common example given for TLT) different videos in the netflix catalog (on the x-axis) and # of times rented (on the y-axis) CANNOT be construed as a "long-tail" distribution because the x-axis is on nominal and not a ratio scale?

Perhaps that its not the actual shape that matters its more the # of x-axis buckets & the frequency deteriation from most common to least common. But yes, I get your point on a TECHNICAL level.

David Locke

The long tail depends on hits to create the subculture that later supports the same merchandise once the hit is supplanted by the next hit. Without the subculture, all you have is different varieties and most of those are in goods categories without market barriers, so the goods move up and down the distribution from one week to another. It is the culture that puts the goods at position 78654 or .000344%.

That a culture does this means that there is a correlation between possion games and the long tail where the possion game describes the asymetrical information gradient that is culture.

Subject domains have cultures. With the subject domains are the paradigms, aka subcultures, or niche markets. The niche that was ABC cost control competed with traditional cost accounting eventually moving into being a hit. So there is migration across the long tail.

Chris Bertelli

You were cruel to blow upon the poor chap with his sandwich example, but quote with approval the “Noveau Niche” hypothesis at trendwatching.com a month later. The sandwich example at least relies on differences in the economics of shelf space and distribution (vs. a supermarket with pre-wrapped sandwiches) to make its case. Noveau Niche does not.

The Noveau Niche hypothesis suggests that people will increasingly shun mass-market items because they are mass, and seek niche products because they wish to differentiate themselves from the mass. Difference becomes a positive attribute in itself. This trend does not depend on any changes in the economics of production, marketing, sales, or distribution due to the internet or anything else. The Noveau Niche urge would persevere even against unfavorable economics – people would presumably pay more to be different. The Noveau Niche urge certainly helps long tail businesses, but the two phenomena seem to have entirely different origins.

You also declare that the combinatorics of customization do not equal long tail. But what if you graphed the frequencies of all the combinations sold at Subway and got a power law distribution? Subway probably achieves higher sales by customizing than they would get if they offered just ten varieties of pre-wrapped sandwich. It’s not exactly an earth-shaking example of a long-tail product strategy, but you might be wrong to dismiss it with scorn.

I come to this question while writing about the long tail for an audience that is not all scheming about internet startups. They are companies that already exist, and make stuff. How will they know if the long tail matters to them? In particular, I am considering how long-tail product strategies apply outside of culture and media industries.

The Boston Globe carried a column on 9-1 about multiplication of product choices on supermarket shelves, and the long tail was dutifully invoked. You might say this is another case of abuse. The economics of production/marketing/sales/distribution have not changed. Shelf space at the supermarket is as finite as it ever was. The globe column fell in the “tyranny of choice” genre, which never bothers to ask why the producers add new product variants. Do they sell more in aggregate that way? Are they just trying to muscle their rivals out of shelf space? Just trying to torment us because they are meanies? Probably the latter. Procter and Gamble really is the devil after all.

In an unrelated column in the same issue of the Globe, Alex Beam whined about the existence of 14 varieties of Coke, up from two 40 years ago. (No long tail reference -- whew!!) Coke is not stupid. Either they are trying to hog shelf space, or the niche variety strategy increases their sales in a constant amount of shelf space. As a counter-point, I thought of James Surowiecki’s New Yorker article about the movie industry changing its product strategy because of growing relative sales of (long-tail-friendly) DVDs vs. the (long-tail-hostile) box office. That seems like a great example of how the long tail actually changes producer behavior – how it becomes more than a curiousity or the stuff of start-up dreams, and becomes relevant to existing businesses.

So … the film industry shifts its strategy toward niche products, because they can make more money doing it, and that is long tail. Coke shifts its strategy toward niche products, because it can make more money doing it, and that is not long tail. Hmmm… why not? Is it because the number of movie titles in the market is four orders of magnitude larger than the number of Cokes? That suggests a difference in degree equals a difference in kind, always a suspicious premise, especially when you are happy to talk about micro-tails elsewhere. The sales of Coke varieties might also form a modest power law distribution. Perhaps it’s also fair to say the “hit” (ordinary Coke) leads people to the niches, by the simple search mechanism of putting them nearby on the shelf with a similar label.

The movie industry example is driven by a change in the economics of marketing, sales, and distribution. Coke’s example is perhaps more of a Noveau Niche thing, with similar or worse economics than just offering Coke and Tab. Is that the difference? If niche marketing is only consumer-driven (i.e. increases sales), with no change in the distribution model, it is disqualified from long-tailhood?

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forwarded Mark's post to Chris as a humourous aside, not as a serious application of Chris' work!!

Michael St. Laurent

OK, so I am new to this whole idea of The Long Tail...I have read all of Seth Godin's books, tha at least qualifies for something! But I am looking for input into our small company with a great product that will probably never go mainstream. It is a new line of running shoes that offers a unique brand to the market - for core runners. The whole idea is to do something that the big brands wont offer.. that is comfortable relatively inexpensive running shoes that are just as good as the big guys. BUT, and this is a big but, they dont change for fashion every 6 months AND they are not over-hyped and bedazzled with techno junk.
Thoughts out there
Our site. www.locorunning.com

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Great article! I love learning about the long tail for attracting visitors!



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like you mentioned, if the bottom line is that the product must be good and have a demand.

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Nice blog, its great article informative post, thanks for sharing it. Thanks for the information!


OK, so I am new to this whole idea of The Long Tail...I have read all of Seth Godin's books, tha at least qualifies for something! But I am looking for input into our small company with a great product that will probably never go mainstream.

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The Long Tail by Chris Anderson

Notes and sources for the book

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