The Long Tail, Your Brand, Your Career : Don’t Get Whipped By The Long Tail


For those not already familiar with it, “The Long Tail” is a term that was introduced in a 2004 article  by WIRED magazine editor-in-chief Chris Anderson, describing the rising economic and cultural importance of niche products (and relative decrease in importance of mainstream “hits”) in contemporary life. Chris Anderson later expanded on this theme in his 2006 book, The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More.

Chris Anderson uses the term to describe a phenomenon which is the stretching or extension of the classic Demand Curve in economics, which looks like this:

Distribution Curve with Long Tail Highlighted

The demand curve is often used to illustrate what is commonly referred to as the “80/20 Rule” of business, or the Pareto Principle, which states that 80% of your X will comes from 20% of your Y. For example, salespeople know as a rule of thumb that 80% of their sales will come from 20% of their customers.

People who measure billable time, such as sales managers or professional service directors use a similar rule of thumb: 80% of revenue will come from 20% of the staff’s time and effort (or even, the top 20% of their sales staff). People who develop, merchandise and market products can predict, usually with a fair bit of accuracy, that 80% of their revenues will come from the top 20% of their product selection (although it should be noted that in some cases it can be even higher, such as 90/10 or 95/5).

You get the point. According to the “80-20 Rule,” bestsellers are (almost) everything. This rule of thumb is a simple and powerful tool — a kind of Golden Ratio of business — which managers can use to prioritize resources and budgets.

The problem is, as Chris Anderson points out, it’s starting to become less and less true. 

The Long Tail effect is one where the left, steeply sloping side of the demand curve, no longer accounts for 80% of sales, and may in fact be as little as 50% of sales, because the right side of the curve — the “tail” — is becoming very, very, very long.   In the classic 80/20 scenario, a hypothetical bookstore with 1000 books on its shelves makes 80% of its sales from 200 top titles.  But a bookstore  like Amazon.com, with millions of books, sells just as many of the “onesy-twosey” niche books as it does of its bestsellers.  

The Long Tail effect is something that has resulted, for the most part, by the availability of information through online media and the elimination of physical space (especially geography) in allowing people to easily access EXACTLY WHAT THEY WANT. The Long Tail effect applies to books, music, movies, mustards, salad dressings, blogs, cable tv channels and even jobs.

Enter the HR Manager’s nightmare:  She posts a job on Monster.com and gets 1000 applicants.  What to do?  The answer is, post ever-more-specific job descriptions and find candidates who ever-more-specifically match those criteria.  While this is going on (and it’s a process that starts in the early 90’s and plays out for the next 5-8 years), people are getting USED to the Long Tail economy. They love getting exactly what they want. Everyone wants a “perfect fit.”  Finding your niche is the new career mantra.

Now Seth Godin comes along. The man is remarkable and he wants you to be remarkable too.  He wrote a small but powerful book called The Dip.  Go and read it!   In this book, Godin takes Chris Anderson’s Long Tail concept and tells us each of us to find a small piece of it, some niche and become the expert of that specific area. That way, the world will beat a path to your door and pay you a premium for your expertise. Some big shots may get to have bigger slices of the tail, higher upstream, but for the rest of us, let’s just find our purpose in life and carve ourselves nice little slice of that Long Tail.  Everyone’s happy.

Well, not me.

I look at the graph of the Long Tail and I see an elevation drawing — like we’re looking at a wall from the side. Here’s the side / elevation view again:

Distribution Curve with Long Tail Highlighted

If we were to fly over it and get an aerial plan view, it would not be a straight line.  No, it would look like this:

What The Long Tail Looks Like From Above

 That’s right. It would look like a TAIL.

 Not only that, but it would be a tail that was moving around, wagging and wiggling, because after all, we live in times of rapid market change.  If you are higher up on the tail, you’ll probably experience less movement. But if all you’ve got is a slice further down, hang on tight. The market may shake you and your niche right off. Think about how a whip moves. The farther down you are, the greater the wave force pushes you down the line. The Long Tail is whipping so hard that you’ll get pushed farther and farther down the tail into ever-smaller niches… ever-more commodified… or just plain forgotten.   

There is hope, though.  There is another variant on the 80/20 Rule which states as follows:  When it comes to career success, your knowledge and skills are only 20% of what matters. Your attitude, on the other hand, accounts for 80%.  Even though social networking (aka “knowing the right people”) could be considered a form of knowledge, effective networking is not possible without the right attitude.  Having the right mindset will allow you survive and thrive even as the Long Tail thrashes about.   And guess what?  Even with the 20% — the skills and knowledge that you need — there are certain more generalized abilities (not the niche-expertise that some would have you specialize in)  that can also help you resist the whipping of the Long Tail.

What are these skills?  What is this mindset?

Stay tuned.

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About danspira

My blog is at: http://danspira.com. My face in real life appears at a higher resolution, although I do feel pixelated sometimes.

Posted on February 4, 2008, in Business, Career, Life, Marketing. Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. “When it comes to career success, your knowledge and skills are only 20% of what matters. Your attitude, on the other hand, accounts for 80%.”

    attitude is part of the definition of success. i don’t think success is a measurable tangible. it’s an abstract concept closely related to expectations and (self)attitude.

    that’s my biggest problem with Godin’s “the dip”. he assumes a business definition of success where success = being #1. success = growth. success = more. (altho, in all fairness, Godin does make a point to specify a very loose definition of “being #1″…)

    we live in business times where there’s a strong fascination with growth. especially rapid growth. if you make $5, you look for ways to make $6, then $10, then $20.. it never stops. I think it has to do with our generation who wants to achieve too much too fast.

    i’m not sure this attitude is sustainable.

    and if the coming generations are any indication, it’s not gonna last long either.

    more later!

  2. those are some great distinctions, thanks.

    maybe i should replace the word “success” with another term i’ve been hearing a lot of lately, which is “exceptional performance.”

    or “sustainable success??”

  3. I’ve worked in 2 companies now where both growth seems to equal success. Both these companies were looking to grow both their customer base (to make more money) but also the size of the company in terms of manpower. What was interesting in the first place was that they thought the market could keep expanding, which it did until it hit a bubble in 2001 and lo and behold, instant shrinkage, leaving the only option of layoffs. The current company is growing similarly, however they are facing a different problem, where internally the infrastructure growth is not being allowed to keep up with the extra manpower being brought in. Something will no doubt fail dramatically here too.
    I don’t consider either of these scenarios successful.

  4. i think part of the fascination with growth (actually, rapid growth) comes from a cultural point of view.

    psychologically, it’s more satisfying to see short term performance v/s long term performance. It is hard to cope with the idea that short term overperformance could lead to long term underperformance.

    unfortunately, publicly at least, short-term steady performance is punished by the market.

    Smg: i have heard countless stories along the ones you told. Both from owner perspective and employee perspective. I am more and more convinced there needs to be some idealogical shift by companies at some point.

  5. this is brilliant. i’ve got 66.7% of my blog’s readership talking to each other. thanks mates!

  6. Benzo – I absolutely agree with your comment about an ideological shift, but I think that this also has to be understood by shareholders and wall st. I think that since the advent of the MTV generation with its short attention spans, people are conditioned to try to make a quick buck vs long term profit. Patience is a virtue.

  7. the MTV generation is being replaced with yet another crazier generation. one that is apathetic. doesn’t like to work. Has been around the world at the age of 12. very jaded.

    the ideological shift will happen… it’s a question of when and which way!

    Dan: we will start charging you while we’re still in the early part of the tail.

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