Who wags the tail

The Long Tail, as in use by the book of Chris ...

Who wags the tail? We do.

Chris Anderson’s work The Long Tail evaluates the “economics of choice,” and looks at the factors which have changed the way consumers and sellers interact in the digital age, specifically the internet retail market.  With greater accessibility to products, and more sellers able to meet the demands of what Anderson calls the “Niche Markets”, what consumers buy and what sellers deem as revenue makers has changed.  No longer do you find retail markets which rely exclusively on “hit” sales in a given market –in Anderson’s telling of this phenomenon he cites the music industry as an example.  Instead, Anderson’s prediction is simple: the future of business is selling less of more.  In Anderson’s book, “more” is the product.  Regardless of what product it is, in effect, the sales of a myriad of products which are small but frequent surpasses the expectation that the greatest profit should be found in the fewest products, or “hits” in any industry.

I am not the typical reader of economics or marketing strategy.  However, the evaluation of marketing trends, and the idea that sheer volume of sales of anything and everything make the greatest profit margins, fascinates me.  Probably because I am one of the all-seeking and shopping consumers whom Anderson discusses, and whom  Solis says companies must rely on.   It is clear from my own use of search tools and social media, that I can seek out products intentionally, but also can be informed about products that I didn’t know exist and can buy products I never realized I needed or wanted.

To me, that is the greatest influence social media like Google, Twitter and Facebook provide to the consumer world, and the greatest impact sites like Ebay and Amazon offer to the now informed and influenced shoppers.  Both Solis and Anderson discuss the power of being connected, and the themes of choice and access are central in both books.  However, Anderson’s explanation about the economics of choice and what is found and available in the long tail of any market becomes relevant when we think about the vast number of items one can buy in any industry.

Anderson’s long tail reminds me of the old adage “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure”

Offering unlimited choice, virtually, doesn’t require unlimited space, actually.  The concept, linking product access and real estate on a shelf in a store, is another idea Anderson explores,  mostly through the music and movie industry.   The access creates a whole new level of competition to the market of promoting and selling media to consumers.  I never consciously connected the demise of Block Buster’s and Border’s Books with the fact that I can get the same media available on my kindle, my iPod, or in print form, faster, using Amazon or other online retail providers.  The concept of the long tail is tangible in Anderson’s book, mostly because I think readers have all been consumers in the tail, and probably never knew it.  I know my husband’s love of random musical theater soundtracks and independent films has been well fed.

Thinking about the variety and quantity of options in “The Tail” also leads to the consideration about how an increase in product access impacts the economics of variety.  Anderson does describe the idea of possibly too much variety, but he then frames this concern with the sophisticated resources that are available to consumers.  Tools that help narrow product selection, such as key word search or other filters can help consumers navigate the choices.   Strategies such as offering product parings, as seen on Amazon, or consumer reviews and ratings, support purchases made by consumers.  Simultaneously these reviews validate what was also discussed in Solis’s book, Engage, where Solis identifies the increased faith in the individual consumer as a voice of authority, various companies and markets in general are realizing the importance of the advisory role of individuals.  The primary playground for this sort of consumer engagement is the Web.  Both Anderson and Solis speak about the Web not just as a marketplace for merchandise but also a marketplace for opinion.  Anderson calls it the great leveler of marketing, allowing for the niche markets to coexist along other larger well-known names.

I found Anderson’s work thought provoking.  But, applying Anderson’s “ Long Tail Rules” to my client, the International Baccalaureate Organization, is challenging.  The two rules I can apply, however, include rule 2: Letting the customer do the work for you, and rule 4: One product doesn’t fit all.  I see the use of social media (as Solis also describes) both effective, and practical, in letting the voice of the IB be the voice of the students, teachers, and staff that bring the program to life in schools around the globe.  I also acknowledge and support how the IB has evolved over time, creating different program strands to meet the needs of a variety of audiences.  Audiences including career-oriented high school students with their IB Career Certificate, and even offering their middle school program, called the IB Middle Years, in three forms:  five years in grades 6 – 10, three years in grades 6 – 8, and even two years, grades 9 & 10.   Most recently, the IB is offering students the chance to test in the Diploma program components which were traditionally components exclusive to students pursuing a full IB diploma program, these being the Extended Essay, Theory of Knowledge class, and CAS.  These changes may be seen as compromise, but they can also be seen as progress.