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The Longer Long Tail

Chris Anderson

In 1988 mountain climber Joe Simpson wrote Touching The Void, a harrowing story about near death in Andes. Got good reviews, but few sales, and was quickly forgotten. Then in 2004, Into Thin Air as both a book and docu-drama. A few readers posted reviews on Amazon of its similarity to the earlier book, which they praised. Others liked the reviews, and picked it up as well. Touching The Void was re-released and made it into the NYT best-seller lists.

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This simply would not have happened 10 years earlier. Simpson's book was almost out of print and readers, even if they'd heard of it, would have been unlikely to find it. But Amazon's system made it possible.

The Pro-Am era of astronomy has arrived - so much data being gathered that not enough astronomers to watch whole sky, so enthusiastic amateurs adding to observations, and crowd sourcing sifting through the images from Hubble etc.>

In many fields, like music and film, we are seeing a shift from consumers to producers - blogs and YouTube 5-minute Films etc.

South Korea's OhmyNews - 65 pro reporters/editors screen and collate reports from more than 60,000 amateurs, from school kids to uni professors. They submit up to 200 articles a day, for which they receive a pittance.

For a new generation of customers used to doing their buying research via search engine, a company's reputation is not what the company says it is but what Google says it is.

Today information is ridiculously easy to get; it is no longer the issue - making smart decisions based on the info is now the issue. Recommendations serve as a shortcut through the thicket of info. Editors, Store Buyers, Marketers, Record Labels, all used to pre-filter our tastes. Now, instead of trying to predict tastes in advance, it is measured post-filtered.

Sturgeon's Law ("90% of everything is crap") applies to the long tail, the whole Internet, and well, everything.

In the past, economics has been about the allocation of (scarce) resources. But we are now entering era of unlimited shelf space, at least as far as manufacturing and distribution is concerned.

Physical stores can only categorise an item once - if a pair of blue jeans is in the pants section, it's not in the 'blue' or 'denim' or 'casual' section. But online it can be in as many categories as you can think of, stimulating demand because noticed by people who weren't necessarily shopping for that at all.

There's a long tail of kitchen mixers. Kitchen Aid known for high end mixers, and also for colors it offers. If you go to a big box retailer, they'll typically have a white, a black and one other color, such as cobalt blue, that the chain has exclusive right to in exchange for providing shelf space for a third mixer. Kitchen Aid has found that the tiny bit of extra variety actually increases sales of white mixers. Customers are attracted by the bright colors, but on reflection, decide that the white one fits in better with the rest of the kitchen.

KitchenAid can make up to 50 colors, but usually only produced 2 or 3 each year. But when they started selling online, they offered all 50 choices, and got some unexpected results. One year, tangerine was by far the most popular choice - a color that company never considered mainstreaming.

Lego also has a long tail. The products you see in a toy shop are only half the company - the 10% of products that sell to kids. The other 90% of inventory goes to AFOL - blocks that are too niche to justify shelf space, but worthwhile because Lego sells at full price and doesn't have to pay a retailer cut.

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