The long tale of the long tail.

The variegated interests combined with the self-referential nature of the blogosphere means that lots of cool new ideas get propagated quickly, then longer. The “long tail” is a spectacular example of this. Taken from an article appearing in the October issue of Wired, the long tail is in essence the ignored end of what we used to think of as Pareto’s 80/20 rule. The thinking was that we could get 80% of the revenue from 20% of the customers, so we could ignore the other 80%. The other 80% are the long tail.

The long tail is of course the talk of all bloggers today, as they give their views of the value of the long tail. It isn’t new though; it has always existed just by different names. Think hippies, or lunatic fringe. Think early adopters. Ross Mayfield took Robert Scoble to task today for confusing the long tail with the technology adoption curve, but that isn’t hard to do because early adopters are part of the long tail – they’re just a part that we now address thanks to Geoff Moore.

Fifty years ago Frederick’s of Hollywood made a pretty good living out of addressing a need for mail-order trashy lingerie, certainly not something any proper woman would want to be seen buying. More recently Victoria’s Secret addressed a need for more upscale lingerie and as a result became a cultural icon.

While the internet has certainly provided an incredible solution to the problem of economies of scale by allowing customers and sellers to have a very effective conversation, and eliminating the need for bricks and mortar stores, it is in no way new. Mail order houses of all kinds have made a pretty good living doing exactly this for years.

The long tail has existed since kids were buying x-ray specs from comic books. Many successful businesses have sprung up to serve parts of the long tail, like specialty bookstores. In the seventies, Saturday Night Live had a running sketch about a scotch tape store. Starbucks has made a fortune addressing the needs of upscale coffee drinkers who don’t mind spending $4 for a coffee – certainly not representative of the average 80% of Americans. eBay is the epitome of addressing the long tail.

The difference now is that it is possible for one company, like eBay or Amazon, to address and have visibility and measurement of the long tail. This is unlike what we saw as niche segments before – like La Perla, Victoria’s Secret, Frederick’s, or Sears lingerie – all addressing different needs for the same product. But Robert Scoble is right in saying that the next big companies will come from the long tail. Only they’ll come faster, like Google did, because they can see the whole tail and address it by moving and learning quickly. And smaller departments at Microsoft could too.

I started to write this because I was tired of hearing about the long tail. But look, I’ve gone and propagated it again.