The Long Tail Tale

The Wilson Quarterly, Autumn 2008 | Go to article overview

The Long Tail Tale


THE SOURCE: Should You Invest in the Long Tail?" by Anita Elberse, in Harvard Business Review, July-Aug. 2008.

WIRED EDITOR CHRIS ANDERSON made a big splash in 2004 with his article (later a book) touting the revolutionary coming of the "long tail." His thesis: that online companies such as Amazon and Rhapsody could cheaply market hard-to-find products such as offbeat song tracks or books, and the individual sales from such niche products would stretch out in a "long tail" on a sales chart, eventually overtaking the high-volume sales of the bestsellers.

Anita Elberse, a professor at Harvard Business School, recently tested Anderson's idea. Looking at Rhapsody music "plays" over a three-month span (more than 32 million transactions), she found that "the top 10 percent of titles accounted for 78 percent of all plays, and the top one percent of titles for 32 percent of all plays." Although the numbers represent a much greater diversity of songs (since even one percent of a million is still 10,000) than might be available at, say, a typical Wal-Mart store, Elberse found that overall Rhapsody sales were still more densely clustered around the "head"--the more popular offerings-than the "tail." The same pattern held when she looked at Quickflix, an Australian service that rents DVDs by mail: "Some 150 titles (roughly the number of movies released annually to theaters by major Hollywood studios) accounted for nearly a fifth of all rentals."

Elberse and a colleague also looked at Nielsen reports about online music and video sales. …

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