The Long Tail
Make, the book-like home "how-to" publication, enjoys a 50 to 70 percent sell through at the newsstand. But perhaps even more impressive is the magazine’s long shelf life. Make Vol. 1, which debuted in March 2005, drew 35,000 subscribers and another 35,000 single copy sales. But today, "If I add up the total paid circulation for volume one, it will be twice the number now than when volume one hit the streets," says Dan Woods, associate publisher of Make Media Division. "It continues to be one of the hottest selling issues, both through Amazon.com and book channels. Our subscribers view it more as buying a collection;there’s a long tail of demand."
That phrase, "The Long Tail," is hot. With the recent publication of Wired editor Chris Anderson’s book of that name, the concept of niches and community-driven sales dominating commerce through the rise of digital content is high on the agenda for businesses and all kinds of cyber-thinkers.
In short, the Long Tail refers to economic demand. The theory postulates that the digital format makes it economically viable to offer a vast range of content that can’t be offered physically;think iTunes versus a record shop, for instance;and that there will always be demand for even obscure content. While Anderson focuses on the Long Tail effect for books and music, the effect also has relevance for media companies, particularly magazine publishers contending with rapid changes in the way their customers consume information.
"Chris applies his theories to the new realities of a marketplace comprised of endless virtual space," says Rex Hammock, president of Hammock Publishing and publisher of rexblog.com. "When I first read his article and then followed the book’s development online, I began to feel he could have as easily been talking about the magazine marketplace. The newsstand is dominated by a handful of relatively large publishers. But if you focus not simply on the New York-centric newsstand pubs, but all the alumni magazines, association magazines, custom magazines, religious titles and others, then I believe you’d discover that the publishers considered dominant actually have a small share of this larger marketplace."
FOLIO: spoke about the Long Tail with Anderson and why it matters for magazines. The downside is, few publishers are even at the stage to begin considering the Long Tail. The upshot is that some companies are starting to develop a Long Tail model almost by accident. Regardless, those that don’t adapt to the way their customers determine what is important could be left behind.
FOLIO: Give us a sense of where you see the Long Tail being applied in magazine publishing.
Anderson: To be honest, I don’t look to the publishing industry for guidance. I look at what the readers are doing. Once upon a time I used to compete with magazines and newspapers. Now I compete with magazines and newspapers and 20 million blogs. Readers have choices out there;some of them professional, some of them amateur. The name of the game is attention and I’m fighting for attention share with a vast, increasing number of competitors.
FOLIO: So how has that influenced what you’re doing?
Anderson: When I think about what magazines should do, I’m thinking as the editor of Wired and as an employee of Conde Nast. The question is, how do we add value to what’s out there already? Part of the answer is self-evident;monthly magazines, long-form journalism, sharp design, exquisite photography, a compelling form factor that has excellent battery life and readability under sunlight. That’s half the answer;it’s something that can’t be replicated online. It’s a necessary but not sufficient condition. If the audience doesn’t understand how compelling the product is, it’s not part of the conversation out there. They won’t experience it and they won’t realize how compelling the print experience is. You’ve got to be out there, you’ve got to work on multiple levels.
FOLIO: I sense a "but" coming on.
Anderson: Let’s put aside the print version. No, it’s not dead but it’s not enough. The day when you could shovel your stuff onto the Web site and people would bookmark it and come back are pretty much gone. The fact is, you are one of dozens of content sources that people are consuming in an omnivorous media menu. Increasingly, it’s not people coming to your Web site. It’s people seeing you mentioned elsewhere. It’s not people coming to your front page but coming directly to a story because someone linked to it. Maybe it’s not people coming for your content but for your community;contact and engagement with other readers. I wish I could tell you someone out there is doing it perfectly. I wish I could tell you we’re doing it perfectly. But none of us are. At least at Wired, we had an excuse, we didn’t have a Web site. Now I have another week’s worth of excuses with integration.
FOLIO: What about Make seeing sales grow long after that issue debuted?
Anderson: Something like Make is a perfect example. It has a long shelf life with good content that accumulates over time. The longer it sits in the archive, the more links it gets. Google has a time function so you need to keep getting links to stay where you are. They do it on a book form but they have a fantastic blog and Web site. Make is a model that lends itself to a deep set of resources.
FOLIO: How does this change the traditional pace of media?
Anderson: The old model of media is all about freshness while yesterday’s news is fishwrap. The new model of media relevance is determined by the community. It matters less and less what’s on your front page. What matters is what’s struck a chord, and what strikes a chord sees people linking to stories. A study recently showed that half the traffic to Web sites is after 36 hours. The old model of newspapers was that 100 percent of their readership is within first 36 hours and zero after that. The extraordinary interest in things we previously discounted, like archives, is the real lesson of the search and blog traffic era. If you look at the original article I did on the Long Tail, more and more of our traffic is coming from search and third-party links and less and less is coming to the front page. It’s so-called micro-chunking of content. It’s less dependent on what I say the media menu of the day is and more about what the mob says the media menu of the day is. It’s not about my brand or my Web site, it’s about my stories. Some of the traffic comes from bloggers linking to stories, some comes from Google measuring links and subsequently delivering those results high on search results. For me, it’s about 50/50, half my traffic comes from blogs. RSS is a whole other thing that is hugely important;once you subscribe, you don’t have to be part of someone else’s routine. But if you send too much or too little quality, they unsubscribe.
FOLIO: Who else do you see doing this?
Anderson: The Publishers Lunch guys, PaidContent.org, Publishers Marketplace;they have Web sites, they have newsletters, they also have premium subscriptions;for not-a-huge fee you can dig deeper for data. A lot of the data is publicly available but it’s not neatly aggregated. These are great models but none of them have print components and they’re small, small, small operations. One of the issues is the economics of print versus online;that’s hard to reconcile. Some publishers are very smart about what works for them. Some are on the margins and looking to re-invent themselves.
FOLIO: How have you put this into practice?
Anderson: For us, our traditional model is a one-size fits all model. When I signed the book deal, there was a two-year period before it came out, so I open-sourced my research. Although I didn’t write it in public on my blog, I did research it there. I shared my ideas on the blog and basically beta-tested it before publication to the consternation of many who said, ﾑWhat are you doing, giving away your ideas?’ I did it because it made for a better book. When it came out, the blog was a great marketing vehicle for the book and allowed me to own the name as it were and continue to talk about stuff that didn’t make sense to include in the book. Now it’s a continuing conversation. The question is, could you do the same thing with a magazine article? Could you share the research and publish it immediately and become part of the conversation and have longer shelf life? Because your stories need to stimulate conversation outside your own site.
FOLIO: In his Publishing 2.0 blog, Scott Karp made the observation that while Web 2.0 and the Long Tail Theory may democratize voice on the Web, it doesn’t redistribute revenue in a similar fashion. He says Google and Yahoo will probably continue to control most of the revenue with the remaining online players fighting over the crumbs. Karp writes, "When Google found a way to monetize the Long Tail through AdSense it became the ﾑhead’ of a new Long Tail. We shouldn’t mistake Long Tail economics to mean that everyone will get a share of the wealth." What’s your take on that?
Anderson: I’d like to see his data. What data does he provide?
FOLIO: He does a comparison of the top 50 blogs in the Technorati Top 100, the number of unique visitors for the top 50 sites, and spending by the top 50 online advertisers, according to TNS Media Intelligence. Karp says, "Long Tail economics means that companies can make a lot of money off the tail but it doesn’t mean that the tail itself can make any money. This is of course why Web 2.0 Long Tail companies have only one strategy;get bought by the head. But unless this beast is going to eat its own tail, that strategy will work for a lucky few and the rest of the tail will toil on in service to the head’s profits."
Anderson: These things are highly dependent on your definitions. I can really only deal in terms of data. But if we’re just talking about say, books, I don’t know what the answer is. The thing about my work, I’m trying not to speculate, I’m just trying to measure. With very good questions like this one, the answer is always "Let’s get the data and find out."
FOLIO: What are the ramifications for publishers who don’t really understand the Long Tail and how it applies to them?
Anderson: With retailers, I know I’m supposed to say they’re toast and that they’ll go down in flames but it’s probably not true. The reality is there is always going to be hits and blockbusters. With publishers, they’re missing an opportunity in extracting value from their archives. A lot of this is obvious stuff. You need to bring in the community, you need to open up content, you need to take down the walls. You need to recognize that word-of-mouth from the blogs is an increasingly powerful driver. Look at the importance of search to drive demand to the archives. I don’t think anybody out there is doing it perfectly, nor are we. You’re talking to a guy three weeks after he got a Web site.
FOLIO: Are the components of this in place for the magazine industry?
Anderson: Sure. It’s not like I can point to any company using this as their model. They’re using elements of this to a better or worse degree. The blogs are the Long Tail of media. There’s no shortage of great examples but unfortunately they don’t fall under the traditional publishing model. Part of that reason is publishing has always been of the best examples of targeting niches. Magazines have been leading in this domain in recognizing that you can have narrowly focused markets. It’s not like they’re missing it, they’ve already been there. The big transition for them is to start doing this online.
FOLIO: Where should publishers focus?
Anderson: Archives are an increasing amount of our traffic. Right now, about 50 percent of our traffic goes into the archives. This new model is that yesterday’s news is where your business is. That’s brand new. An increasing amount of traffic is coming from third-party search and blog links and a decreasing amount of traffic is coming from your front page and other destination models. Archives themselves are not only the Long Tail of content but the drivers are these Long Tail media sites like blogs. Is there any company building itself around archives? No, of course not. But are smart companies recognizing that one of the biggest Long Tail effects is going to be monetizing archives? Absolutely. At this point, that’s conventional wisdom.