Give Me Hits! Stepping on the Long-Tail Theory

Last Updated Sep 10, 2008 9:35 AM EDT

Long-tail theorists tell us we can sell more product over time by serving many niche markets aided by the Internet, rather than relying on constant development of mass market big hits.

And to that Harvard Business School marketing professor John Quelch says, give me a blockbuster anytime. When products click on a big scale, he says on his Marketing KnowHow blog on Harvard Business Publishing, the benefits are felt not just at the cash register but throughout the organization.

"In a globally integrated market, blockbuster brands that address common consumer needs are more important than ever. Consumers around the world are excited to share common experiences. Blockbusters also motivate salespeople, get them access to customers and drive distribution for other products in a company's portfolio. A company's commitment to searching out potential blockbusters and then investing in marketing to convert potential to reality attracts and retains top scientists and creatives."
He says a strategy based just on long-tail prospecting is condemning your enterprise "to a lifetime of slave labor harvesting the long tail of micro-opportunities rather than imagining, pursuing and marketing the global solution to an important, widely shared problem."

Another HBS faculty member, Anita Elberse, recently jousted with long-tail proponent Chris Anderson, challenging the applicability of the theory in the music and home video markets. Her findings: Blockbusters are actually capturing more market share than before, and consumers are not very interested in the niche products left in the tail.

So you are an entrepreneur starting up your next business. Do you want your business model to be based on lots of base hits or a few home runs?

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.