Harvard's Anita Elberse: Forget the "Long Tail"

Last Updated Jun 30, 2008 12:03 PM EDT

  • Forget the Long TailThe Find: One Harvard Business School professor crunches the numbers and comes up with a startling conclusion for those in the media biz: forget the long tail, aim for the occasional (and old fashioned) blockbuster.
  • The Source: An alaysis of sales patterns in the music and home-video industries by Anita Elberse, a Harvard Business School associate professor in the Harvard Business Review and a response from Long Tail author Chris Anderson in the HBR Conversation Starter blog.
The Takeaway: Chris Anderson's now famous "long tail" theory urges media bosses to forget hit-making and instead to take advantage of the near zero cost of digital distribution to try and make money from selling small numbers of many titles to niche consumers. Sounds solid, but Elberse looked at some real world numbers and ends up less than convinced.

At Rhapsody, the music download service, the top 10 percent of titles account for 78 percent of all songs played, and the top 1 percent of titles for 32 percent. In 2006, at movie download service Quickflix, the top 10 percent of DVDs accounted for 48 percent of all rentals, and the top 1 percent for 18 percent of all rentals. That's a serious concentration on the "head" rather than the "tail." "But what about trends?" you ask. The top hits will always get a disproportionate number of hits, but the tail is getting fatter, right? Not according to Elberse. She found that at Quickflix:

"The number of titles that sold only a few copies almost doubled for any given week from 2000 to 2005. In the same period, however, the number of titles with no sales at all in a given week quadrupled... Rather than bulking up, the tail is becoming much longer and flatter."
Her conclusion for producers of content: "It would be imprudent for companies to upend traditional practice and focus on the demand for obscure products." Or in other words, keep focusing on making and marketing hits. For retailers, Elberse cautions that attempts to direct your customers to the tail too often, which can lead to dissatisfaction (maybe because hits are hits for a reason).

Anderson gamely responds in the Conversation Starter citing his admiration for Elberse and her research and laying out where he thinks her definition of the "tail" differs from his, but Elberse's conclusion that The Winner-Take-All Society by Robert Frank and Philip Cook is a better model for media than Anderson's blockbuster still seems hard to refute.

The Question: Is hit-making a dead art or on its way to a resurgence? And are we still "water cooler creatures" by and large - only interested in congregating around hits?

(Image of the long tail by b_d_solis, CC 2.0)

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    Jessica lives in London where she works as a freelance writer with interests in green business and tech, management, and marketing.