Jennifer B. Davis
It was an article in Wired magazine. Then, it was a blog and lots of discussion in trade press and on the web. Along the way, it became a Wikipedia entry. Now, it is a book. What is the big deal about Wired's editor Chris Anderson's theory about the long tail?

The gist is this...all markets have a curve. The bulk of the activity (and the big players and big brands) are in the front of the curve and it trails off to nothingness to the right (see diagram below from Wired Magazine). Some markets have very concentrated bells and long tails (because of the ever-relevant 80/20 rule). For example, there are only 100 NY Times Best-Sellers, but there are millions of books. Successful companies, the author contends, are taking advantage of the long-tail to build a business at the niche/fragmented end of established markets where personal preference can reign and lots of little sales from the passionate few can result in serious profit. Some examples are in the diagram below from Wired magazine.

There are businesses that have been working the tailing end of markets, including the brands mentioned above like NetFlix, Rhapsody, and Amazon. The applications of this are far reaching. Blogging is the long tail of web publishing. Terrorism is the long tail of war. Examples of the long tail are everywhere and although the concept is not new, it is a strategy that many now are embracing as new technology has enabled growth without traditional inventory models, distribution expenses, or mass production costs. The examples of the long tail of product-based business is interesting and worthy of discussion. How could your business expand to include the long tail of the markets you serve? However, my interest in sharing this today is how the theory of the long tail could change how services are delivered.

By their very nature, services are more personal. They are generally not sold through mass distribution channels. They are contract-based. However, I see a lot of opportunity for services companies to use technology to reach the long tail of their market. Or better yet, could a product company get into the services business by thinking about the long tail of their marketplace. One example of this is in the stationary business.

There are over 4,000 Hallmark Gold Crown Stores. American Greetings are sold in thousands of outlets. Crane & Co stores are in dozens of cities. For those who love paper (as I do), it is exciting to see the selection, feel the textures of offerings, and dream of a lifestyle of leisure where I would sit down daily at a writing desk with quill pen in hand to craft gracious notes of appreciation and sympathy. Instead, like millions of Americans, I scribble out the periodic note or special occassion card and rely on email for more pedestrian communications. Right now, my address book is in Plaxo, cards are available at the store (or I suppose I could print out my own on the computer), stamps are available at a variety of outlets, and the trigger for correspondence is varied. They can range from a birthday scribbled on a calendar, to a phone call or email, or to a thought that I might have about an old friend. How could this industry respond to the long tail of correspondence and provide more than just the standard selection of greeting cards in retail outlets?

Imagine if a service was available that look my address book (and the birthdays recorded there) and I could specify automatic printed cards to be sent. (Plaxo has an ecard offering, but you have to manually select and remember to send them.) They would do the addressing, stamping and mailing. If I wanted to personalize the message, a prompt would be sent to me via email asking for the message in time for them to print the card and get it in the mail. Since they are printed on demand, they could offer a wider selection of card design, graphics, and copy. Furthermore, they could accept original artwork or copy that I provided to them. (Today, I can submit a digital photo, for instance, and get cards made at PSPrint, 48hourprint, iprint, Zazzle, and others, but they are not tied into my address book). If the interface was slick, they could take a page from Zazzle's playbook and make my card available to others for selection (giving me a cut of the profits). I could customize this service with the alerts, control, payment options, or expense level that I would specify. The holidays would be a great time to test this system out and then let the long tail of correspondence lead to birthdays, sympathy cards, and "thinking of you" cards throughout the year.

So, it sounds cool, but would you use a system like this?

1 Response
  1. So, I ran across someone who is doing a variation of this idea. There is a new service form the US Postal Service called PremiumPostcard (Powered by AmazingMail). You pick a picture or upload your own to put on a postcard, type a message, enter an address and pay. The price for one 4x6 postcard is $0.84. Sending a 6x9 postcard to your 250 name Christmas card list would be $312.50 (or $1.25 each). This looks very cool!!