Wireds Chris Anderson: Less Is More

The "long tail" in retail made possible by the Internet is gaining attention. Author Chris Anderson talks about some the theory's less-obvious implications. (CIOInsight.com)

In early 2004, Chris Anderson, editor of Wired magazine, was asked to estimate how many of the 10,000 albums accessible via a Web-connected digital jukebox had at least one track played at least once per quarter.

Sensing that traditional sales metrics, which would indicate an answer of about 20 percent, didnt apply to this Internet-enabled example, he ventured an extreme-sounding guess of 50 percent.

"I was, needless to say, way, way off," he writes in his influential book, "The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More" (Hyperion, 2006). "The answer was 98 percent."

That episode inspired Anderson to research the new rules of distribution and customer choice in the Internet age.

In a Wired article, then a blog, and now in his book, he argues that familiar sales charts needed to be redrawn.

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From Amazon.com to eBay to Netflix, the data bore out his observations: The Internet allows companies to put a far wider range of goods in front of customers than a physical store ever could—and customers respond by buying not just the popular items bunched at the peak of the sales curve, but also the obscure products out on the long tail of the curve.

In fact, the less-popular items out along the tail might sell only a tiny number of units each, but when all these "onesies and twosies," as Anderson puts it, are added together, they amount to a large market.

Long-tail products dont replace hits, they replace the monopoly of hits enforced by the limitations of physical retail space.

The long-tail phenomenon deals mostly with electronic media and deep-catalog businesses like books and DVDs, but Anderson touches on its impact on manufactured goods and commodities as well. He spoke about the many long tails all around us with Senior Writer Edward Cone.

CIOI: Give us the short-attention-span version of the long tail.
Anderson: Its about life beyond the blockbuster, what happens to our culture and our economy as we shift from mass markets to niche markets. Its the recognition that one-size-fits-all is no longer a necessary model. It never suited any of us well, and now we have the option to treat individuals as individuals, so that one size fits one, or one size fits me. Increasingly, this is not only possible but is demanded by customers.

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