What Just Happened To The Long Tail?

Author: Richard Media May 28, 2009

The Long Tail by Chris Anderson has been the rage for a while. It’s actually a fad. I keep hearing from people who want to “reach the long tail.” Some big journalist types—those who have not read the book—seem to be under the misguided impression that Chris and his people sure know how to coin a catch phrase. It is a catchy book title, but let me clarify the term for you:

Wikipedia says: the long tail is the colloquial name for a feature of statistical distributions.

The phrase refers to the appearance of a line graph where the left side is high on the Y axis and tapers down quickly to a sustained lower level. As the lower level is maintained, it cumulatively equates to more than the initial short-term burst. (Here, Yellow > Green.) It sounds like calculus (ugh!), but it really is just common sense. Commonsensical, helpful knowledge.

In a nutshell for PRists out there, Anderson has postulated that smaller niche audiences have more cumulative value to businesses than larger audiences reached over a short timeframe. Being editor-in-chief of Wired probably has something to do with why Anderson’s book puts everything in the context of cool tech.

I’m sure The Long Tail is well-written and insightful—I haven’t read it, but you knew—and groundbreaking for what it says in the long run. (Rimshot. Try the veal!) But I can’t help but roll my busy eyes when someone thinks they’re giving me something so unbelievable and ground stopping as they inform me about the importance of niche audiences and the fabulousness of blogs. I’m told the sequel will tell me the sky is blue.

As a blogger: “Really?”

See, in PR we’ve been dissecting audiences for many years. Look, tailees, blogs are not the first long tail (italics mine) form of communication. Some consider this example archaic but the “fad” of the weekly newspaper is still one of the best long tail communication tools.

The weekly newspaper reaches a niche who cares: community. That’s saying a lot. I wonder if that’s just a little too old-fashioned for Anderson groupies to grasp. Alas, I’m grateful to Anderson because his statement will influence the suits and help them finally get that “PR By The Pound” is a 1990s concept. Yes, you want to reach a lot of people with a message. However, doing so indiscriminately will not work since there’s no power in the message-less story that gets to the wrong (untargeted) individual.

Targeting is back! Which means that as with other trendy pseudo-new ideas, The Long Tail has made a core componentof PR fashionable.

Uh, again.

Unfortunately it leads some CMOs to believe that a successful PR program can be based entirely on niches. Smart practitioners of our field know that PR delivers return when it reaches both broad foundation of the pyramid and the specific audiences that inhabit the top.

Let me tell you how PR works. (Yes you can laugh.)

A Brief History of PR and Audiences

A while ago—think no computers and only 12 channels—we all tended to talk about audiences in general terms. Our demographic breakdowns included sex, age and geography. There were consumer stories (we called them features) and business stories (we called them business stories). News was by its definition new, and we were intimately familiar with the outlets we patronized because there were comparatively few.

As the sheer number of outlets increased we shifted focus to less tangible angles and discussed corporate reputation ad nauseum. Newsworthy events became stunts, some of which kinda worked.

Then online came into being. Those of us who had enough coffee knew early that the Web would change PR and once again we turned it into a process story, and fell in love with discussing it to death. Now we seem to be having a hard time moving past any discussion but that one.

Reality Check, Please

Online media is not in the least new. It’s not at all mysterious. It simply is. We must get over treating blogs – even this one that you love– as Brightest Shiny Object in the toy box, and get on with integrating what used to be new (and is now fairly old) media outreach into our programs. If you don’t understand how “new” and “traditional” media interact by now, let me come over with my portable White Board.

Dear Martha Stewart: It is not complicated.

So what about Anderson’s elongated extremity? Congratulations, sir, for stating the obvious. I’m staring at some of it on Amazon and (my gosh!) he has used a lot of fancy words. Then again Dickens got paid by the word so what can I say?

May I sum up? Niche audiences are important to people in PR—they always have been, always will be, bla bla bla—pointing it out seems to be a big hoohah moment. But niche is not the be-all-end-all.

At the acclaimed, wondrous and decades-old (!) RLM PR, we use what we have dubbed an Audience Matrix to identify how to reach niche audiences. Outreach is not conducted in a silo. If hardcore online gamers are important for one of our fabulous (read: paying) clients, we ensure that our tactics also appeal to the broader audience—like 20 year-old males who don’t play online but might be one of their eventual consumers. So we are reaching the whole tail and then we are also going after the head and torso.

That’s it for me. Drop me a line – and not one in the sand, please.


Twitter @laermer; that’s where I’ll be. Rubbing my tail – naturally!