The Long Tail vs. Content Strategy

I’ve been mulling this idea for a long time. Seth Godin’s post this week on the economic and creative implications of the long tail got me thinking about it again. [Here’s the link to Chris Anderson’s original long tail post if you need a long tail primer.]

My question is, are long tail and content strategy antithetical? Long tail tells us that [start with the easy one, books] for every book, there’s an audience, and massive online retailing as created by Amazon — and print-on-demand technology — and social media to spread ideas — and — and — now gives any book an audience, no matter how obscure the topic. The long tail allows the elimination of the tremendous overhead that was a requirement of creating a book from the time of the monks hand-scribing them in medieval times until, well, about 10-15 years ago.

The temptation is to say that books are now commoditized, as indicated by the price drop of many books, particularly all-digital ones. You already know my bias — there’s no way I’ll argue that content is a commodity. So what IS going on?

I believe the price difference between a hard-bound, deckle-edged novel and a quick-to-download digital novel really is about the production price difference. And the difference between a major publisher’s digital novel and a self-published novel is about the elimination of the marketing and editorial overhead. Sometimes you get what you pay for, but sometimes, you’re just paying for the extra stuff [nice paper, expensive cover illustration and jacket photo, editorial authority, marketing budget, lengthy book tour] because they don’t offer you the option to buy the book without it.

All those extras cost money, and we’re now discovering that many of the extras can be eliminated or handled a different way.

So we’re left with the content.

And to me, the entire premise of the long tail dovetails right into content strategy here. Once you get down to the content itself, the long tail is all about matching the perfect content with the perfect audience. Content strategy has a similar mission. It’s about finding the right audience, the right content, and the right processes to keep those matched. You know the standard definition from Kristina Halvorson:

Content strategy plans for the creation, publication, and governance of useful, usable content.

It’s not useful if it’s not exactly what you need, when you need it. The long tail and content strategy depend on each other.

You’re not responsible for creating the whole long tail — in fact, you’ll be better off if you don’t try. You ARE responsible for figuring out who your audience is and giving them what they really need. Take your little chunk of the really long tail, and make those people happy. That’s when you’ll win.




7 thoughts on “The Long Tail vs. Content Strategy”

  1. Great post!

    I’ve tangled with this from time to time. And, I’m in the middle of reading Chris Anderson’s revised edition of his “Long Tail” book, so this post comes at the perfect time.

    The long tail is most definitely well-served by content strategy.

    After the bedrock work is complete (quantifying your organization’s strengths, determining the needs of your audience, and creating content that meshes them, of course) the most important thing is crafting content in a way that allows it to take advantage of  long tail opportunities:

    – Strong metadata from the outset
    – Clear workflows for addressing issues with the content
    – Governance plans that include ongoing content reviews to ensure continued relevance

    I’ve had some oddly relevant experience with this long tail business. A blog post I wrote back in 2009 gets more traffic than ANYTHING else I’ve written since. It follows what you’ve set forth: finding that thing that sets you apart.  It’s that niche that you can happily occupy by fulfilling a need not yet met. (Or by fulfilling it better than a competitor.)

  2. Interesting stuff, Laura. Just to clarify, are you suggesting that editorial overhead/”authority” is an “extra” that’s separate from the content itself?

  3. Ah, I thought I should have clarified that more instead of just tossing that into the laundry list. I was right. :)

    Yes, in this sense: Editorial authority is part of what you buy when you buy a major-market-published book. [There are equivalents in any industry, of course, even including blogs.] When you buy a book from Random House, you have a basic sense of trust that the book is what it says it is, that it’s at least decently written, etc., because RH puts its authority behind the book.

    When you buy a self-published book from an author you’ve never heard of, you have to rely on some other authority. Perhaps it’s just 99¢ and you’re willing to take the risk. But maybe your friend recommended the book, or you read a review of it on Amazon and the reviewer had written lots of trusted reviews…you either take a risk, or you find the authority elsewhere. 

    Of course, now you can get validation on the book from lots of places…we don’t necessarily need Random House for that purpose any more.

    But I don’t mean to short sell that editorial authority — it’s incredibly valuable, and we still want it. I think about A Book Apart or O’Reilly, for instance. I intrinsically trust something just because they publish it. It shortcuts my buying decision, and that’s valuable for both me and the author. It’s just that now that authority can be decoupled from the content.

  4. And sorry, one more: An author can be his or her own editorial authority, of course. If the author is already known by the target audience, the additional authority of a publishing house may not make an appreciable difference. Doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use one … just means that’s not where you’re getting your bang for the buck.

  5. I’m completely with you on the authority piece—and nicely put, btw. The value of the gatekeeping function of traditional publishing is certainly under threat.

    What felt strange to me was the idea of “editorial overhead” as part of the unnecessary difference between self-published books and the other kind. Where editorial overhead means actual editing–the stuff that makes content better and more useful to its audience–I tend to think it’s one of those pieces we need to keep in the “content itself” group. (Happily for readers, a lot of authors choosing to self-publish are getting that, and bringing in editors of their own.)

  6. Great post Laura. I agree with you.

    I also thnk that items are starting to get priced more to what their actual value is, with less mark up. It use to drive me crazy when books were priced so high, even higher in Canada too.

    I’m happy to see prices coming down on books (music too). This will open up products to a wider audience of every different economic background.

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