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.