In 2006, Chris Anderson presented the long tail theory, which claimed that the Internet enables to offer a long tail of less-popular products and not just blockbusters.
It also said that when consumers are offered infinite choice, the true shape of demand is revealed and that it is less hit-centric than we thought and that our culture and economy are shifting away from a small number of “hits” (mainstream products and markets) at the head of the demand curve toward a huge number of niches in the long tail.
What really happened in the last couple of years is the opposite.
We turned more and more into hit oriented. The shape of the demand curve got sharper – the head got higher and the long tail got longer but it is tangent to the X axis of the chart.
Let’s take the movie industry for example – In 2002 there were 475 films playing in the US. The 15% most popular films took less than 80% of the revenues. The long tail (meaning the remaining 85%) took the other 20%. In 2012 there were 677 movies playing in the US (an increase of 42%) but now the 15% most popular movies took more than 90% of the revenues leaving the longer tail with less than 10% (a decrease of 50%).
This change is also revealed if we look at the revenues of the blockbusters over time. Till today only 18 movies made more than 1 billion dollars in revenues – 13 of them were released in the last several years. Avatar (2009) was the first movie to make more than 2 billion dollars.
The same change in the demand curve also appeared in the music industry (tickets and tracks sales), books and other industries.
The long tail is getting longer but makes less money. The head hits the sky.
Why does it happen?
Why don’t we explore the long tail and express our unique personalities?
First of all we are basically conformists. We have always been. We match our attitudes, believes and behavior to our group norms. It helps us feel belong and it lowers our risk. The internet didn’t change that.
Secondly the internet also gave us “social media”. Thanks to the internet we have much more interactions with people – emails, social networks, IM, Message boards etc. Social interactions are the key for the adoption of new things and ideas – the more interactions we have, the bigger the chances that a new product will catch. This is the very basic of Bass diffusion model. Social media speeded the adoption process and turned us all into a one huge herd that adopts and then buys exactly the same things.
But what really killed the long tail is the long tail itself.
When we see a zombie we run. The long tail is a huge pile of zombies. niche and unpopular items that nobody wants to get near to.
When a long tail confronts us with too many options to choose from, we tend to say – “you know what? I will just stick with that first one you showed me”. We don’t have the time nor the expertise to choose differently.
As Barry Schwartz described best in his book “The Paradox of Choice” – we no longer choose – we pick.
The long tail scares us and sends us running to the warm and comfortable hands of the short head popular blockbuster that everybody likes.
Why do we call it “the short head” and not “the tall head”? Because the lucky ones that make it and get to the head of the curve don’t last long. A new hit is waiting just around the corner to break their record.
This is the era of the short head.