The Long Tail: Embracing Subtle Shades of Gray
Alerted by reader Lenora G. Knapp, Ph.D., from Knapp & Associates, of a Wall Street Journal article critical of Chris Anderson's The Long Tail -- a new book that has been favorably mentioned on this site, I asked Jeff De Cagna, who coauthored "Associations in the Age of the Long Tail" in the February 2006 issue of Associations Now to craft a response. Here's what Jeff had to say:
"In a recent WSJ article, Lee Gomes offers a strong critique of The Long Tail, the influential new book written by WIRED Editor-in-Chief Chris Anderson explaining the emergence of a marketplace of niches that is undermining the economics of a hits-driven media and entertainment culture. According to Anderson, the Long Tail phenomenon recognizes that not everyone is interested only in the top-selling books, movies or music. There is a considerable diversity of interests in the modern-day reading, listening and viewing audience, not to mention many enterprising content creators who use more powerful tools and technologies to develop the kind of genuine content variety that they and others want. (Just take a look at whatâ€™s happening at YouTube if youâ€™re not sure this is true!) Google and other search engines, as well as peer recommendations and other filtering tools, simplify the process of finding such niche content, making it more economical and, quite possibly, more profitable to serve these very small markets. Amazon.com and Netflix, among other businesses, have benefited from the Long Tail effect and Chris Andersonâ€™s original article, blog and book have become fodder for new thinking about content-based business models in the early 21st century
"Weâ€™re delighted to leave the detailed response to the Gomes article to Chris, who has already posted to his blog on this topic. We strongly encourage you to read what he has written. But in the February 2006 issue of Associations Now, Jamie Notter and I published an article about the implications of the Long Tail concept for associations, and we think this is an important moment to share a few words of concern about the state of our professionâ€™s approach to new ideas, as well as some encouragement to association innovators who are as intrigued by Long Tail possibilities as we are.
"Our primary worry is that a handful of critical articles about the Long Tail will be enough to forever ruin any possibility for genuine discourse around this very powerful idea in the association community. The backlash may be inevitable but the response of association leaders is not. From our vantage point, however, association executives appear to be more interested than ever before in getting the absolute right answers to highly complex business problems. Tried-and-true solutions and so-called â€œbest practicesâ€ seem to dominate every conversation, and the window for exploring promising or untested concepts seems to be narrowing with each passing day. You might say that something of a â€œshort tailâ€ has developed in the intellectual evolution of our profession. Indeed, we may operate today as a hits-driven marketplace interested only in proven ideas that are sure to work, even though such certainty is nothing more than an illusion in todayâ€™s operating environment. We no longer live in a world with very many black and white answers. All of us need to do more to get comfortable with many subtle shades of gray.
"So instead of ignoring or withdrawing from the debate about the deeper meaning of the Long Tail for associations, we challenge all association leaders to actively engage in it. We strongly believe that the Long Tail offers associations the chance to realize their full potential both strategically and financially. We donâ€™t pretend to have all of the answers about how to tap into that potential, but weâ€™re certain that great ideas to do that will emerge from the kind of rich and thoughtful dialogue to which we know the association community has traditionally aspired. And to our kindred spirits, the association innovators, who share our fascination with what the Long Tail can teach us, we urge you to sustain your personal commitment to pushing new ideas by internalizing the words of Albert Einstein, who we quote in the article, â€œThe significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them.â€ It is certainly one of our mantras for genuine association leadership today and going forward, and it should be one of yours as well."