Back in 2004, Chris Anderson of Wired popularized the statistical term “long tail” for online marketers, explaining that in an era of unlimited web “shelf space,” products that have a low sales volume could collectively earn a market share exceeding that of the comparatively few high-volume products, if the distribution channel were large enough.
At a time when Amazon was on course to overtake Walmart as the most powerful retailer in the world (it surpassed Walmart in market cap in 2015), it was hard to argue Anderson’s point. Since that time, the long tail has emerged as a key consideration for digital marketing strategists in an environment of ever-increasing media fragmentation and niche marketing.
Media fragmentation and the long tail
What do we mean by "media fragmentation"? It basically means that smaller audiences are consuming broad-market media and that more and more consumers are receiving their information from niche sources. This would suggest that advertisers are better off investing in long-tail advertising, across many websites rather than a few, and that PR firms must focus on media relations strategies that go well beyond Forbes and "Good Morning, America."
I recently spoke with a PR practitioner who told me that in working to drum up attendance at a local tech event, achieving coverage in the local newspaper and business weekly was incredibly labor-intensive, but that ultimately the event could track no registrations to that news coverage. On the other hand, securing a mention in the email newsletter of a local tech association was one of the key drivers of registrations and helped make the event a success.
Odds are, wherever you live, your local newspaper has less influence than it did last year at this time, and a fraction of what it had 10 years ago. It also has less staff, which makes it harder for a PR practitioner to earn a placement. Every day you focus on high-competition general-interest media, you are spending more time to achieve less impactful results. That time is generally better spent identifying the broad amalgamation of media, influencers and other resources that can most efficiently achieve your client or company's business goals.
On the media buying side, the long tail strategy of buying diverse media to reach a target audience is increasingly the default strategy of advertising firms—although it has not been without its hiccups. More than a few brands have been embarrassed by some of the disreputable sites where their ads have appeared, and as a result are seeking ways to balance long tail strategies with so-called "brand safety concerns." It's an ongoing battle.
Niche marketing and the long tail
One of the first niche marketing success stories was Pepsi Cola's historic efforts to reach the African-American community in the late 1940s; it helped establish the company as the No. 1 rival to Coca-Cola. Much more recently, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg launched his site with a niche marketing strategy, focusing first on Harvard, then Ivy League universities, then the broader college student audience before taking over the world.
Today, niche marketing is more directed to the individual consumer than ever before, because technology increasingly enables us to deliver highly targeted experiences. Facebook's current privacy scandal and GDPR notwithstanding, this trend appears to be inexorable. Spielberg's "Minority Report"-style targeting—"John Anderton, you could use a Guinness right about now!—will surely be part of our future in one form or another.
The way to think about niche marketing and the long tail today is fairly well encapsulated in the world of search engine optimization. Whereas in the past, SEO professionals focused on helping their companies or clients rank on the first page of Google for high-competition keywords, today the smarter strategy is to build a site that will be visible across dozens or hundreds of long-tail searches that will attract more targeted visitors with less competition.
Today, a full 8 percent of search queries are phrased as questions. As SEO guru Rand Fishkin reported in 2017:
The long tail is still very long indeed, with a huge amount of search volume taking place in keywords outside the top 10 million most-searched-for queries. In fact, almost 25% of all search volume happens outside the top 100 million keywords!
From search to social media to media-buying to PR, you can expect to continue seeing more charts shaped like a long tail in the future. it's the hockey-stick chart of modern digital marketing.