Like many others, I’m a sucker for a new "Big Idea" in business. Since joining the workforce in the early 90’s, I’ve seen dozens of Big Ideas dominate business discourse, such as Lean Production, Six Sigma, 7 Habits, Disruptive Innovation, Tipping Point, 4-Hour Workweek, etc. I’ve even bought a few of the associated books, some of which I actually read, but nearly all of which I’ve long since given away.
One of my all-time favorite Big Ideas is the Long Tail. In 2006, Chris Anderson came out with a book entitled, The Long Tail: Why The Future of Business Is Selling Less of More. I found the concept so powerful, I can still remember where I sat when I first read the Wired article about the forthcoming book (which I didn’t buy, sorry Chris.)
Short recap/intro of the Long Tail: Physical stores stock only the best-selling items due to limited shelf space. But online stores carry an unlimited number of items. If you need a rice cooker, your local Target or Macy’s can supply you. But if you need the kitchen appliance that allows you to make takoyaki—Japanese octopus balls—you’re almost certainly headed to Amazon. The takoyaki cooker is part of the Long Tail of kitchen appliances—thousands of products that are infrequently bought (at least outside of Japan) but collectively worth at least a couple billion dollars per year.
The Long Tail concept extends beyond physical items into digital content. The obvious, ubiquitous example is Netflix, which supplies perhaps a couple hundred movies and TV shows you’ve seen/heard of, and a jillion you haven’t. A small subset of that jillion might actually be good, despite their obscurity, and/or appeal to your particular tastes. That you could theoretically watch any of those hidden gems is a good thing. But as I’ve previously discussed, Netflix could do a far better job of helping you find what you like.
If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance your organization regularly produces digital content, such as articles, newsletters, videos, courses, whitepapers, podcasts, etc. Over time, that content piles up (like kitchen appliances) until after a few years you’ve got an inventory of dozens of hours’ worth of stuff for your audience to consume. Each new piece of your content will be heavily consumed during its first few weeks/months. But as each content item ages, it simply extends the length of your tail, until you resemble the Asian Grass Lizard:
If you believe in evolution and natural selection, then you assume this little guy’s tail is 3 times the length of his body for a reason. But remember that humans evolved from primates who had tails, and at some point we lost those tails for a reason (because sitting on your tail while watching Netflix would be uncomfortable.)
For animals and providers of digital content, having a long tail is not necessarily a good thing. Under the right circumstances, a long tail helps you survive. But in the fast-evolving digital world, your long tail of content will become a liability if it’s not useful. Specifically, if your audience cannot easily discover items in your back-catalog of content that’s relevant to their interests and needs, then your long tail is a vestigial appendage which no longer serves any clear purpose, and by hanging around, it just gets in the way.
Fortunately, the scientists who’ve been developing artificial intelligence for decades have brought us Natural Language Generation, an under-appreciated branch of AI that can be used to give very specific guidance and recommendations to your audience. Specifically, you can ask your audience a series of questions, and then supply useful and relevant suggestions.
CredSpark has already developed several AI-powered solutions for clients, mainly centered on events, i.e. helping potential attendees to a conference or trade show discover which sessions and exhibitors are hyper-relevant to them.
But this same AI-powered approach can be applied to your long (and growing) tail of digital content. Specifically, you can ask your site visitors, members, and readers several questions about their interests and needs, and then instantly deliver to them an individually-tailored short-list of your content that is ‘can’t-miss’. They get not only links, but also the narrative and context around why those pieces of content are perfect for them, and how they’ll benefit from consuming them.
Rather than force a potential student to slog through your list of courses, why not serve him up an individualized curriculum? Instead of forcing a readers to filter your previous articles or white papers by topic, what if you asked them each a few questions about his or her particular interests and knowledge, and sent each one a perfectly-tailored reading list?
Chris Anderson’s Big Idea 15 years ago was that digital technology would create big markets for obscure, overlooked, specialty items. But he may not have realized that a huge range of organizations - not just Netflix and Amazon - could take full advantage of their own Long Tails.
And now AI can take the idea to its logical conclusion by creating individually tailored playlists of long-tail content, customized for readers’ own tastes, interests, and more. So the next Big Idea for content may just be staring us right in the...well, tail.
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