Calling Up The Long Tail

by , Oct 30, 2007, 7:40 PM
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Anyone trying to stay current with pop culture tastes should take a trip to one of the local fly-by-night Halloween stores. Quickly erected in un-rented mall and shopping plaza retail space, they are indexes not only of the trends in popular media but also the sheer range of tastes. The Jasons, Michael Myers, Freddies and such are to be expected, of course. And what would Halloween be without low-level political satire (this year's Hillary and Rumsfeld masks). But it does my heart good to know that somewhere out there people remember the '50s pin-up Bettie Page, who seems to have her own line of costumes now. There are minor Marvel comics villains who get aired out every year. And Lord knows Elvira needs to make a living, doesn't she? Dig deep and you'll still find a giant Venus Fly Trap from "Little Shop of Horrors," bit players from "The Simpsons" and the original Desperate Housewife, Betty Rubble.

By piling on the high-margin, low value crap inventory, somehow these temporary Halloween stores manage to bring the long tail into retail, if only for a month a year. I remember when shopping for Halloween with my 4-year-old daughter was really a matter of which Disney Princess costume to buy. We still have pictures of her at pre-school holiday bashes lined up with seven Princess Jasmines. One look at the current Halloween store rack, or even the kids who come to your door this year, and you will know that America is so over mass culture now. I am a confirmed pop culture slut, but even I gave up ID-ing the trick-or-treaters a few years ago. Who can keep up with all those Anime characters? The second-string crewman on all those Sci-Fi channel series. Even when I ask them, "Who are you supposed to be?" the answer eludes me. Garga-Linga? Oh, from which planetary system?

The long tail is everywhere as niche tastes proliferate. Even in mobile content, where the limited interface would seem to encourage limited menus, we are seeing users gravitate to highly select content choices. For instance, go to the mobile content aggregator BuzzWire.com and check out the most popular streaming media feeds to which its users subscribe.

The Top 10 for this week are

Wall Street Journal Tech News
BBC - World News Bulletin
MTV News: Daily Headlines
Weather - Atlanta, GA
790 The Zone - Atlanta
Weather - Boston, MA
Boston Globe Daily
Boston Globe Soxcast
NYTimes Front Page
WCBS - New York Yankees Radio

While major brands surely are represented in this list, it really is a mosh pit of regions and news content types. Much of the BuzzWire material draws from familiar audio and video podcasts available in RSS feeds. You pick what you want at the main site or on the WAP browser interface and pretty much get an iTunes-like experience on the phone. What is interesting is just how broad the tastes run.

And when you dip beneath the shallow surface of the most popular mobile subscription the long tail really stretches out, says BuzzWire CEO Andrew MacFarlane. A high number of people in his system are subscribing to unique feeds. "If I bookmark an item it is a 'unique save,' if no one else bookmarks that item," he explains. "Over 60% of our catalog is [composed of] unique saves."

That is a long, long tail, even if users dip into it only briefly. MacFarlane says frequency is quite high, typically every other day, but they tend to come in a grab a couple of minutes of content at a time. The split between audio and video content is 64%/36% respectively. And even he was surprised that 15% of the streams are of live radio.

Those stats may hold their own long tail of lessons for us. First, they suggest that given the tools, users are eager for highly personalized content experiences on their phone. Whether the usage patterns among BuzzWire's early adopters remain consistent as services like these scale into broader audiences is anyone's guess. But it is interesting that users are cherry-picking the content they already like and taking the option to send it to their phone.

Second, the content providers who can master brevity will be at an advantage. Drill into BuzzWire's top ten and you will see that except for the long-winded BBC, every one of those clips is well under 8 minutes -- and most are 3 or 4 minutes long. Five minutes is the new half hour.

And finally, discovery is going to be everything here. For early adopters of something like BuzzWire, the Web-to-phone link is sensible. I am guessing that most of these people are bringing their podcast tastes to mobile. They already discovered the content they like on the more flexible Web medium. But there are also a lot of younger users who rely almost wholly on their phone as their portable PC. If we want to leverage the need for personalized and custom content then we have to marry that with a better ability to find it. On the phone, BuzzWire uses a familiar menu of filters: most popular, recommended (by your registered friends), highly rated. But the most interesting choice is "Local," which parses the available channels according to my region. There were only three choices in my Philadelphia market, but I was very likely to subscribe to one of them because the relevance was so high.

We need more content filtering like that on the phone that incorporates either my locale or my demonstrated tastes. A taste for niche content on a personal device is natural and expected. The hard job is discovery - finding our own long tail.

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