PR and the 'Long Tail'

In this decade, it has become remarkably easy to fall behind the times if you're not paying attention. And few things are more frustrating than trying to stay ahead of the latest buzzwords.

In this decade, it has become remarkably easy to fall behind the times if you're not paying attention. And few things are more frustrating than trying to stay ahead of the latest buzzwords.

Now that everyone has caught up with the concepts of blogs and podcasts, and is shaping them into their messaging, the next catchphrase to confound the industry is the "Long Tail."

From its humble beginnings in a December 2004 Wired story written by editor-in-chief Chris Anderson, the phrase has spread throughout chatrooms, conferences, and, yes, blogs.

The term "Long Tail" actually refers to a mathematical model, a downward slope that documents how the number of units sold decreases among less popular items in an industry. Anderson coined the phrase to describe the part of the graph beyond the most popular choices where demand begins to approach zero.

The cumulative sales of less popular items can be greater than the total sales of the most popular items, as long as costs are low enough to allow retailers to offer consumers nearly unlimited choices. He found evidence that consumer habits change when faced with unlimited choices.

It's easy to follow this concept to the web, where low overhead costs allow retailers like Amazon.com and iTunes to offer a seemingly endless collection of products that brick and mortar stores could not support.

But the concept of the "Long Tail" has also been applied to today's fragmented media landscape.

More specifically, some PR professionals are beginning to argue that targeting niche publications or communities can be more effective than taking a mass-market approach.

"The concept turns what many PR practitioners take as truth, the 80-20 rule, on its head," says Dan Berkowitz, director of corporate communications for Keynote Systems, who attended a Silicon Valley PRSA event where Wired's Anderson discussed the "Long Tail" theory. "You have to pay attention to more constituents now."

The 80-20 rule, or Pareto's principle, came from an Italian economist's discovery that 20% of the population owned 80% of the land. In PR, a loose interpretation might be that the top 20% of media outlets reach 80% of readership.

But online companies like Amazon.com, Netflix, Rhapsody, and Ecast, a digital jukebox that holds more than 150,000 tracks, now offer consumers a breadth of choices they've never experienced before for a fraction of the handling costs.

For instance, Robbie Vann-Adib?, then CEO of Ecast, told Wired that 99% of the top 10,000 tracks on Ecast jukeboxes are played at least once a month. And since storage costs are negligible, the company earns its revenue as much from the lesser-played tracks as the platinum singles.

"The fact that the meme is so well understood that people are reaching a bit to apply it to their own interests means it's a useful exercise," Anderson tells PRWeek.com.

People have adopted the "Long Tail" concept to try to explain everything from the crafting industry to the success of Subway restaurants. Anderson further explores the concept on LongTail.typepad.com and will publish a book on the subject in May 2006.

Steve Rubel, CooperKatz SVP of client service, says that while he hears a lot of tech people embrace the "Long Tail" in their speech, he sees even more PR people unknowingly obeying the principle.

"If I went around and talked about the 'Long Tail,' not everyone would know the name, but they would know the concept," Rubel says.

Eric Schwartzman, MD of Schwartzman & Associates, was the PR representative for Ecast that arranged the meeting for the Wired article.

Schwartzman says his agency experienced the importance of "Long Tail" thinking first-hand - that what generates big buzz is not necessarily going to bring in more revenue.

When he analyzed hits to the agency's website schwartzmanpr.com, "Britney Spears" was the most popular search term bringing people to the firm's homepage because of its work for a Britney Spears concert tour.

"Consumers interested in Britney Spears are not the right traffic for us," Schwartzman says. "But looking further down on the keywords, those are where we're seeing the patterns that get us in front of the right people."

Some PR practitioners now argue that a strategy of approaching the smaller voices can be as effective as going to the larger voices.

"In the 'Long Tail,' media coverage comes in great and small numbers, and they all have influence," Rubel says. "Putting bloggers on the same playing field [as the national press] - that's 'Long Tail' thinking."

Berkowitz says that most PR professionals target the major business press, but that strategy is more complicated now due to media fragmentation.

"The challenge is for PR to be more creative and work with all marketing," Berkowitz says. He suggests going beyond "the media" and targeting all manners of influencers.

Berkowitz notes that some PR professionals might balk and say, "This is just overwhelming. I can't think of these 300,000 little outlets." But he adds that applying "Long Tail" thinking to PR is merely a new challenge that requires them to be more open-minded.

Berkowitz draws an analogy to the 1970s, when the water cooler talk might be about the most popular show on network television. With cable, Internet, satellite radio, and other outlets, the world is a massive Venn diagram where different interests overlap, but with less overall effect per interest.

Anderson says he trusts The New York Times and other outlets to give him information about Iraq and global affairs, but often goes to blogs to get information about his niche interests. He has found that his relationship with Microsoft has changed since the company embraced employee bloggers.

"Microsoft has had a PR problem for a long time in part because it was so big," Anderson says. "Its PR strategy was judiciously rolling out its two executives [Chairman] Bill Gates and [CEO] Steve Ballmer when it considered [that strategy] to be successful."

However, by enabling its employees to write about their work and share personal views, Anderson says it has given him a better connection with the company. The sum of those voices (the "Long Tail" of minor players at a company) impacts him more than the messages coming from the top.

"It communicates the company's message in a way I want to hear," Anderson says. "[The employees] have become Microsoft PR."

Anderson sees the "Long Tail" having a lasting effect on PR, in general, and media relations, specifically.

"I can see PR's role shifting from writing press releases to changing the internal processes to empower their [clients'] employees to discuss their work," Anderson says. "There is a generation growing up [that is] not used to reading newspapers and that is looking for less mediated engagement, and they're not particularly looking for a press release translated by a writer and interpreted by an editor."

But while the "Long Tail" concept is gaining traction, questions still remain.

"How do you influence these people in a way that they will respect?" Anderson asked the Silicon Valley PRSA attendees. "You can't use a media PR strategy on bloggers; they'll reject it."

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