Ideas, content, clients – all exist across a distribution. Ideas can be bad, good, or revolutionary. Content can be unpopular, popular, or viral. Clients can be unprofitable, profitable, and wildly profitable. The core concept is to visualize a range and look for where things aggregate.
In an industrialized world, average wins. The “head” (aka the peak) of the distribution, falls near the center of the range. The “tails,” or the items to the left and right of average, are short. Average has the benefits of being reliable. Whatever falls below average is too unpopular to be successful and whatever falls above average is too unpredictable to be dependably repeated. In an average world, mediocrity makes hits while niches die in ditches.
In a post-industrialized world, one where the internet exists, the distributions look different. Very different. Chris Andersen identified this reality as “The Long Tail” in 2004. The long tail is the idea that when we expand the availability/economic feasibility/life of the niches in the tails, variety can thrive. In a world where we have infinite shelf space, niches don’t have to die in ditches. Niches contain riches.
Imagine the distribution of songs on your music streaming platform of choice. There are the hits that make up the head, but then there are the niche artists in the tail. Andersen’s theory predicts and explains how even as we move into rarer and rarer musical stylings, songs still get plays. They may be far more occasional plays than the hits get, but they are not zero. This is a massive insight. Not zero means variety can survive and thrive, far away from average.
A book store has limited shelf space and chooses inventory carefully. A digital book store has infinite shelf space and can make just as much profit on books that sell once per year as the copy of the hit that sells once per hour. Think about it. Success and hits today are different than how they used to be. We have more paths to aggregating an audience thanks to the long tail than we had in an older, more mediocrity-rewarding world. Our opportunity sets have exploded, across nearly every industry.
What’s this mean for us? We want to balance both the hits and the niches in our business. What hits? We all have them. Usually, we just call them our brands, or our basic and most recognized products and services. Our hits are the reasons our industries exist in public perception. Our niches, the things that make us unique, are how we thrive apart from the average. They’re defined by the clients we serve, and how we aggregate them. They’re defined by the reasons why our clients are drawn to us and not someone or something else.
Professional services exist on the long tail. There’s much more we can do to find and serve our unique audience than we ever could do before. Those still competing for the average audience with yesterday’s hits will do so with the most commoditized offerings. Scale is their savior, and it’s a brutal race to zero. The competition in the most rarified niches is figuratively (and sometimes literally) non-existent. The race to these profits may not be a race to infinity, but it is a race at the pace of our choosing to aggregate our own people.
All we have to do is find them and serve them with what they want. We don’t need the next mega-hit, we only need the right-sized niche to justify our existence out in the long tail. Opportunity awaits.