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Dialogue Regarding The Long Tail


Michael Rabjohns sent me a note informing me of an article in the July Harvard Business Review written by Anita Elberse.  Elberse is an associate professor of business administration in the marketing department at Harvard Business School.  Her article leads off with a portrayal of Grand Central Publishing, a company that lists 275-300 books each year in its catalog and identifies two (my emphasis) for which it will pull out all the stops in marketing.  Grand Central pursues a blockbuster strategy for which Elberse gives credit to economists Robert Frank and Phillip Cook (an economist at my alma mater, Duke University) for endorsing in their 1995 book, The Winner-Take-All Society

Elberse states that this strategy conflicts with the long tail theory espoused by Chris Anderson.  She reviewed sales data from Rhapsody (used by Anderson) and Quickflix (an Australian DVD rental company).  She states that the data shows that seldom rented DVD’s shift into the tail and their usage doubles over a five year period of time.  However, the number of DVD’s with no usage quadruples over the same period of time.  She states that the tail is becoming longer and flatter, not bulkier.  During the same period of time, the number of titles in the top 10% dropped by 50% which demonstrates that the “winner-take-all” strategy is winning.  Elberse’s data for music tracks confirms a similar trend where the tail lengthens, but grows flatter and fewer tracks are in the top 10%.

Elberse concludes her article with recommendations to producers and retailers.  The only finding where she directly supports the long tail is in her recommendation to retailers stating that if the goal is to cater to the heaviest volume customers, include a diverse assortment of titles since her research indicates that the buyers of the obscure titles tend to be the heaviest users of the online services.

Anderson doesn’t dispute Elberse’s research; in fact, he praises it.  But he claims that Elberse’s portrayal of the “head” of the tail at 32% and the tail at 68% confirms his theory about the size of the tail.  Elberse responds to Anderson’s comments by stating that he is inconsistent about the definition of size of the tail and head and that consistency in definition would verify her findings that the tail is bigger but flatter and that analysis has repercussions for producers and retailers in the strategy that they should pursue.

All in all, this is a great debate and I thank a reader for pointing this out to me.  I’m sure the dialogue will continue.  I think Anderson and Elberse are accurate in their claims and I like Elberse’s caution to certain businesses, particularly producers.

Wally Boston Dr. Wallace E. Boston was appointed President and Chief Executive Officer of American Public University System (APUS) and its parent company, American Public Education, Inc. (APEI) in July 2004. He joined APUS as its Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer in 2002. In September 2019, Dr. Boston retired as CEO of APEI and retired as APUS President in August 2020. Dr. Boston guided APUS through its successful initial accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association in 2006 and ten-year reaccreditation in 2011. In November 2007, he led APEI to an initial public offering on the NASDAQ Exchange. For four years from 2009 through 2012, APEI was ranked in Forbes' Top 10 list of America's Best Small Public Companies. During his tenure as president, APUS grew to over 85,000 students, 200 degree and certificate programs, and approximately 100,000 alumni. While serving as APEI CEO and APUS President, Dr. Boston was a board member of APEI, APUS, Hondros College of Nursing, and Fidelis, Inc. Dr. Boston continues to serve as a member of the Board of Advisors of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA) and as a member and chair of the board of New Horizons Worldwide. He has authored and co-authored papers on the topic of online post-secondary student retention, and is a frequent speaker on the impact of technology on higher education. Dr. Boston is a past Treasurer of the Board of Trustees of the McDonogh School, a private K-12 school in Baltimore. In his career prior to APEI and APUS, Dr. Boston served as either CFO, COO, or CEO of Meridian Healthcare, Manor Healthcare, Neighborcare Pharmacies, and Sun Healthcare Group. Dr. Boston is a Certified Public Accountant, Certified Management Accountant, and Chartered Global Management Accountant. He earned an A.B. degree in History from Duke University, an MBA in Marketing and Accounting from Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business Administration, and a Doctorate in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. In 2008, the Board of Trustees of APUS awarded him a Doctorate in Business Administration, honoris causa, and, in April 2017, also bestowed him with the title President Emeritus. In August 2020, the Board of Trustees of APUS appointed him Trustee Emeritus. In November 2020, the Board of Trustees announced that the APUS School of Business would be renamed the Dr. Wallace E Boston School of Business in recognition of Dr. Boston's service to the university. Dr. Boston lives with his family in Austin, Texas.


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