There has recently been some chatter about long-tail-focused blogging, especially in that little corner of the blogosphere occupied by your local-loving real estate bloggers. And since I can’t help but wade into something that could possibly be measured I bring you this post. If you want a sparkling essay on why long tail strategies may be better than mass media/generalist approaches, Theresa Boardman has it for you at Inman News. If you want a brief example of the longtail improving a business, read how the long tail is affecting Jonathan Dalton’s business.

What is the Long Tail anyway?

The Long Tail as a marketing theory was established by Wired editor Chris Anderson back in 2004 and or Clay Shirky in 2003. Wikipedia tells us that the Long Tail is used:

“to describe the niche strategy of certain business such as or Netflix. The distribution and inventory costs of these businesses allow them to realize significant profit out of selling small volumes of hard-to-find items to many customers, instead of only selling large volumes of a reduced number of popular items. The group of persons that buy the hard-to-find or “non-hit” items is the customer demographic called the Long Tail.”

Here’s an image that is often used to portray the Long Tail, note that the yellow section is the “long tail” and never ends while the neon-green part is the “head” and should end (even though the silly image doesn’t). 800px-Long_tail.svg The Y axis represents an amount of customers or price or some other number. The X axis represents individual options. So if the individual options were books perhaps a NYT best seller would be in the green side while a little-known ebook on Real Estate Selling Techniques would be in the yellow section. More people read the NYT best seller than the ebook. It’s important to understand this chart. Most of the reading and nearly all the conversations I’ve had with people involve some sort of misunderstanding about it. There is only one metric being tracked in this chart: number of sales/searches/conversions/whatevers. This number is tracked on the Y axis. Once all of your sales/searches/conversions/whatevers have been assigned a number, you put them in order of most to least on the X axis. In effect, you are just lining up all the kids in the class from tallest to shortest. Where it gets interesting is determining whether there is a relationship between that metric and performance (do the short kids under-perform vs the tall kids and so on). PLEASE NOTE: I think short kids and tall kids are great. I am going to be using this metaphor a lot and if you are tall or short, please don’t take offense (the secret message of this post is that individuals perform regardless of their metric–sort of a Frodo kind of thing really). Thanks. Conventional wisdom ala the Pareto 80/20 principle says put your efforts in that 20% at the head (focus on the tall kids) to get 80% of your business because of inefficiencies in reaching the other 80%. Long Tail Theory asserts that distribution (the internet) has changed and barriers to production (cost of print, television, etc) have been lowered leading to greater opportunity in the 80% long tail (the short kids). Anderson asserts that the volume of the long tail (the yellow part) of the market exceeds the that of the head (the green part); there is more opportunity in the long tail if you can reach it efficiently.

Ok enough of that, how does this apply to business blogging?

Much of the original focus of Long Tail Theory was on moving atoms around (I’ll spare us the Nick Negroponte backstory): Amazon’s books. These are tangible goods that have costs to produce that are fairly substantial. Moreover they have costs to store until they sell as well as costs to deliver once they do sell. If we apply the Long Tail lens to business blogging (i.e. we want more high-quality visitors–our blog is an advertising tool) what are we sorting? If we’re looking at gathering attention or interest, it’s usually search terms that we measure. Is there a finite number of search terms? In theory but not in practice. Observing our analytics for the search terms that lead visitors to our site we’ll find a very long list of terms that bring us a single visitor. How about inefficiencies of production and distribution? Sort of a pain to write blog posts but at least we don’t have to set the type by hand, fire up a press, or hire a driver to haul it around. I’d say our distribution is fairly streamlined. Observing our analytics we can see how many visitors come to us by way of search engines.

Right, but are any of those visitors worth it?

Here’s where it gets exciting: are the tall kids outperforming the short kids? Mary McKnight, over at RSS Pieces claims that (emphasis hers) “people that wind up on your real estate blog for a long tail search are most likely not transactional visitors.” As business people, we want transactional visitors because we want transactions. Luckily, we can measure that by looking at search terms that brought visitors to our site ranked in order of conversions (this assumes you have a way to convert site visitors, which you should if you have a business blog). From there we might know the facts based what is converting. Maybe the long tail terms are working, maybe not. Good thing we can check! Joseph Ferrara, another of my current favorite business bloggers, gets the idea of “one-metric, many items” when he says (emphasis his):

“If 20% (or whatever % you believe) of visitors come from long tail real estate searches– in total, unless you can cover all/most of the long tail searches in your market, like Amazon, you will only get a piece of that thin long tail granted, when we’re talking six-seven figure homes vs. two figure books and movies — that’s a nice piece of tail.”

Amazon can convert all the short kids. You might not be able to, but if your short kids have bigger allowances or better jobs then maybe it’s no big deal. Then Joseph goes on to echo Mary when he writes (emphasis his) “the overall number of visitors will always be significantly lower in the long tail than if you were ranking for the head or neck keywords. Consequently, your conversions will be lower.” Again, I’m not so certain. It makes sense on hand, you have more opportunities. But on the other, maybe those opportunities aren’t converting. Sort your search terms in order of conversions, not volume. Or, as Justin Smith says, target the Money Tail. What’s that? Justin tells us the Money Tail (emphasis his) “would be keywords like: ‘katy texas condos for sale’ or ‘real estate listings in Katy Texas’. The benefit of targeting keywords like these is that they are searched fairly often, but are specific enough to not have a high level of competition.” Great idea right? Time to dig and open up the analytics.

Too… much… data…. Gimme a checklist!

Gladly. You may have noticed that I’ve sprinkled some of the measurements throughout. 😉 Before you begin, make sure you are tracking conversions from your blog. Place a value on those conversions.

Measuring the Performance of the Long Tail for Business Blogging

  1. Observe how many visitors come from search engines (traffic source).
  2. Observe how many search engine visitors convert (performing source).
  3. Observe total number of search terms used to visit your site (length of your long tail).
  4. Observe which search terms are bringing visitors (popular search terms).
  5. Observe which search terms are converting (performing search terms).
  6. Orient your data by comparing performing search terms to popular search terms. Are any in both reports?
  7. Decide if writing for search engines is working for you by understanding your performing sources.
  8. Decide which search terms are working for you by looking at your comparative information on performing search vs popular search.
  9. Act: Write articles targeted towards those performing search terms whether they are in the long tail or not.
  10. Go back to step 1 and repeat. Welcome to Continuous Improvement Process!

So there you go, using the long tail to help inform your business decisions. Let me know if you have any questions and I’ll see what I can do to help. Extra credit for anyone who reads all the articles linked in this post.