Tyranny of the ‘Long Tail’

Longtail

The advent of Internet enabled e-commerce brought an increased focus on ‘Long Tail’ distributions . Internet organisations like Amazon are able to exploit their low marginal costs by selling low volumes to the Long Tail of buyers with unique non-mainstream needs. The Long Tail has therefore been celebrated as the new opportunity of the Internet age. Even knowledge sharing systems e.g. blogs, podcasts, video have celebrated the increased reach that the Internet facilitates. The ubiquitous 90/9/1 rule acknowledges that 90% of participants are simply consumers of content.

The Pervasive “Long Tail” Distribution

Our own work with communities and social networks identifies the Long Tail effect. Our benchmarking of ‘Key Players’ with ‘off-line’ social networks identified that the majority of those with large personal networks is confined to a selected few. Our Key Player index identifies how concentrated the core of the network is by measuring the % of participants that represent 50% of all connections. For off-line communities we found that the key player index is typically between 11% and 32%. However, when we applied this measure to online Enterprise Social Networks (ESN), this range drops to from 4% to 12%, meaning as little as 4% of the community members are responsible for 50% of all connections, accentuating how online communities amplify the Long Tail effects. To further demonstrate how pervasive this long tail distribution is, in an earlier post we showed how the social cohesion within Yammer groups in one Enterprise followed the long tail power curve distribution. In a follow up analysis we dug deeper into the group we identified as the most cohesive, to better understand what was happening inside. And what we found was another long tail distribution. Of the 243 staff who had been active in this group, over a period of 18 months since launching, 70 had only a single interaction, while 12 members (5%) were responsible for nearly 68% of all interactions. So even in what are perceived the ‘best’ community groups, most of the connecting is being done by only a selected few.

Knowledge Sharing is not Enough?

Here is the issue. Just because more people are exposed to new information and knowledge, can we assume that new enterprise value is being generated? Perhaps for those organisations that measure their success through increased readership, this is fine. But I would argue that increased readership, if it doesn’t result in increased actions, is a shallow benefit at best. We experienced the same issues with Knowledge Management (KM) in the 1990s. In those days KM solutions were largely content centric. It was common to celebrate shared content. Those of us at the centre of KM programmes of the day were however continuously challenged by our executive to demonstrate real value. I can still recall our CEO addressing the knowledge team by saying “I’m not interested in awards or newspaper articles about how great our KM programme is. What I want to see is real, on the ground, impacts”. While we could see a real change in the level of knowledge sharing that was happening, evidence of real impact was limited to selected anecdotes and one off case studies. As impressive as some of these were, they were far from representative of a sustainable enterprise wide change. Interestingly, this is where many Enterprise Social Network community managers now find themselves today.

Engaging the ESN “Long Tail”

It appears that we cannot escape the ESN “Long Tail”, so what can we do to engage them in more active collaboration? We will be addressing this more comprehensively in future posts, but its suffice to say that simply appreciating the extent of its existence and then creating some targeted interventions is a good start. Taking a leaf out of Amazon’s play book, we need to accept that the needs of the “Tail” are not the same as those at the core. Likely their needs will be more diverse and unique. It’s therefore incumbent of the community leaders to ensure that there is a sufficient richness and diversity in the conversations they seed, to attract greater participation from the ‘Tail’.

Image citation: http://www.longtail.com/about.html

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