Economists refer to it as the Pareto Principle, or Power Law, but for most of us it’s the phenomenon that underlies the long tail theory popularized in 2004 by Chris Anderson in an influential article in Wired Magazine and developed into a full-length book two years later. Anderson looked at some of the most innovative companies of the time, such as Amazon and Apple, and observed how—despite the long talked about 80/20 rule—businesses were being built by selling fewer units of a larger selection of inventory. This flew in the face of the industry’s conventional economics, which emphasized mass markets and scale as the only way to develop and maintain a sustainable operation.
The 21st century Internet-enabled market, contended Anderson, was a 'market of multitudes', where items that didn’t sell in large volumes did not have to slough off and disintegrate, but instead could find a new life further down the 'tail' of smaller, more specialized markets. Writers, producers, musicians, and artists working outside of the mainstream mega-hit business saw long-tail economics as a beacon of hope for content that didn’t necessarily appeal to the masses.
When Anderson popularized the theory, its underpinning was the Internet’s new unlimited shelf space. A dozen years later, with the advent of streaming and social platforms, the long tail is further defined by the move to media on demand, recommendation engines as well as online comments, likes and shares. In this new environment, one’s market for a niche offering can live anywhere in the world.
The topic of how the creative community can use the long tail to its advantage was put to a panel of producers at Canadian Screen Week recently held in Toronto. The streaming and social-fuelled long tail brings with it challenges, but also new opportunities.
Finding a broadcaster, securing financing, and making a project is a sequence familiar to producers, and one that has worked for many years. Now, however, the network and the producer may not have the same goals. While the network is going to be interested in either advertising or subscriptions, depending on its business model, the producer is interested in views and quality of engagement.
High quality if not fanatical engagement is nothing new to Sam Dunn, co-founder of Banger Films, the Toronto-based studio that zeroed in on the genre of heavy metal music documentaries over a dozen years ago. Dunn describes this niche as “so big, but nobody knows it exists.” To this end, Banger’s early productions took a deep and international perspective on the eardrum-pounding subculture with films such as Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey and Global Metal and followed that up with artist-specific projects on Iron Maiden, Rush, and Alice Cooper.
At the nerve centre of anything Banger Films does is a community of hardcore fans, who live and breathe the genre and are generally underserved by mainstream outlets. This is the thinking behind some of Banger Films’ recent branching out to other genres such as hip hop, with their acclaimed Netflix series Hip-Hop Evolution, and the world of gaming enthusiasts on YouTube with Gaming Show (In My Parents’ Garage).
In spite of the studio’s global success with niche programming, Dunn confesses that “I wish our tail was longer, but we were slow to embrace digital and social. We sold a lot of DVDs on our first few films so, for us, it’s been a game of catch up.” Moving away from a cash cow that’s working isn’t an easy shift for producers", and Dunn explained how the studio’s digital strategy is now very conscious about leveraging the long tail.
“We have Banger TV, a metal-specific YouTube channel, and we ask the audience what they want to see daily. And metal heads are very opinionated… The whole thing has been a challenge as the major music networks like Much, MTV, and VH1 became not about music. So we had to get to know new people, like Netflix, HBO, and Amazon. You’ve got to be friends with everyone, because it’s a fragmented market.”
Content targeted at niches changes various aspects of the audiovisual business, from production to distribution to marketing. Mark Bishop of Marble Media, the company behind the tween-oriented medieval-themed game show Splatalot, sees a host of advantages made possible by digital and social platforms. “We’re in over 120 countries with Splatalot and, when we’re selling to other territories, we post full episodes online, which we can do because we hold the rights. We can then see where the audience is, understand it through data, monetize online, and then take those numbers to a broadcaster.”
Other ways today’s long tail differs from yesterday’s is where the value is generated and the role played by the crowd in marketing campaigns. David Miller of entertainment marketing firm Agency71 noted: “Your theatrical release is your marketing campaign for what you do on digital and social.” In other words, cinema screenings are now seen as something that builds credibility and in turn serves marketing and promotional purposes for everything that follows, as opposed to the final destination it once was. Miller continued: “And now you need to think about things like what the thumbnail for this film will look like once it’s on iTunes.”
Speaking to a situation Mongrel Media encountered recently with one of their releases, Jessica LaGrassa revealed how the audience knew best.“We thought it was a horror film, and we marketed it that way. Then the community told us no, it wasn’t, so we had to pivot. We changed the artwork on the poster and positioned it as a thriller. We can make these changes within hours and getting it right means being able to generate digital revenue.”
But digital and social aren’t magic, nor are they free, contrary to what some may think. “You have to invest in people time,” Marble Media’s Bishop reminded the group. “Constant community engagement is an investment. Plus, you have to spend dollars to target and promote on social and digital platforms. But, if you do it right, when the time comes for your next film, the community is there.”
This post originally appeared on the CMF's Trends Blog.