The long tail gets interesting

December 15, 2009: 9:00 AM ET

Can media companies thrive online by reaching the right people at the right time?

By Ramana Rao, Co-founder and CEO, iCurrent

Rao sees opportunity in tracking online readers' interests. Photo: iCurrent

Amid the sturm and drang of traditional publishers squaring off against Google (GOOG) and others in a game of high-stakes business, it's easy to lose sight of the opportunity the Internet offers for a much more satisfying news and information experience.    Although resolving new models for content production and distribution is important,  the even bigger story will ultimately be about how the industry produces new experiences that are more personally relevant while retaining many of the values we so appreciate in traditional media.

This story requires a new lens.  In his influential 2006 book, The Long Tail, Chris Anderson paints the picture of how the Internet is turning us "from a mass market back into a niche nation, defined now not by our geography but by interests."   Yet the book doesn't quite explain the elusive concept of interests and this is critical to understanding what's ahead.

What are interests?

We could just say interests are what we're interested in, but that's simplistic.  An interest is a commitment to give attention to something and that this commitment flows in time – deepening or drying up, widening or narrowing, or changing its route altogether.  Interests live in our heads, hearts, and hands and are what create a demand for information.

Consider a typical palate of interests.  You may be interested in astronomy generally and the Mars Rover specifically.   You may be interested in places you've lived or causes you care about.   You may attend for a while to a world disaster or each year to the World Series, or continually to professional interests like regulation of markets or technology-fueled transformation of culture.

Your interests have natural boundaries you understand, e.g. Bill Gates in the context of philanthropy, or the iPhone in the enterprise, or Facebook as you raise teenagers.

These examples together illustrate that interests are dynamic flows on the demand side, in contrast to the supply-side concepts of The Long Tail's expanding inventories of items such as books, songs, and movies.

From "items" to "flows"

Our interests create demands for information flows.  The publishing and information industries, as opposed to the hit-making entertainment or the hard goods retail industries, have long served this much more subtle proposition.   Rather than seeing the actual product as items, they essentially package flows and build value and loyalty through their responsiveness to their audience across time.

"Periodicals," as they're called, filter and organize streams of items.  Consider the daily newspaper, the Sunday paper, and monthly magazine and how well they have fit in our lives for many years.  Add radio news programs as we commute, TV as we cook, and now content streams to us from all directions.

The people producing newspapers, magazines, and programs have always considered the audience—you had to in an age when you couldn't so easily fail small.  And there has long been pressure on decreasing costs and meeting underserved interests—over time lower circulation projects were not just viable but launched with much less risk and achieved much greater profits.  Technology and new practices have fueled a steady tightening of the interactive loop between publisher and audience and thus a qualitative shift toward being less pushy and more responsive.

From push to pull

The Internet is the latest disrupting technology and it is the most powerful.  Not only for the reason that is well underway---the proliferation of content creators and outlets---but more importantly because as the ultimate interactive media it enables the true flip from supply push to demand pull.

We can view this as a different long tail, a long tail of interests.  The "items" on the x-axis of this new long tail are flows that match the interests of their consumers.  The crest of the curve would include traditional newspapers and radio stations that persist.  And out along the tail would be interest-based flows that might have audiences of one, some that flash and pop, some that stay unique and stable for long periods.

The industry is just now igniting on the possibility of serving the long tail of interests.   In the entertainment industry, Pandora -- a personalized music-streaming service -- produces such flows in the form of its stations for each unique listener.  You start out with a generic station based on genre, artist, or song and then through "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" reactions to songs that are played, you tune the station.    In our own effort at iCurrent, we have pursued a similar approach to serve interest-based flows of information based on direct user signals.

Our pursuit has attuned us to two major challenges for personalized information delivery.

First, with information experiences, much more so than with entertainment experiences, there are a rich and subtle set of factors that we are all directly aware of that determine whether or not something meets our needs and interests.  Characterizing interests upfront may seem challenging, but it is quite easy to know that something is or isn't of interest as you see it.

Second, greater personal relevance doesn't mean we want to throw out what traditional media serves so well.    Personalized does not mean isolated nor self-created.   Along with new sophisticated search and filtering technologies that match against our interests, we want the value added by the work of others.

Very likely the information industry will stabilize in the next few years on new business models for content creation.  The pursuit of achieving holistic experiences and business models around interest-based flows will last longer especially as the mobile Internet is integrated into the picture.  Though interests and experiences may be confounding and harder to sell than, say, books or products, in the end, those that understand them will be the ones that make the future.

Rao is co-founder and CEO of iCurrent, an online personalized news service based in South San Francisco, Calif.

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