Marketing in a ‘Long Tail’ World

Bloglines was one of those companies I couldn’t help but watch, partly because its site was so often pulled up in my browser. When Ask Jeeves bought it a while back, one word kept coming up among the Jeevesters: “addictive.”

Why is Bloglines so captivating?

From the user perspective, it’s because you can so easily keep up with hundreds of different sources of content: favorite blogs, online publications, and keyword searches. What was Bloglines’ business model? Subscription? Advertising? None of the above. Not yet, anyway. For advertisers, though, there were intriguing possibilities, which founder Mark Fletcher did more than hint about. Because of the acquisition, however, it looks like plans to implement advertising have been put on hold.

For industry-watchers, Bloglines and its ilk represent a fundamental change in media consumption — from mass to micro, from push to pull, from human editing to machine editing. The problem for advertisers is they’re largely cut out of the process, save for a few low-volume possibilities. Publishers, too, stand to lose, as the power of their brand is discounted and they potentially lose page views (and ad impressions) to feed aggregators.

All these issues were at the forefront at the Media Center Emerging Technology conference in Palo Alto, which really got me thinking. One concept that kept recurring was the “long tail” — an idea that’s been brewing out there for some time and was notably explored by Wired editor-in-chief Chris Anderson in October 2004. The idea is technology — including XML feeds, recommendation engines, prospective search tools — make it easier for consumers to find (and consume) niche content and products. So rather than a world of mass-market hits, we’re living in a much broader universe in which each person’s media and product consumption are tailored to his or her specific desires.

The technology “agents” making this possible are fueled by the incredible amount of data individuals generate online, whether deliberately or inadvertently. On Flickr, 43Things (an Amazon.com investment), and del.icio.us, users create content and tag it with keywords. On Bloglines, people subscribe to feeds based on their interests. On Technorati, Feedster, PubSub, and more, people can create prospective searches (with keywords) that generate feed entries whenever related content pops up. There’s also plenty of data generated by people’s interactions with all of these tools. Needless to say, these data can be extremely valuable to advertisers who seek to reach audiences with particular interests.

I’m not advocating rummaging through the data willy-nilly, but so far all the above services are free to consumers. I think users understand the idea of trading off utility for advertising. If marketers also used the data to make ads especially relevant, that’s all the better.

This concept is already playing out on 43 Things, a site dedicated to goal setting. On a page on which 16 people say they want to “actually learn to play my guitar,” four Google AdSense for Content ads offer products and services aimed at helping people learn to play guitar. Could you get more targeted? No wonder Amazon.com invested in the start-up behind the site. Sell-side advertising is another way of using data to better match ads to content to audience.

There are a few missing pieces, however. One is publisher involvement. 43 Things, with its user-generated content (to which 43 Things owns the copyright), is one situation, but what about feed aggregators? Much of the content people view on the likes of Bloglines is created by major publishers, the rest is written by bloggers. The publishers or blog authors presumably own the copyright and would feel proprietary about having others make money from their content.

This has played out in microcosm in a dispute between Bloglines and trademark attorney Martin Schwimmer. Schwimmer, the author of Trademark Blog, asked the aggregator to remove his feed from its system because he didn’t want Bloglines to benefit from ads sold to viewers based upon the content of his full-text feed. Undoubtedly, issues like this one have led Ask Jeeves to table the advertising issue until things settle down a bit.

When people subscribe to a prospective search feed, such as those provided by Technorati, Feedster, or PubSub, things become still more removed. People aren’t even subscribing to a publisher or a blog brand — they just subscribe to a keyword or keyword phrase. Does the source of the information — sometimes a brand the publisher cultivated through serious investment — matter anymore? And if advertisers want to be associated with those brands — and the Online Publishers Association says they do — how do you accomplish that in this new world? How are publishers paid at all? There are plenty of experiments going on in that arena, but, as PubSub’s CEO, Salim Ismail, told me, “I don’t think the RSS model has fully settled down yet.”

Missing piece number two is the brand advertiser. Text ads targeted by keywords are so far largely direct response players’ domain. These advertisers pay when people click because that’s what they’re surfing for — a visit to an e-commerce site, which hopefully results in a purchase. But what of the likes of Procter & Gamble, Unilever, Ford, and GM? Will text ads targeted by keywords provide them enough value? Seth Goldstein, co-founder of Majestic Research, feels ads in feeds must allow users to interact within the aggregator experience, not force them to click away (a behavior they’re trying to avoid by using the aggregator in the first place). So what about ads that suggest users subscribe to a marketers’ proprietary content feed? (GM is doing interesting things with feeds, even experimenting with podcasting.)

I’ve probably raised more questions than answers in this column, but that’s the point. The new environment raises a lot of issues that must be pondered, explored, and experimented with. Have you been thinking about these questions? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Today’s column ran earlier on ClickZ.

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