Exploiting The Tail For Fun and Profit

If there is one thing I’m unhappy about, it’s how big tech and big media exploit the tail for their own ends. But it’s a great business model for aspiring startups.

If you are not familiar with Head and Tail content concepts, it was first explored in Chris Anderson’s book The Long Tail. In the book, Anderson describes a post-internet world where content keeps growing and growing with no end; as more and more of us create content, there is more and more content available on the internet. He differentiates “head content,” which is the popular stuff created by big media companies (think Disney, Warner Bros, Paramount, Hulu, Netflix, etc.), and tail content, made by you and me (podcasts, YouTube videos, TikTok, Instagram, Twitch streams, etc.)

It has happened a lot: a tech company creates a destination, and we regular folks use it to communicate with each other. This communication is stored on the site and made searchable. Then the tech company somehow runs ads against the content or charges for it. They USE us to create the content, then monetize it without any, or minimal, compensation for us regular folks who make all of the tail content.

Case in point: Apple Podcasts. Before Apple Podcasts, the podcasting world was a wild west. Many podcasters like myself had a reasonably sized audience. It was an authentic connection between regular folks – with no moderators to determine who was good and who was worth promoting.

Then Apple Podcasts came along, and since all of the podcasts in the world ran on the same types of public RSS feeds, it was trivial for Apple to suck in all of the podcasts in the world and place them into their directory. Overnight, the podcast world got orderly, and there was an Apple blessed place to get podcasts. Apple gave podcasts some legitimacy and visibility. People who were wary of podcasts before flocked to Apple Podcasts to see what the fuss was all about.

Apple Podcasts became an overnight success because of all of the content it had rounded up from us regular folks. And for a short while, it was a good thing. But then, they started ranking podcasts. Once they began to rank podcasts, a few “tail” podcasts made the cut. Still, the big media companies got wind of them, and suddenly, Apple Podcasts was flooded with “head content,” effectively snuffing out the audience for tail content.

We smaller podcasters felt ripped off (at least I did). They’d pulled in our content to draw people to their platform, and now that they were there, they de-prioritized us instead of the deep-pocketed corporate media.

While I thought this sucked, it was a good business strategy. Why spend so much effort creating content when you can get others to make it for you, then monetize the results? It’s capitalism at its finest. Personally, I would have compensated the tail folks more and tried to keep them happy, as well as front and center on the platform – since I feel that this is where the exciting stuff is (definitely not in the corporate “head media”)

Think about your business. Is there a way to exploit the tail as Apple did? Can you get your users to create content for you, then monetize it?