The Long Tail making a comeback on TikTok

When e-commerce began to flourish, the concept of the Long Tail was used to describe how digital businesses can focus on a wide variety of products or services with almost no customers. The basic idea is that you can leverage the scale of the internet to make money by selling to many tiny groups of consumers. Since they are under-served, you can attract a lot of these niche groups and profit from the almost infinite length of the Long Tail. The obvious example is Amazon. Everything that is too obscure for your local or even national store to stock, they have it. Amazon tried this concept first with books and eventually expanded to... everything, they are "simply" a logistics platform.

The Long Tail classic graphic

At first, it seemed like the Long Tail would forever make roadways for what the internet can be. Once you establish a platform to provide for an item in a way that's discoverable, you can scale that to infinite categories of items, right? Well, as usual in the history of the internet, the tech and the content are there, but the monetisation lags way behind. Although e-commerce grew and the cultural impact of the Long Tail was relevant, what scaled for Amazon hardly scaled that well for everyone else.

A well-known example of how the Long Tail happened but then it didn't is YouTube. Even today anyone can be a "youtuber", just click the button and you can be uploading a video on any particular niche. Except that discoverability on YouTube works towards putting your content inside a well-designated category of targeted ads. And since ads have no Long Tail, niche content is constantly hitting a glass ceiling of not finding an audience because there's no ad money assigned to it. This is compounded by the fact that platforms like YouTube have stopped supporting organic growth by doing as much as they can to stop users from controlling their own feeds. Again, this all ties in to monetisation. If you want to make sure you have a place in someone's feed, platforms want you to either be paying for an ad or to be attracting the right audience for an ad. It doesn't matter if users want to see your content, platforms prefer to condition them to mindlessly scroll through what they want to show them. This of course leads us to the recent success of TikTok.

The Chinese platform propelled itself to the top of people's screen time by doing what China does best: taking what has been proven to work and selling it back to the world. In this case, mindless scrolling powered by the Long Tail. Instead of hampering discoverability by having to find the right box to force users into, TikTok just lets you find your niche. The addictive algorithms that people find remarkable in TikTok are just the same mechanics that have worked for YouTube but without cutting down the Long Tail. Meanwhile, the ads can just be whatever since users can't escape them, they require the same level of entranced engagement as every other item they are scrolling through.

Niche content creators are allowed to find their audience, niche fans get to dive deep into the content they like and ads can still gain mindshare. Meta has already showed TikTok that you can pretty much break the law for the sake of tracking users, so the newcomer platform sees no need for matching content to ads. They can still offer some level of targeting by using the same fingerprinting tactics as everyone else. The only missing link here is the same as it has always been: there's no viable monetisation for the content creators of TikTok. And the platform seems uninterested in solving for that since instead it focuses on making content creation as accessible as possible. Embracing the Long Tail allows TikTok to offer a different kind of value to creators: a place where they can be themselves and still find an audience. Of course, there's still some weird content moderation issues on one hand and, on the other, the almost non-existent monetisation that I've mentioned. But the strategy seems to be clear: TikTok is taking over people's screens by offering them the most convenient Long Tail of content the internet has ever seen.

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