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Confessions of a Long Tail Visionary

26 Mar 2009
March 26, 2009
Long Tail

Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail: Products that are in low demand or have low sales volume can collectively make up a market share that rivals or exceeds the relatively few current bestsellers and blockbusters.

Chris Anderson, editor of Wired magazine, popularized the term The Long Tail to describe a strategy for businesses that sell large numbers of items, each at a relatively low volume. Despite fewer sales per item, according to Anderson, such businesses can make big profits if they reach many, many niche buyers.

In the last few years, the Smithsonian American Art Museum has been looking at our museum’s online information in the same way. Our Web statistics showed that the number of visitors to our top ten sections paled when compared with the total number of visitors for all other pages, even though only a few people viewed each page. The challenge: how could we make it easier for our online visitors to find things of interest even if that information is buried deep in our site?

Anderson recently spoke at the Smithsonian 2.0 conference. Organized by the Smithsonian’s new Secretary, G. Wayne Clough, the seminar brought digerati from across the country to discuss how the Institution could make its collections, educational resources, and staff more “accessible, engaging and useful” to our visitors with the help of technology. A few weeks ago, American Art’s director, Elizabeth Broun, continued the discussion by holding an unprecedented all-day staff retreat to discuss the use of social media within the museum.

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Museums are changing. Like many other organizations, our hierarchical structure has historically disseminated information from our experts to our visitors. The envisioned twenty-first-century model, however, is more level. Instead of a one-way presentation, our online visitors are often interested in having a conversation with our curators and content providers. In response, many of us at American Art have been looking for ways to engage our public by designing applications that promote dialogue. By encouraging user-generated content and by distributing our assets beyond our own Web site and out across the Internet, we hope to make our content easier to find. In doing so, we are trying to fulfill our long tail strategy. In order to succeed we will need to approach our jobs differently.

While the traditional visionary makes connections between the big pictures, long tail visionaries look for connections between the small pictures. I am hedging my bets at the grassroots level. And at this level I, along with my coworkers, play a number of roles.

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