Chasing Our Own Long Tail

All due respect to Wired editor Chris Anderson, but the currently hot topic of the internet's "long tail" has been with us at least since I started writing about digital in 1995. To be sure, Sherman deserves the credit for bringing into focus for the post-bubble world the notion that the web makes viable niche markets and remnant inventories that could never find buyers in "real world" distribution and marketing systems, but this model has been part of the web equation since day one.

For content providers in particular, the web always held out the promise of finding new markets and somehow monetizing repositories of unused inventory. After all, isn't syndication the original "long tail" model? Doesn't it ferret out new and niche audiences more efficiently than trying to cultivate them ourselves? And how about all those archive schemes? How many media brands touted their fee-based online archives as low-cost ways of re-monetizing years of old content? And then there were the many attempts to create online marketplaces for branded content, some of which remain with us, like (still alive), which aggregates branded archives. On the author's side there is FeatureWell, teeming with articles for re-sale to willing publishers. That long tail has been wagging for a while, even if it seems harder for content to catch.

For many publishers, online search has taken on the role of doggedly chasing the long tail, because it effectively drills more deeply into your old and new content and makes it available to audiences that define themselves by plugging a keyword into a search box. Of course, one of the problems with search engines is a loss of control over how and when users find your content and even over the levels of traffic they can guarantee advertisers. As much as sites enjoy the traffic spikes from appearing high in search results, no mature business owner wants her branded content to live and die according to the algorithms of Google.

Some new ideas are surfacing for the old goal of leveraging one's content inventory more effectively online. RSS has matured substantially in the past year or so. Aggregators like Feedster are becoming more effective syndicators of major media by packaging and recombining feeds in a customized fashion for partners. Several content management systems are in beta that let publishers or portals pull select feeds and combine feeds across specific search terms from an aggregator's database and use these headlines to drive their own news tickers.

And the content marketplace notion is back, this time in the form of Mochila (, an interesting attempt to fully automate the process of media brands selling licensed content to other media or even to the niche enthusiast sites. Serious brands like Hachette Filipacchi and Metro International are trying this system, which lets them put content into a marketplace, name the price for re-use, set embargoes and any other sort of limitation, and then let the buyers find them.

"We believe in the power of the tail," Carolyn Bekkedahl, VP of Mochila's business development, tells me. Bekkedahl, who spent more than a decade in the magazine industry, has her sales pitch well-tuned to the current anxieties among publishers over the issue of control. "The beautiful thing about this vis-à-vis other syndication models is that the content creator has total control over what they put up. They can embargo by geography, determine price by the word, can price individual articles higher than others."

Unlike previous attempts at online content marketplaces, Mochila boasts a more sophisticated engine that can now accommodate the thorny problems of content licensing. It claims to surround each piece of content with as many restrictions and caveats as a publisher can toss at it.

This model gets really interesting when you fold advertising into the mix, however. Content buyers in the system can simply purchase an article outright for re-use, or opt into a free, ad-supported distribution system. In this model, Mochila actually serves the article into the buyer's site and plugs in a contextually relevant ad. The revenue gets split among the buyer, seller, and of course, Mochila. For smaller sites that can't afford to buy content or sell their own inventory, it's an attractive option. For the content sellers, however, it offers a unique proposition as well. By syndicating both the content and the advertising, a system like Mochila's gives publishers control over distribution and monetization.

I don't know if Mochila will get traction among publishers, let alone content buyers. Whether there really is a market or many use cases for republishing content on a one-off basis is unclear. Nevertheless, its model highlights the two troubling themes that the new content ecosystem of search, RSS, and blogs has yet to pursue for traditional publishers—control and monetization. How do you maintain the former and exploit the latter? How do you wag the long tail, rather than have the long tail wag you?