Doctor StrangeBlog

Or; How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love my Long Tail...

Having spent its first year trying to find an audience, Look What it Means to Him needs some reasons to be cheerful.  In ‘Doctor Strangeblog’, LWIMTH gives itself a pep-talk by celebrating the rise, role and relevance of the niche football website and how the ‘long tail’ theory can give hope to creators of unconventional content.

“We assume…that only hits deserve to exist” - Chris Anderson

Have you ever found yourself watching Cyborg 009 vs. Devil Man on Netflix and thought; “Hang on, how the **** did I end up here?”.  I didn’t commit to paying £5.99 a month to watch a misunderstood, half-man-half-demon grapple with an elite team of cyborgs, yet somehow I've tumbled into the absurd. 

This couldn't have happened 20 years ago.  It took late nights, a generous cousin (thanks Will) or playground connections (thanks Ben) to watch Devil ManVenus WarsNinja Scroll or Fist of the North Star.  But now, thanks to streaming media, the unfamiliar sits adjacent to the mainstream and we can wander into a niche absent-mindedly.

I suspected that Netflix’s more obscure / straight-to-DVD / Devil Man-ish content existed to create the illusion of choice, but it turns out that these oddities are there thanks to their unexpected commercial value.  Back in ancient times, when Netflix mailed you DVDs that you dutifully spoilt and lost, outlets like Blockbuster focused on…Blockbusters.  This uncomplicated approach was driven by an equally straightforward limitation; finite shelf space.  In the past, there was little sense in stocking something obscure, no matter how brilliant, when an underwhelming blockbuster will be rented more often and thus make more money.

But while Blockbuster focused on ‘hits’, Netflix now stocks both 'hits' and hundreds of ‘misses’.  But why?  Because in theory, Netflix then has 10 blockbusters that are each watched 1,000 times, but also 1,000 weird titles, almost all of which star Michael Ironside, that are each watched 10 times.  Both offer the same hypothetical value, but while the latter previously couldn't be accommodated, it now makes money (or in the case of Netflix; brings in views and subscribers).

If one applies this clumsy example to any streaming media site or online retail leviathan (who are, in effect, unconstrained by shelf space) it explains why Spotify, Audible and Amazon etc… all list some bizarre items; it’s because someone, somewhere will pretty much buy anything at least once.  By amalgamating multiple outliers, the Internet has brought a new market to life; one that's filled with oddities, niches and unexpected gems.  This market is the ‘long tail’ (named after the distribution of product-types to popularity as shown in Figure One).

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The term 'long tail' was popularised by author Chris Anderson in a Wired Magazine article back in 2004 (a piece that was then expanded upon and turned into this book). By analysing vast data-sets from online retailers, Anderson determined that "the 'misses' usually make money too" and that while the traditional, hit-driven market is “not being replaced” the long tail market “(is) sharing the stage with it for the first time”.

But what does a theory more commonly (and comfortably) applied to the worlds of publishing, music and film have to do with football blogging?  Well, while the long tail theory can't be transplanted directly onto the football blogosphere*, there are points of comparison that a) encourage me persevere with my own muddled project, and b) might give other creators of weird, specific, or weirdly specific content some reasons to be cheerful.

“As (customers) wander farther from the beaten path, they discover their taste is not as mainstream as they thought…” - Chris Anderson

Like Blockbuster, our mainstream newspapers and football magazines have finite space, so it's logical they stick with what works even if 'what works' features dangerous levels of Robbie Savage.  Staples such as interviews, opinion pieces and a sprinkling of nostalgia are known to shift units, but they can muffle innovation and leave football mired in cliché.  Online, however, it's a slightly different story. While many football websites mirror each other and increasingly circulate synthetic #banter, others are willing to combine the obscure with the mainstream.

In the same way that Netflix and Spotify use ‘recommendations’ and ‘similar tos’ lead us towards their long tails, the Internet's football behemoths lead with the familiar (e.g. transfer gossip or 'Top 10' lists) while giving newcomers equal billing (e.g. F365 featuring The GegenPressexcellent piece on Denis Irwin) or dedicating an entire chunk of online real-estate to more experimental sites and writers (e.g. The Guardian Sport Network housing Karan Tejwani's article on Sassuolo that originally featured on These Football Times).

Just as Amazon’s ‘customers who also bought this item...' can miss the target, every niche that appears in the mainstream won't hit the spot.  However, some will, and the people behind those outliers have a chance to develop an audience while Football365 and The Guardian benefit from the additional hits (as per Netflix and Devil Man).

Conventional long tail theory maintains that “hits matter in attracting consumers…businesses can then guide consumers further afield”, but in the world of football blogging, websites can seemingly thrive despite exclusively stocking long tail produce.  For example, at time of writing In Bed With Maradona (IBWM) features articles on Doncaster RoversSt. Kitts & Nevis and Kosovo; a snapshot that’s representative of IBWM’s long-standing commitment to the niche. 

If IBWM focused entirely on St. Kitts & Nevis, it might only be popular in the West Indies and Hoxton, but by housing dozens of niche articles and effectively harnessing the power of the long tail, IBWM receives page-views and acclaim; an essential return for a site that refuses to cash in like mainstream equivalents.

This ‘tail-only’ model also benefits fans by giving us the opportunity to discover new things.  Take The Set Pieces; another football site that puts niche before normal. Personally, I can't watch anyone else play PlayStation without sulking, so I'd never have imagined that another person’s struggles with Championship Manager could be enjoyable…yet The Set Pieces' serialisation of Iain MacIntosh's (virtual) career with Everton (and latterly, Portsmouth) has not just held quirky or intermittent appeal; it's addictive and relatable.

A blow-by-blow account of a grown man playing a 15-year-old, text-based computer game doesn't have universal appeal, but just as someone will buy a Chicago Cubs jersey and for their dog (*cough*) everything that's out there seems to appeal to someone, but it needs to be discoverable.

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IBWM and The Set Pieces offer authors of ‘long tail’ produce with something precious; a route to market, but it’s not the only way for niche creators to reach an audience.  People with unique concepts can increasingly be found thanks to, rather than despite of, the specificity of their concept and the ‘length’ of their tail.

Football sites with specialist content can now take advantage of ‘long tail keywords’; terms picked up by search engines that are so specific, someone not only finds exactly the thing they want (e.g. ‘Chicago Cubs Jersey' + 'overweight bulldog’) they're more likely to feel a sense of attachment to your site because it feels like it's made just for them.

Back in 2010, Michael Cox’s Zonal Marking provided a much-needed alternative to mainstream tactical analysis (effectively a bored ex-pro saying “pace, power...he’s got the lot”).  Now, in a demonstration of football’s growing tail, sites like Talking Tottenham Tactics can develop a similar concept and provide increasingly specific services in ever-more creative ways, increasing its chance of finding an audience, and it's not the only one...

Looking for a take on football that isn't dominated by male voices?  Then check out Unusual Efforts where all content is produced “by women, trans or cis, and non-binary people”.  Looking for a social media account that ingests and disseminates pertinent stats exclusively for Walsall fans? Then follow @SaddlersStats.  Keen on sabermetric-style analysis for football?  Then make yourself familiar with Michael Caley.  These are by no means the only examples of unique ideas out there, they're just the ones' that I'm especially fond of.

"(It's the) shattering of the mainstream into a zillion different cultural shards..." - Chris Anderson

Football’s long tail is filled with promise; it can benefit established websites (who can showcase just a handful or aggregate numerous outliers), fans (who can find content seemingly tailored to their exact needs) and creators (who can thrive by being specific).  Last but not least, and I'm sorry if this sounds like something your line manager says to you; the long tail can also challenge what we mean by ‘success’.

We're conditioned to think that ‘hits’ are the only thing that matter; films are flops unless they make millions, YouTube videos have to go viral and websites are nothing without millions of views.  But the long tail demonstrates that, as long as they're given the means, people want to engage with the unconventional.

This may mean that your blog 'only' attracts a small but perfectly formed following, but your site could mean the world to the people who visit.  Unfortunately, in the binary world of the blockbuster and the flop, there isn't a word for things that sit comfortably in-between.  To borrow from Chris Anderson again; "we don’t have a term for non-hits. They're certainly not ‘misses’ because most weren't aimed at world domination in the first place".

Personally speaking, Look What it Means to Him wasn't established so I could garner popularity, critical acclaim or an income (which is fortunate, as all three escape me) but I'm occasionally struck with thoughts like "what's the point of this if only X people visit?" or "do I have 'enough' Twitter followers?".  But now, when I have these doubts, I consider my long tail; the thing that's enabled my site to be found.  It's the thing that's prompted some genuinely heart-warming messages of support and it's the thing that makes me feel like I'm doing something that is, if nothing else, different...even if it drives me crazy.

If one reviews the previous winners of the Football Blog Awards it's clear even acclaimed, independent ventures can have a short lifespan.  Although no-one is forced to create and maintain their own website, it's demanding, it detracts from 'real life' and from personal experience; it prompts self-indulgent, caffeine-fuelled existential crises.  But should any of the seven people reading this have doubts about their own bizarre concept, I can only encourage you to stick with it and learn to love your long tail; because someone, somewhere, will feel the same way about it, and that can make it all worthwhile.