The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More

August 6, 2007 by

The Long Tail by Chris AndersonWired editor Chris Anderson champions the concept of the long tail in The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More–basically the digital age has ushered in a new economy of incredible choice. Shelf space is no longer limited to the top 1,000 titles, but the top million can easily be sold at a profit. And while individual items at the end of the tail may not make much, the entire tail itself can rival the ultra-popular items at the head of the curve.

This blog is a good example of the long tail. Church marketing is a small market that barely supports its own magazines and books. But the low costs of a blog make it possible to reach that market, discover its potential and ease distribution, making it easier for magazines, books and whatever else to make it. (I’m speaking, of course, of our blog and the many others out there that cover church marketing–I’m not trying to say we defined the marketplace or anything like that)

So what does this have to do with church marketing? Good question.

The Long Tail and Church Choice
The concept of the long tail can be applied to many things, including churches. One example would be the proliferation of different kinds of churches. You can argue over whether or not a cowboy church is a good thing or a bad thing, but today’s economics have made it easier to plant a church today than it was 50 years ago, resulting in a diversity of choice and the potential to reach more people.

The Long Tail and Church Offerings
But I think the better application for the church is simply realizing the change in the marketplace. People are beginning to expect more. Virtually limitless choice is available in music (iTunes), books (Amazon) and movies (Netflix). Is your church adopting to meet this new demand?

And I don’t mean that every church needs to be offering unlimited products or choices or whatever. I’m saying that churches need to be aware of the shifting patterns in choice. Once upon a time the “hits” were all that mattered. Has your church changed to meet this new reality?

Let’s Get Practical
I’m probably losing you. So let’s focus on what this looks like in the real world:

  • Cassette tapes or CDs cost money and take up space–you can only offer so many archived sermons. But in the digital age you can offer a virtually endless archive of sermons with no limit on how many times they can be listened to. Suddenly your church has a valuable archive of content you can offer not only to your congregation, but to the entire world.
  • It used to be that only big name pastors published books. Or perhaps no name pastors who sold questionable books from the trunk of their car. But now anyone can publish a book. While this may increase the number of car trunk books, it also increases opportunities for your church. You could publish a book of your church’s best 50 sermons. Or a church history book complete with testimonies from current members. Or your church’s membership class in book format. Or a guide to baptism at your church.
  • You could record your worship band and sell the tracks or give them away.
  • You could put together a video podcast of your church service.
  • You could offer a long tail of events: scrapbooking, video game nights, early morning coffee and prayer. These are events that may not have the draw or be worth the time for staff members to coordinate. But by using low cost means (volunteers, the Internet, etc.) you can spread the word and distribute the work and suddenly those events are not only possible, they’re powerful.

All of these are examples of things that would have been prohibitively expensive, but are now possible. The costs are small enough to be justified and the distribution system is efficient enough to get your materials out to your congregation and beyond (that “beyond” part is key, because it means your church can have an impact outside of your attendance). In some ways it’s just basic Internet economy applied to the church. These are all ways your church could participate in the long tail.

Tapping the Long Tail
Another option would be to tap into the long tail. Your church has a long tail of membership–how can you utilize those people? You’ve probably already tapped the “hits,” the people who are immensely talented or giving of their time. But what about the people who can make smaller contributions of time or talent? 40 people who can each volunteer an hour can accomplish more than 1 person who can volunteer 20 hours. The trick is to find the system to efficiently put them to work.

You may already be using your church’s most talented people to write newsletters or ad copy that flows beautifully. But what about your long tail of talented writers? You may have a handful of other folks who aren’t brilliant copy writers but can still write a mean blog entry. Put them to work!

In Conclusion
The book itself has no direct application to the church, so you’ll have to connect those dots yourself, but it does thoroughly explain how this works in various industries and the kind of changes it may mean.

Post By:

Kevin D. Hendricks

When Kevin isn't busy as the editor of Church Marketing Sucks, he runs his own writing and editing company, Monkey Outta Nowhere. Kevin has been blogging since 1998, runs the hyperlocal site West St. Paul Reader, and has published several books, including 137 Books in One Year: How to Fall in Love With Reading, The Stephanies and all of our church communication books.
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6 Responses to “The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More”

  • john parker
    August 6, 2007

    thanks. I’m really convinced that the internet has huge potential with a very long tail. I’m building my sites now with css. my next challenge is how to create a blog. learning curve remains steep.
    enjoyed your insights
    Pastor John

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  • Kristin Myers
    August 7, 2007

    Huh, definitely some good food for thought on “long tail”, thanks for posting.
    Applying this, or “praciting” the marketable aspects of church (programs, books, taped sermons, etc.) is a bit too much of a consumeristic application for me.
    Yet I won’t dispute the marketplace is great at tapping into our minds, anticipating our actions and offering us our desires. Here, the long tail implies we want to be unique.
    Good thing that’s how God created us, right? I love the idea of applying the the “long tail” to the church body, “tapping into” the uniqueness of church members and their gifts. I feel that is the gem here.

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  • Jesse
    August 8, 2007

    you didn’t explain how it is that everyone can publish books now. Is there some site? I want to publish a book! how do I do it? (assuming I write one in the next few days).

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  • Paul Walker
    August 8, 2007

    One of the ways that the church could take on board the long tail concept is by shifting away from the huge megachurch concept that tends to pander to a broad-based one-size-fits all mentality.
    Instead, maybe we need to look at planting large numbers of smaller churches that target what Anderson calls ‘the niche’. In other words churches that focus on the highly niched sub-cultures in culure specific ways.
    And, Jesse (in the post above), the site you need is

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  • Mean Dean
    August 14, 2007

    Interesting I just blogged about this topic on my site this morning, citing Pew Internet stats that cite: “64% of wired Americans have used the Internet for spiritual or religious purposes”
    This coupled with a recent Leichtman Research Group that asserts up to 61 million U.S. households are online at hi-speed …
    and it all makes me wonder why the Church hasn’t understood that the long tail is more than mere brochureware.
    Yes, I agree, more blogging by more of the Body online is not only a good idea – but almost mandatory for the modern church to succeed.

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  • Cody Clark
    March 12, 2008

    This is the post I’ve been looking for. I too have noticed the Long Tail phenomenon in our Church’s offerings. Fewer people per event attending an ever-growing variety of events and groups.
    The challenge then is how to align the ministry administration to foster the Long Tail. That and knowing where and when you need to bring all these diverse constituencies into the same tent for a “mainstream” event.

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