The Long Tail at Work — Al Franken’s win, a brief case study

News item: we now know that Al Franken used the wisdom gleaned from Chris Anderson’s idea about the Long Tail to win his election.

The Long Tail, the idea championed by Chris Anderson, and Microtrends, the book by Mark Penn, converge in this story. And you can throw a little Seth Godin and Tribes into the mix.

You probably know the concept of the Long Tail by now. A Border’s or Barnes and Noble store will stock books that have the best chance of selling. Amazon sells the same books, and some 80% of the books sold on Amazon are stocked in a typical physical retail bookstore. But 20% of sales for Amazon are from the “long tail.” (A quick read for this idea, and it is pretty good, is the wickipedia article on the Long Tail).

The traditional way to make money was to market to the masses. But increasingly, the way to reach people is with narrower niche marketing. This is really the end game of the long tail – it enables one to market, very successfully, to an increasingly narrow niche. Mark Penn describes it this way in Microtrends: The Small Forces Behind Tomorrow’s Big Changes:

All these people out there living a more single, independent life are slivering America into hundreds of small niches. (The number of households in America has exploded, even though population growth has slowed dramatically).
This book is about the niching of America. How there is no One America anymore, or Two, or Three, or Eight. In fact, there are hundreds of Americas, hundreds of new niches made up of people drawn together by common interests.
You can’t understand the world anymore only in terms of “megatrends,” or universal experiences. In today’s splintered society, if you want to operate successfully, you have to understand the intense identity groups that are growing and moving, fast and furious in crisscrossing directions. That is microtrends.
A microtrend is an intense identity group, that is growing, which has needs and wants unmet by the current crop of companies, marketers, policymakers, and others who would influence society’s behavior.

The number crunchers keep examining the last election. Here is a revealing description about the Franken win (let me recommend, don’t let your politics, one way or the other, get in the way — – pay attention to the marketing implications). I first read this in a Daily Kos post, but the source is Long-Tail Nanotargeting from Politics Magazine.

Thanks to Democrat Al Franken’s Senate campaign, we now have a proven model to move beyond [the old campaign voter targeting] strategies. We do it by tapping into the concept of the “long tail,” an Internet marketing theory popular in the corporate world. It’s based on the idea that the Internet audience is extremely fractured. So, instead of identifying the most universally persuasive messages and broadcasting them to a wide audience, in the long-tail model you take the most persuasive messages and nanotarget each one to the right niche.
People don’t go to one place, looking for one thing. Their whims take them to a million places. The trick is to be everywhere, with tightly targeted messages. It’s about showing them highly relevant factoids/ads tailored to the whim they’re currently indulging, which if clicked, will redirect them to a relevant part of your website or related off-site content. In short, long-tail nanotargeting takes those little gems—be it an endorsement, video, news story, or ask—and shows it to the people who would care. To this end, we ran more than 30 million impressions for the Franken campaign across five horizontal ad networks, two vertical networks and dozens of local news outlets.
We nanotargeted more than 125 niche groups, with more than 1,000 pieces of creative, for less than $100,000. On Google alone, an acquisition budget of less than $20,000 got us more than 20,000 clicks, 5,500 active e-mail sign- ups, and more than 2,500 donors. We were able to reach persuasion niches (this is akin to someone opening up and reading a mail piece) for a fraction of a penny per impression, and less than 50 cents per interaction.
They targeted geographic and demographic niches online. They tested messages to see what worked best. Here’s an example:
In real terms, Minnesotans who were searching for cheap gas or researching fuel-efficient cars saw ads about Franken’s plan to lower gas prices.

The long tail has made Amazon successful, helped elect Al Franken, and, I suspect, will be the way to go for an ever growing number of businesses. It is the internet that makes this possible. But it is understanding the long tail, and implementing strategies that take advantage of the long tail, that will make people more successful.


You can purchase my synopses of The Long Tail and Microtrends, and my colleague Karl Krayer’s synopsis of Tribes, with audio + handout, from our companion site,

One thought on “The Long Tail at Work — Al Franken’s win, a brief case study

  1. Pingback: MRT Book Club, Promises and First Paragraphs « everything ennui.

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