It’s one of the big theories about the Web. Chris Anderson first outlined it in his book, ‘The Long Tail’, and the marketing guru Seth Godin riffs on it endlessly. And it’s so nearly right it’s important to see that it’s completely wrong.
It goes like this: at one time the only way to sell stuff was to open a shop. If I were into, say, 1950’s vinyl, then I’d find some premises, stock up, and advertise. Then sit back, wait, and probably close in a year. Because not enough people round here share my passion.
So my bank manager would say, ‘You’re too niche. Broaden out. Sell all kinds of recordings. Become a general music store. Then you might stand a chance.’
The old wisdom was, broaden out to the widest extent. Occupy the middle ground. Reach the mass average.
The new, Web, theory says: that’s all changed. Now, unless you’re planning to beat Amazon, refine your niche. You may only share your interest with 0.5% of the population – but 0.5% of the web-using population is enormous! You can happily work, not in the mass, volume end of sales, but in the niche you’re passionate about (the long tail) because there enough people who share that passion to make you successful.
And Amazon knows that, because its resellers are all people who sell to the long tail, collected in one place. Want a particular 1950’s vinyl recording? it’s not in their warehouses, because like any big seller, Amazon only stocks to popular stuff, but they know where to go for it.
Now I deeply dislike and distrust marketing language about the church. But there’s something to think about here.
A church which saw itself as a long tail church would try to occupy a distinct niche, reaching students, artists, or business people. Many of us do that already. But, following this through, we would turn to face that target group so exclusively that others would not feel welcomed. I’m not particularly interested in websites about quilting and so I don’t go there (though there are lots of them, I expect). And so I would feel equally unwelcome at a long-tail church that was targeted at quilters. I don’t share that niche.
People who read about Mission theology will recognise this as a new and trendy version of the old Homogenous Unit principle, with all the built-in dangers of exclusivism and self-centredness. But the Long Tail comes with new pizzazz: it shaves its head and wears a goatee, and it just happens to market to people who are hip, like we want to be.
- But the gospel is not hip – it’s a scandal and an offence.
- And the Lord Jesus is not interested in occupying a niche – he’s the Lord of the universe.
- Nor is he only interested in those who like the ‘Religion and Spirituality’ niche.
So, what do you think:
Does the theory of the Long Tail help us, because it forces us communicate with identifiable groups? Or does it poison us, because it denies the very nature of the gospel and its result?
Is going for the broad, mass average the best way of reaching most people? Or is yet another version of marketing the gospel?