Using mobile phones for HIV/AIDS education might seem oxymoronic to American teenagers. Using mobile phones for anything other than watching Youtube videos, texting, taking photos or even making a phone call doesn’t enter their realities–at least among the ones I’ve spoken with recently. But contrary to Everett Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovation Theory, early adopter aren’t always the only innovators and creatives . People who have to wait often value things more than those for whom things come easily.
As Clay Shirkey mentioned in Here Comes Everybody, social media tools have been a boost to the oppressed–allowing a way to practice free speech even in societies that are less than free (Egypt, Belarus). We’ve also just witnessed the birthing pains of a democracy via Twitter reports of protests over the allegedly fraudulent presidential elections in Iraq. But if the power of the crowd is helping to organize without organizations, then The Long Tail is helping to match every product with a buyer.
Chris Anderson, writes that the secret to creating a successful Long Tail business depends on two things: make everything available for purchase and help the consumer find it. These are the rules that propelled Internet companies like Amazon and Netflix into market dominance. After realizing about 80% of their profits on the 20% of items that have great popular appeal (best selling books, hit movies and gold record albums) companies that aggregate huge inventories can push the profit envelop by selling the other 80% of books, videos, music, etc., to niche audiences. For every item, there is a buyer.
While Anderson didn’t write this book to explore the moral issues of a culture of abundance and infinite choice, one has to wonder whether being presented with so many choices can be counter-productive. As explored in the study on whether a display of 6 jams or 24 jams will garner more sales, the display with 6 jams sold more, while the one with 24 left the consumers confused and indecisive.
The Long Tail, in a similar way to Groundswell, a book about the power of the crowd, shows how the Internet is being used as an endless supply of information and connectivity that can be tapped by people and institutions to create more complex products, more targeted product placement, and even prove to be a force for social justice.
For Population Services International, long-tail thinking has a lot of value. But here our message is not to sell products, but to sell ideas. We serve many diverse populations, and each deserves a specialized message to be served up through specialized social media channels or messaging. Whether promoting condom use to teenager girls in South Africa, encouraging the use of mosquito netting among young mothers in the Congo, or teaching South Koreans how to sterilize their drinking water, each population is a tiny segment on the long tail of public heath promotion. And using the technologies available today can and will work. It’s much cooler and hipper to interact with a pda or a cell phone than to check in with a school counselor. Or following a soap-opera on Facebook that espouses the virtues of a monagamous relationship is infotainment. The key to effective social marketing, as evidenced by the key to effective sales in the Long Tail world, will be that the audience is presented with the message that will help it gain better health.