Blogonomics: The Long Tail


Bercovici asks:

A question for you, Felix: Are you sure increasing the number of bloggers

increases the value of the site? I think there’s a point of diminishing returns,

and I suspect, with 1,800 bloggers, HuffPo has already passed it. Those bloggers

don’t come at no cost — it requires staffers to recruit and monitor them.

It’d be interesting to see the distribution of HuffPo bloggers’ traffic; I’d

guess there’s a very long tail.

Assuming I’m right and a small fraction of the bloggers are generating most

of the page views, what’s the point? Why keep adding to the ranks? Or am I

totally naive about the economics here?

I would guess that on HuffPo, like on most such sites, there’s an 80/20 rule:

80% of the pageviews come from 20% of the bloggers. So I daresay that Jeff is

right, and that there’s a very long tail. And that yes, at the margin, there

is less of a return from hiring your 1,801st blogger than there was from hiring

your 108th blogger. But that’s not to say that HuffPo shouldn’t keep on hiring

more bloggers.

For one thing, with 1,800 bloggers, you’re naturally going to have a lot of

attrition. Many HuffPo bloggers have never blogged before, and even (especially)

when they start off with vigor and zeal, first-time bloggers do have a tendency,

statistically speaking, to peter out to the point at which they’re really not

blogging at all. I’m sure that a large chunk of those 1,800 bloggers haven’t

updated in quite some time, which means that Arianna has to keep on hiring if

she’s to keep constant the number of active bloggers.

There are other reasons to keep on hiring, too. For one thing, if you’re Arianna,

opportunities, in the form of potential new bloggers, present themselves frequently:

there are many people who want to blog for HuffPo, and, if they’re suitable,

it would be downright churlish to refuse them. So I’m not convinced that much

time or effort is spent on recruiting. As for monitoring the content going up,

that’s a function of the number of blog entries, not the number of

bloggers. And since HuffPo is in growth mode right now, I’m sure it can handle

a slow but steady rise in the rate of entries going up on the site.

But the main reason to "keep adding to the ranks" is much the same

as the reason why record labels have A&R departments. While a lot of the

new bloggers will go straight into the long tail, a few of them will break out

and join the 20% at the top of the heap. My guess is that if you compare the

top 20% of Arianna’s bloggers today to the top 20% of Arianna’s bloggers in

two years’ time, the lineup will look very different. The site continues to

grow and evolve; there’s no point in simply deciding that you like what you

have and that’s that.

While I’m at it, I should also address this:

There will come a day when she has to choose between paying someone to keep

him around or losing a chunk of traffic when he sets up shop elsewhere. Without

questioning her sincerity, it’s possible to wonder how thrilled she’ll be

when that day arrives.

I think those days will be very few and far between, because bloggers

simply don’t join HuffPo in the expectation of making money from their blogs.

I can easily see Arianna’s bloggers often losing interest in blogging and not

updating their blogs any more. What I find more difficult to envisage is one

of her bloggers deciding to decamp elsewhere just for the sake of some uncertain

advertising revenue. But as I said

earlier today, if and when that does happen, Arianna will, yes, be thrilled

that she has managed to oversee the transformation of nascent blogger into a

self-sustaining adult.

And one crucial reason why is that I very much doubt that the loss of any one

blogger would occasion even a measurable, let alone a meaningful, reduction

in HuffPo’s pageviews. The franchise as a whole is vastly more valuable and

important than any of its parts. If Nick Denton can easily weather the defection

of Pete Rojas from Gizmodo to Engadget, then Arianna isn’t going to be worried

that any one of her 1,800 bloggers is leaving to blog elsewhere.

As for the PR angle of being called

a "robber baron" – I can assure Jeff that Arianna’s been called

much worse in her time. Consider this hypothetical: what if Arianna charged

her bloggers money for the privilege of being hosted on her site? (I certainly

pay hosting fees for my site, Typepad

charges bloggers on its site, and those sites doesn’t come with any kind of

built-in traffic boost, so it’s not all that unthinkable.) At that point there

would be a simple commercial transaction: Arianna would be providing a valuable

service to her bloggers, and charging for it, and it would be hard to criticise

her, especially since she would still have a full-time staff of employees monitoring

every post. But because Arianna’s giving this service away for free, she’s suddenly

a robber baron? The argument seems weak to me.

Consider the business model of the financial data arm of Reuters. Reuters asks

all of the world’s major banks to give it free access to their pricing data;

it then aggregates that data and sells it back to the very banks who provided

it, charging them a lot of money. HuffPo, by contrast, also gets its "data"

for free, but it doesn’t charge for aggregating or reading it – the whole

operation is based on the idea that neither contributors nor readers ever have

to pay a penny to anyone. The only financial transactions happen off to the

side, between HuffPo and its advertisers. I see nothing wrong with that model

at all.

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