Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Non-profits And The Long Tail Theory

If you haven't read the The Long Tail, you should.

Here's the basic idea, according to Chris Anderson, the author:

Traditional retail economics dictate that stores only stock the likely hits, because shelf space is expensive. But online retailers (from Amazon to iTunes) can stock virtually everything, and the number of available niche products outnumber the hits by several orders of magnitude. Those millions of niches are the Long Tail, which had been largely neglected until recently in favor of the Short Head of hits.

When consumers are offered infinite choice, the true shape of demand is revealed. And it turns out to be less hit-centric than we thought. People gravitate towards niches because they satisfy narrow interests better, and in one aspect of our life or another we all have some narrow interest (whether we think of it that way or not).

The Long Tail theory is an economic one, but it has relevance for the non-profit sector as well. I've posted about this idea before, arguing that the new Distributed Funding model made possible by the internet is likely to undermine the major donor bias most organizations currently have.

The idea came up for me again today when I ran across this excellent post by Shabbir Safdar. In the excerpt below, Shabbir does a great job of reiterating why the theory of the Long Tail is so important in the non-profit sector:
What does this mean for public relations, public affairs and non-profits? The expectations of the public are changing. To develop an audience, you are expected to publish and talk about your work constantly... Organizations that don't publish are finding it very difficult to engage their audiences when their opponents and competitors talk to them all the time.

"Does this mean I need a blog?" a nonprofit executive recently asked me. No, it means you, or someone in your organization needs to write something almost every day about the work you do to further your mission. The "blog" is just the vehicle you use to post it. Perhaps tomorrow it's an e-mail list, and the day after it's a posted URL on Facebook. The day after it may be a postcard.

What's changed is the expectation. Today's public expects more out of the organizations they give their attention, loyalty, and money to nowadays, or they withhold it.
The question is, now that your long tail of supporters can easily find and connect with you, how do you keep that group of passionate, committed people engaged with your organization?

You talk to them.

Most of my non-profit clients publish a newsletter, and one or two fund raising letters throughout the year – not enough for a real "conversation" with constituents, and not a good way to reach people that aren't already part of the organization's base of supporters. In this new age of infinite access – via social networking, distributed funding, and non-traditional publicity – organizations are under pressure to keep information flowing at an unprecedented rate.

Organizations that are able to effectively create a platform for an ongoing conversation with anyone in the world who's interested in what they do – one that's able to reach deep into the long tail – are going to significantly better positioned that those who don't.

What is your organization doing to engage donors, volunteers, and supporters in conversation?

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