(Continuing the conversation started here.)
About halfway through reading The Long Tail, I was cold-cocked by a thought...I've read this before, but in reverse. Back in the early-to-mid 90's, there was a a book written by Kevin Kelly (who was, interestingly enough, Editor in Chief of Wired at the time) called Out of Control. (n.b. Out of Control has been one of the most influential books I've read, and directly drove my interest in artificial intelligence, genetic algorithms and other phenomena at the intersection of technology and biology.)
Kelly's writing introduced me to the work of W. Brian Arthur, who is best known for his theories around increasing returns. Brian Arthur's work on increasing returns explains why the blogging power law (and, in fact the Long Tail shape itself) forms. Arthur writes:
"Customer Groove-In. High tech products are typically difficult to use. They require training. Once users invest in this training—say the maintenance and piloting of Airbus passenger aircraft—they merely need to update these skills for subsequent versions of the product. As more market is captured, it becomes easier to capture future markets.
In high-tech markets, such mechanisms ensure that products that gain market advantage stand to gain further advantage, making these markets unstable and subject to lock-in. Of course, lock-in is not forever. Technology comes in waves, and a lock-in...can only last as long as a particular wave lasts."
Put more simply, increasing returns can be trivially stated this way: "Thems that gots, shall gets." So, based on that, I would posit the following: While following a recommendation down the Long Tail drives demand down the curve -- to the right -- increasing returns moves a niche to the mainstream -- up the curve, to the left.
So, assuming that one wants to move his or her niche to the left up the curve, the big factors to success are driven by the following:
1) What is the "metric" that is being used to define the shape of the curve; and
2) How do I get more of it?
For example, Technorati gets slammed when they create their "Top 100" lists. Their list uses a single metric, "inbound links," that turns the "Top" list into a raw popularity contest, without taking into account other dimensions that might define something as a "top" blog. (But, it is what it is.) Now, that being said, if the "success" of your niche is tied to its findability in the tail (and it almost certainly is), then there are compelling reasons to try to move your niche to the left. The closer to the "head" of the Long Tail your niche is:
- The more likely a "direct" search will find your niche.
- The more likely a recommendation will find your niche.
Increasing returns would suggest that both of the above items increase the chance that your niche will then be even more findable in the future, and move even further to the left. For example, this article by Dave Sifry (CEO of Technorati) gives his thoughts on how to make your blog more popular. His points echo the above sentiments.