Reaching the ‘Long Tail’ might be costing us more than we think

Co-Founder and partner of independent media agency D3, Alex Radford, shares his thoughts on why media agencies need to be adopting a less is more philosophy, which stands to benefit not only their outcomes but the planet as well.

In the fast-evolving world of digital advertising, we are continually seeking ways to expand our reach and connect with audiences in new and innovative ways. However, the race to explore what has become known as ‘the long tail’ might have unforeseen costs – both environmentally and financially. It’s time to rethink what ‘reach’ means, and how we can be more responsible in our advertising strategies.

The term ‘long tail’ was popularised by Chris Anderson in his 2006 book, describing how our economy and culture are increasingly shifting away from a focus on a small number of hits to a vast number of niches. In advertising, this theory was adopted with fervour, with many believing they could reach more people with their ads by shifting away from mainstream publishers to programmatic exchanges.

But the issue lies in a fundamental misunderstanding of the original idea. The pursuit of the ‘long tail’ has led to campaigns being spread thin across thousands of sites, many of which have questionable validity and relevance.

Digital advertising is often seen as a ‘clean’ industry, free from the physical waste associated with traditional media. However, this view is being challenged.

Havas’ Meaningful Brand Report (2021) unveiled a shocking comparison – 1 million ad impressions have the carbon footprint equivalent to a round trip flight from Boston to London. These numbers add up quickly when you consider the billions of impressions served daily across the globe. What once seemed like a harmless click suddenly carries a weight we cannot ignore.

The chase for the ‘long tail’ is not just costly to the planet. Many impressions are wasted on bots or served on irrelevant sites. Its money poured down the digital drain.

A few years ago, Chase Bank’s well-publicised case showed us that reducing programmatic reach by 99 percent had no negative effect on business outcomes. Most of the sites were fake or had low to no human engagement. The strategy that was believed to amplify reach was, in fact, spreading resources thin without any real return on investment.

Alex Radford.

The vast reach of programmatic advertising also opens doors to fraud. By advertising on numerous sites, it’s almost impossible to verify the legitimacy of each one. Fraudulent sites gain revenue from ads that no real users see, creating a false economy that benefits the fraudsters and not the advertisers or their audiences.

Here in New Zealand, where the adult population is less than 4 million, we don’t need to spread spend across thousands of sites to achieve reach. Focusing on a select number of relevant and high-quality websites, with engaged and relevant audiences, can yield better results.

This approach not only makes economic sense but also contributes to a more sustainable digital ecosystem. By placing ads where they matter, we cut down on unnecessary impressions and, consequently, reduce our carbon footprint.

Digital advertising doesn’t need to be a numbers game. Quantity doesn’t always translate to quality. A more thoughtful and targeted approach not only saves money but enhances the value and impact of each impression.

Investing in quality placements on reputable websites not only ensures that real eyes see the ads but also aligns the advertising with content that resonates with the target audience. It’s a win-win scenario for both advertisers and consumers.

The myth of the ‘long tail’ in digital advertising has led us down a path that we need to reevaluate. While the idea of reaching the untapped masses sounds appealing, the reality is far more complex and fraught with inefficiency, waste, and environmental consequences.

In our desire to connect with everyone, we may have lost sight of the importance of connecting meaningfully. By recalibrating our approach, focusing on relevance and quality over sheer quantity, we can create a digital advertising landscape that is not only more effective but also more responsible.

In New Zealand and beyond, it’s time to shift our thinking and recognise that less can indeed be more. By taking a more targeted approach, we can improve outcomes, reduce waste, and make a positive impact on the planet. It’s not just a business decision; it’s a decision that reflects our responsibility as global citizens. It’s time to take the path less travelled and explore advertising strategies that respect both our audience and our world.

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