The Problem With The Long Tail

Brand Aware” explores the data-driven digital ad ecosystem from the marketer’s point of view.

Today’s column is written by Belinda J. Smith, global director of media activation at Electronic Arts.

The promise of programmatic is oft-repeated as “right person, right place, right time.”

And while this is likely the goal of all advertising, we typically spend most of our efforts on “right person,” and maybe even a little on “right time,” depending on your views of attribution, but “right place” is nearly forsaken.

In the very early days of programmatic, in an effort to replace the distasteful and negatively connoted term “remnant inventory,” we invented a new and auspiciously nebulous term: long tail. While remnant inventory was perceived as garbage that publishers couldn’t sell directly, long tail was a term used to showcase valuable publishers and content that didn’t scale as well as those on the comScore Top 100.

Long tail was recipe and “mommy” blogs and review and niche enthusiast sites – places that made sense for brands to advertise, with the added benefit of programmatic targeting precision. It took years of education and branding, but we managed to get people to understand that you could find your same customers on these often cheaper sites and speak to them directly in a way that was effective.

And while it pains me to say this as a longtime programmatic advocate, I believe we’ve swung the pendulum too far in the other direction. We’ve almost completely abandoned the massive importance of content and context.

Long tail was a great concept for an age where creators and smaller publishers were still new to the internet as a communication tool. It was great for a time when we didn’t have sophisticated ways to discover, promote and monetize that content at scale. But today long tail has taken on new meaning. There is now a plethora of digital content created by bots, algorithms, SEO teams and content and click-bait farms.

We can no longer ignore this evolution under the guise of the long tail. It’s necessary to re-evaluate how we connect with audiences and value inventory given the near reinvention of programmatic capabilities and the overall internet.

I see several ways to approach such an exercise:


One of the easiest ways to evaluate where to cut the long tail is simply by looking at performance. Advertisers with a measurable goal or conversion can simply pull site-level reporting to get a view of who is adding value and who isn’t. But because this is the easiest way, it’s also not the most effective. This type of view doesn’t factor in nefarious practices such as attribution fraud, which may make some sites look more effective than they truly are.

Unique Reach

For advertisers without a conversion event, an easy way to manage the long tail is by evaluating unique reach. I’ve often found that something like the 80/20 rule – where the bulk of delivery happens on a disproportionately small number of sites – applies to inventory. Finding the point of diminishing returns, in terms of the ability to reach new, unique users, can serve as a place to evaluate which sites are worth the buy, and where marketers can reinvest long-tail spend with other publishers to maximize effectiveness.


Before we had the ability to precisely target audiences, advertising was all about content and context – like advertising toys during cartoon breaks, placing a restaurant’s billboard a few miles before the freeway exit or promoting a concert on the top-40 radio station.

In today’s digital landscape, many of us have reduced relevance to something that is “brand-safe” and maybe aligned by keyword – which is not a substitute for contextual alignment. One of my favorite examples on keyword targeting is the time I was on a pet website trying to figure out if my goldfish was pregnant and kept getting followed around by a birth control ad. Crafting audience targeting strategies and the right content and context aren’t mutually exclusive. Relevance should not be last on the list.

Viewability And Fraud

Third-party verification tools not only help us run better campaigns, they can also help us understand the value of our inventory. Cutting sites with habitually low viewability or high rates of nonhuman traffic is another way to start taking a chunk out of the long tail. Blacklisting these types of sites and others flagged for not being brand-safe or brand-aligned are also helpful to cull down a site list.


A more stringent way to control where ads show up is by implementing a whitelist. This means that ads will only show on sites that marketers have “opted in” to by whitelisting them. A whitelist can range from a few hundred to several thousand sites and provides some degree of confidence that ads won’t show up in unwanted or unexpected places.

And while whitelists have traditionally been killers of scale, many advertisers are finding success using robust whitelists to reach their audiences in the places that deliver the most value and make the most sense for the brand, campaign and message.

Whatever path you choose, continuing to believe in the myth of the long tail is not a recipe for success.

Follow Belinda J. Smith (@BJStech), Electronic Arts (@EA) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

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