Happy Birthday, Mom

Today is my mother’s birthday. She’s turning 39. Happy birthday, Mom.

She’s one of the handful of Sunday Epidemic’s regular readers.

Sunday Epidemic is like most new blogs in that respect. Not many readers, among whom are the author’s mother and the author’s cat.

It’s ok. I haven’t done much to promote Sunday Epidemic. Until recently I haven’t linked any posts to Facebook or Twitter. I haven’t mentioned it to many people in person. It’s been mostly Google search that has brought anyone here, and not many people at that.

However, even in the four months I’ve been writing here with the few visitors to the site, it’s already developed a “long tail” pattern.

The long tail is a statistical pattern where the most popular items tend to get a vast majority of interest, while a lot of items garner just a little interest, and yet the “tail” constitutes the greater part of the whole. Statisticians have known about it for years. It’s been the basis of a popular retail business strategy since Chris Anderson wrote about it in 2006 in his book, The Long Tail.

Here’s a graph of the number of views of every Sunday Epidemic article that’s been called up over the last three months.

Sunday Epidemic Pageviews

The first five bars are the five “Most Read” posts that appear in the right sidebar. The rest is everything else. 86 posts in all that anyone has looked at. The first one has twice as many views as the second one. The second one has almost twice as many as numbers 3 and 4. At the other end, there are almost 20 posts that have been looked at just once in the last three months. That’s the long tail.

If you chart the sales figures for ice cream flavors, you’ll find the same pattern. Here’s a list of ice cream sales compiled by the Food Channel:

  1. Vanilla, 29%
  2. Chocolate, 8.9%
  3. Butter pecan, 5.3%
  4. Strawberry, 5.3%
  5. Neapolitan, 4.2%
  6. Chocolate chip, 3.9%
  7. French vanilla, 3.8%
  8. Cookies and cream, 3.6%
  9. Vanilla fudge ripple, 2.6%
  10. Praline pecan, 1.7%
  11. Cherry, 1.6%
  12. Chocolate almond, 1.6%
  13. Coffee, 1.6%
  14. Rocky road, 1.5%
  15. Chocolate marshmallow, 1.3%
  16. All others, 23.7%

Put that into a bar chart, and you get:

Ice Cream Flavor Popularity

Vanilla far outsells even the number 2 flavor, chocolate, almost 3 to 1. And yet, if you take the whole chart, the sales of all the other flavors combined outsell vanilla more than 2 to 1.

The same pattern appears in just about any “best-seller” list you can name.

What that means for Sunday Epidemic (or just about any other activity you might engage in) is most of the posts I’ll write will disappear into obscurity on the end of the long tail.

I post every day. Out of every three months of posts, six weeks worth will be seen maybe three times, probably less.

On the other hand a very few of those posts, one every three months or so, will become (relatively) popular.

So why write a post every day? Because the huge number of posts that get just 1 or 2 hits together will eventually outnumber the hits of the most popular one or two.

Most of the work any of us does is doomed to obscurity. But it’s showing up every day and creating all those obscure bits over time that ends up carrying more weight when you consider the whole long tail than the memorable “big hits.”

So here’s to all the moms (and dads) showing up every day all those years without much fanfare. By the time you (or your kids) get to age 39, all those bits will be what counts.

(And there’ll probably be one or two “greatest hits,” too.)