Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Long Tail of Cheerful Service

The Long Tail

On Friday, I spoke at the Boy Scouts of America Baltimore Area Council (BAC) about Twitter, but mainly it was about social media and its use in service organizations. I tried to emphasize the "why" social media more than "how" to do it. I hope I succeeded.

The meeting occurred out of my digital conversations with Ethan Draddy, the BAC Scout Executive & CEO, as we sparred about how best to use Twitter in our roles as adult leaders. He's a full time paid executive, while I'm a part time volunteer, though my tweet count is a bit higher. As he introduced me, he explained to his team that we had met through Twitter, which I thought was perfect background for why I was there. I suggested to him that my role had been a coach, one who had slightly more experience, but not all of the answers.

When I prepared for my lunch-and-learn session with BAC staffers, I thought of a few key lessons I wanted to share, from what "6 degrees" could mean, to comparing network chats to email, to how one might leverage existing guidance such as the Computers merit badge handbook (and related online resources such as One key idea I researched beforehand was the "long tail" theory. I found one explanation of that concept here:

There's even a book out on the large aggregate markets for relatively unpopular items. It's called The Long Tail.
The book referred to is subtitled "Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More". I'll come back to the "business" and "selling" part later.

As I approached this idea, I asked the audience who had heard of "The Long Tail." No hands went up. Great, a coachable moment for all. When I stepped back to as who took statistics in high school, or in college, then who liked it, there were a few hands for the former, just one for the latter. As a mentor, I realized transferring a concept like this was key to my goal in being there, and that it was going to be tricky.

I drew a curve resembling this image:

On the left, I wrote "Blockbuster"; on the right I wrote "Netflix". When I asked for comments, I heard "bricks and mortar" vs. "internet distribution". That's pretty close to the basis of this theory. The difference between the "long tail" for business and the "long tail" for charitable organizations is subtle. I proposed that the Boy Scouts aren't selling anything. Perhaps they are, but that's not the point. Scouts are a Service Organization. The motto of the Order of the Arrow includes "Cheerful Service".

The chart above shows a larger area in reddish-brown than it does in yellow. For the "long tail" concept to work, you should imagine that the yellow area extends off the chart to the right, and that the total area in yellow is greater than the reddish-brown. In other words, Netflix, with smaller sales of each item than Blockbuster, is more profitable. In the quote above, I'd quibble with the term "unpopular" item, replacing it with "obscure" or "less popular". Clearly someone wants to rent those low frequency titles.

A few thoughts on Scouting and the internet

Researching the concept of low frequency service, I found references to an instance where an individual Girl Scout had set up a web site to sell cookies. This early in 2009; here is one link:

An online article about the story is:

The former article contained a quote:

Turns out Girl Scouts, the organization, does not allow online sales and cites "safety reasons."
Sounds reasonable, though there are debatable points. One such point is doing fund-raising at the office (and where else do people have spare change?):

This article makes a bold statement:
Human resources folks, responding to pressures from above, state that no one should sell their stuff in the office, Scouters included. But promoting Scouting ideals is not the same, in my book, as doing fund-raising. I'm extremely fortunate that my management and company's philanthropic styles permit me time for camping and service projects. I doubt every company is so supportive.

By the way (did you know?)

As an aside, the Erielhonan were relatives of the Iroquois; their name means "long tail" (per And the Lenai Lennape word Quenischquney or "panther" translates as long-tailed. When I searched for "Scouting" and "long tail" two other definitions of the term appeared, one being story telling at length, the other being animals with long appendages.

The Lone Scout

In times of less mass transit and no interstates, the Lone Scout program was created to serve youth isolated from others. While it existed separate from the Boy Scouts for under a decade, the Lone Scout concept continues. Per Scouting magazine, there were about 400 Scouts active worldwide as of 2001.

The handbook is online, too [PDF - 7.2 MB]. It includes a brief discussion of distance communications, suggesting email, and says one Lone Scout "even has his own web site."


On the diagram I drew during my chat, I replaced the dollar sign for Sales on the left axis with the word Service. I propose that instead of individual items for sale, that we're talking about individual good deeds, and that reaching out to Scouts, potential Scouts, the general public, and particularly those skeptical of the relevance of Scouting in the 21st century, is imperative. Jim Milham's closing remarks echoed this when he said Scouting needs to continue evolving or we will be left behind.

1 comment:

Jack said...

Everyone in that room sells for a living. They sell units (a pre-packaged program) to chartering organizations. They sell the idea of Scouting to individuals to get their support (time).

Was Ethan Draddy in the room?

How do you see Twitter working for the long term?