The 80/20 Principle: It’s just a rule of thumb

not one of the ten commandments… Read on.

Ade’s blog just recently posted about the 80/20 rule and how it applies to bloggers. In this post, I would like to point out some of the reasons why I think the 80/20 rule may be flawed, and you’d be wise to consider NOT applying it to your blog’s readers.

An introduction: What is 80/20?

Wikipedia has a great article on the 80/20 otherwise known as Pareto’s principle. The principle was greatly popularized by a recent book called: The 80/20 Principle by Richard Koch. Good book, good reading. In summary, 80/20 states that the majority of results will come from the minority of inputs. In particular, 80% of sales in a bookstore will come from 20% of customers. There are many examples that you can find. While the numbers 80/20 are approximate, other variations have been seen, too, including 90/10, 70/30, etc. It is now being treated as a rule of thumb in many industries, and being applied in a number of diverse situations.

It’s a rule of thumb, not a rule!

The recording companies, principally the big 4, have been adopting this principle over the last few years with their back catalogues which have shrunk somewhat as artists have been eliminated who don’t reach certain mass market metrics. Now I was thinking about the 80/20 rule and it may or may not be true in some circumstances, but I would argue that in some situations, esp. like the CD industry, it’s a bad idea for a number of reasons.

Let’s examine CD purchases: logic dictates that you should only stock the top 20% of CDs. In some situations this may be fine if there’s limited stock space or some other important limitation. BUT a significant number of purchasers would probably buy a top 20% CD AND another CD of a lesser known artist. You then lose the CD sale for BOTH CDs not just one. Why? Well, as the CD companies are discovering: shoppers tend to buy multiple CDs at one time, and may shop frequently. With the top 20% of CDs on sale, such frequent shoppers would quickly buy the top 20% and then not have any more to buy. Result: they begin to shop elsewhere, where they buy the CDs that they can’t get in the bigger shop, and at the same time they’ll buy the popular CDs too.

For the shop, this is bad business: they lose the top quality purchasers who buy multiple CDs at a time. They therefore have to start increasing their advertising to attract those shoppers who only buy the top 20% of CDs, and those shoppers may only shop occasionally, may be more price sensitive, and may not be loyal to any particular CD store or chain of stores. Worse comes when even the marginally popular CDs are dropped as the store further refines its stock of CDs. Previously when third-tier CDs were dropped, sales may have risen incrementally, as some customers bought more second- and first-tier CDs. This effect would have been temporary as regular purchasers would soon find not much new to buy as most new artists would start out as third-tier or lower before being ‘discovered’ by shoppers.

So the store decides that with deteriorating sales in its CDs it has to boost its margins by shifting more copies of the top tier artists. It increases promotions, cuts second-tier CDs, and lo and behold, the sales and margins rise magically again. But worse is to come: customers begin buying fewer CDs (they either already have the ones they want or they don’t care for some of the artists) and regular customers become scarce. After the promotions are over, it’s difficult to get regular customers to come back, and the top spenders are now going elsewhere for their CDs.

So, it looks like the CDs/music market is declining, and the management is left with little choice but to scale back the CDs even more or close the store.

Of course, downloading (legal and otherwise) came along at a time when the CD industry was already in bad shape. Downloading and alternative mediums for music (online radio, ringtones, etc.), not to mention alternative sources for entertainment, all coincided to make things really difficult for CD companies. But to cut your catalogues and reduce your roster of artists is now looking to be one of the ways in which the big four cut their own throats.

The 80/20 principle sounds like a logical way of thinking until you realize that if you start to pursue the top 20, you will quickly lose a lot more incidental sales. And some of the incidental sales MAY just turn out to be the top 20% of purchasers in the future…

And for bloggers: should you follow the lead?

While the principle may be in principle correct, ignoring the 80% of your readers may lead to erosion of your blog income. Why? Because when readers click away from your blog, it’s usually through an advertisement. Hence, to maximize your blog’s income, you need to encourage your readers to love it, enjoy it (briefly) then click away to a Google Ad, affiliate link or other advertising. It’s likely that if you just focus on the 20% of your readers, your expenses will rise as a result of increasing usage your server’s power power, and your income will go down as regular readers become ad/affiliate link blind.

There are many people who do not seek to make any money out of their blogs at all. Power to them! Well done! There are bloggers like me who started before making money on a blog was possible, but have found the dollar signs an additional benefit. However, for both kinds, increasing readers is a great benefit, if the blogger can afford to pay for the hosting costs. If you cut into your revenue streams, then you’ll find that you will be paying the costs for your regular readers. If you are doing it as a hobby, perhaps that is appropriate for you. But perhaps not.

Overall, I am becoming a very anti-80/20 activist. I think focusing on such goals really doesn’t help much. I can cite several examples in Taiwan, where such short-term thinking led to very poor short-term results, muddied business plans, and withdrawal from the local market with a sullied reputation.

So I believe that the principle as a business principle is flawed, in many instances. I do recognize instances where it is a valuable ‘rule of thumb’ but it should not be treated as a law or rule in the absolute sense of the word. For the business world, which seems to be focused on the next quarter or next business year, it may seem to be a ‘golden rule’. In reality, it’s likely to prove to be fool’s gold. Unfortunately the 80/20 principle is fast becoming one of the canons of western business principles.

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