I have been reading Work Rules by Laszlo Bock lately. Chapter 8, dubbed "The Two Tails", addresses the topic of performance repartition across employees. Laszlo observes that though some attributes (such as employee height) are distributed according to a normal repartition, others (such as employee performance) follow a power law:
What's interesting is that I observed the same phenomenon taking place with content I've been posting to various online services. Incidentally, it's also something Paul Graham observed about startup investing:
The two most important things to understand about startup investing, as a business, are (1) that effectively all the returns are concentrated in a few big winners, and (2) that the best ideas look initially like bad ideas.
In startups, the big winners are big to a degree that violates our expectations about variation. I don't know whether these expectations are innate or learned, but whatever the cause, we are just not prepared for the 1000x variation in outcomes that one finds in startup investing.
For instance, my top-viewed answer on Quora (out of 225) has been viewed 4 times as much as my next best one, and close to 20 times as much as my 20th most-viewed answer (note: this graph does not show a power law distribution, it only illustrates the relative audience size for each answer):
It's even worse on Slideshare (though the sample size is much smaller, only 7 presentations), where my top presentation strongly dominates the 6 others (note: same here, this graph does not show a power law distribution, it only illustrates the relative audience size for each presentation):
On a related note, most of the contact & consulting requests I receive come after someone saw that specific presentation.
What I find particularly enlightening is that I would most likely not have been able to predict in advance that a specific piece of content would resonate so much more than most others. In addition to this, online content can take a life of its own a long time after it was initially published. Case in point: my top Quora answer started getting a lot of views 18 months after I initially wrote it.
Said differently, if you're trying to build an audience, it's important to publish new things on a regular basis, but also to invest as much as possible in your winners, since those are the pieces of content that are going to have the greatest ROI for you. That's counter-intuitive to most people. Says Paul Graham:
Not all pieces of online content are born equal. Act accordingly!
To succeed in a domain that violates your intuitions, you need to be able to turn them off the way a pilot does when flying through clouds. You need to do what you know intellectually to be right, even though it feels wrong.