20th-century trend trackers like John Naisbitt gathered insight by reading newspapers, magazines and other published sources. Those channels are too slow, narrow and shallow to fit the demands of the 21st century, however. Today, businesses use social media to identify industry trends in consumer taste, technology and even competitors' strategies.
"The people who are doing this are going to have a clear advantage over the people who don't," says Donna Cravotta, CEO and founder of social media public relations firm Social Pivot PR in Bedford Hills, New York. "You get such insight by having this information before making a decision."
"The reason why this is so important is that it is live research," Cravotta adds. "You can dive into these live conversations and use them to gather information."
Basic Social Media Trend Tracking
Businesses can get started tracking trends using free tools provided by familiar social media platforms. For instance, Facebook's Trending feed shows a list of topics that have recently become popular based on how many publishers are posting articles on a topic and how much users are engaging with those articles.
Google Trends identifies the specific search terms that are entered most frequently compared to all other terms. Google Trends can search by countries or categories such as "business & politics" and "travel & leisure."
Twitter's Trends feed appears on Twitter pages and shows the most-tweeted hashtags for a given location. On YouTube's home page, clicking the "Trending" tab provides a list of heavily viewed videos.
— J.T. Compeau, client service lead, AffinityAnswers
The Tumblr blogging platform has a button to pull up a list of trending searches on its home page. And on social news aggregator Reddit, items that have received the most upvotes and downvotes can be found using tabs for most popular, new and controversial categories.
These and other platform-supplied trend trackers are easy, free and provide business owners with glimpses into what can be gleaned from social traffic.
"It's a low barrier to entry," says J.T. Compeau, client service lead for Austin, Texas-based predictive branding firm AffinityAnswers. "But as you get more advanced you're going to want to invest in either more vendors or more employees dedicated to that cause."
Third-Party Social Media Trend Tracking Tools
Third-party tools for finding what's hot include Webstagram, which quickly highlights the most popular Instagram hashtags, and Buzzsumo, which ranks most-shared content by topic on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Pinterest and Google+. Some tools are available for free, while others provide additional features for a fee.
Hootsuite is another example of a social media management tool that helps businesses identify prospects by analyzing social traffic. It offers some functionality for free but most features are reserved for paid users. Cravotta says businesses can, among other things, uncover trends among competitors using Hootsuite.
"If there are three competitors you want to do some analysis on, you line them up next to each other and look for commonality. Are they attending the same events? Do they have friends in common?" Cravotta says. "You can do it around anything. It's whatever your business goal is."
Cost, Limits and Risks of Social Media Trend Tracking
While businesses may incur ongoing costs for subscribing to third-party tools, once dashboards are created to monitor topics of interest, tracking trends doesn't require a great deal of time or a large team, Cravotta says. "They can spend just a few minutes addressing their dashboard and make a decision," she says.
However, social media trend tracking is not foolproof. One potential challenge is sorting out useful information from the irrelevant data in a tide of social media analytics.
"There's a lot of noise," Cravotta says. "And there's a never-ending supply of data." She suggests business trend-trackers carefully refine dashboards to filter out extraneous data.
It may also be a good idea to ration the attention and other resources devoted to trend tracking. "You need to say, 'Today I'm going to spend 15 minutes and research this one competitor' and you get out," Cravotta advises.
Compeau warns against the risk of false positives, or identifying trends that may not be lasting or relevant enough to support business decisions. "Many marketers are tempted—and understandably so—to follow trends assiduously," he says. "This can turn out to be a mistake, as something that is hot in the moment is often not aligned with what really appeals to the consumer."
To avoid these risks, businesses can set trend-tracking objectives built around core strategies. "You can almost drown in data," Compeau says. "It's about zeroing in and discovering what's important."
Tracking trends with social media could become a core strategy to which businesses devote significant resources. It could also be just another tool to be used along with reading newspapers and industry journals. Either way, it may be worth a look for many businesses.
"The biggest thing is being able to tap to the audience of people you want to connect with," Cravotta says. "You can listen to them, engage with them and find out what they want now. When social media is used in this manner, the amount of targeted intelligence you can gather is endless."
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