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Key tools for tracking online trends

Key tools for tracking online trends Michael Estrin

Warning: The information in this article is most likely out of date.

OK, that's a bad way to start off an article about how to stay current, but it points to an incontrovertible truth: Trends move at a lightning-quick pace, and that pace accelerates every day, especially in digital.

Don't believe me? Just ask the MySpace executives how quickly they lost their position atop the social networking heap. Or, better yet, take a look at this graph from Compete.

(Click to enlarge)

MySpace and Facebook were neck and neck last December, and while legions of tech journalist wrote countless articles about how Facebook was catching up with MySpace, nobody predicted that the headlines this summer would be this bad for MySpace. But in just a few months, barely two fiscal quarters, MySpace went from giant to giant has-been.

So what happened to MySpace? A lot of things. But two trends certainly factored in. First, the Facebook trend grew at a steady pace. (Remember last year, when you couldn't escape the phrase, "I can't believe so-and-so is on Facebook"?) That was one trend. But seemingly out of nowhere, another trendy site, Twitter, blew MySpace out of the water. Just check out its growth on the above chart.

Back in December, when Facebook had pulled even with MySpace, only a handful of people had even heard of Twitter, and the site, which was plagued by frequent crashes, garnered only a little more than 4 million unique visitors each month, compared to 59 million for Facebook and MySpace, according to Compete. But in the last six months, Twitter has grown by leaps and bounds, checking in with almost 20 million unique monthly visitors, compared to 56 million for MySpace, and 113 million for Facebook. But Twitter is even more prolific than its numbers would indicate. Every celebrity worth caring about has a Twitter page. Throwing it out to the "Twitter Wall" has become a regular feature of our TV news programs. And even my mother, who thinks Google is the internet, has begun asking about this "Twitter thing."

But ask yourself: Were you truly prepared for the Twitter onslaught, or did you push off those urgent questions -- what is Twitter; are we on it? -- so that you could educate yourself first?

All of that is history now. But did anyone really see Twitter coming?

Yes and no.

True, there's no shortage people touting the latest, greatest product or tool in the digital space, but those touts are often just hot air. And those who heap praise on everything new are about as reliable as chucking darts at a dartboard.

The truth is that you can't reliably spot trends with any kind of consistency. And if you could, you'd be better off on Wall Street (but then, you know how that's going these days).

Still, it pays to stay current because knowing what your customers are up to (even if you can't see the future) is a vital part of your job. And in the above example, it probably meant the difference between asking yourself what Twitter was, and knowing where to look to get actionable information right away. That's the goal, after all.

So we wanted to know how successful marketers keep their eyes on so many moving targets, and here's what they told us:

Next page >>

Google Trends
Want to know what people are searching for in real-time? Of course you do.

Google Trends, technically a beta product from Google Labs, has been around for a while. But the service, which allows anyone to track keywords over time, continues to add new features, including its latest, which is an application that will aggregate terms from social networks such as -- you guessed it -- Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter.

According to Reggie Miller, CEO of ICED, a media strategies firm, client demand for "buzz" reporting has made tools like Google Trends an invaluable part of his arsenal.

"By tracking popular terms, I can keep a pulse on what's hot and what has piqued people's interests," Miller explains. "When I sense something is becoming a reoccurring theme, I'll dig deeper and figure out if it's something that I'll actually find useful or should really care about." 
So how can you "dig deeper" with Google Trends? Try pairing your trend analysis with another tool, Google Insights, which allows you to narrow your focus to specific web properties, location, or vertical categories. You can also overlay seasonal factors, like holidays, sporting events, and elections to see how long-term trends are affected.

Want to know what the three most popular search terms were for Black Friday last year? It's there. But pair that information with tweets from Christmas morning 2008, and you get some idea of what people really thought about those "hot gifts."

OK, at this point you're probably suffering from Twitter-overload. But I'd be remiss if I didn't tell you that everyone, and I do mean everyone, I spoke with told me that their favorite market intelligence tool these days is Twitter.

Here's one representative comment from Rich Sullivan, president of Red Square Agency:

"Twitter is probably the best tool in spotting trends. I get nearly all of my information from thought leaders there. By its nature, Twitter represents a kind of collective conscious for what's happening right now. There are a number of very intelligent people (from the fields of technology, marketing, advertising, PR, pop culture trend spotting, music, art, literature, satire, television) that I follow. Before Twitter, I read as many blogs as a possible. [Now], I still read blogs, but find it quicker to get information via the feed. It is intelligence delivered by the fastest method I know."


Well, here's a snapshot that any marketer can use.

These are the most popular tweets of the moment (10:14 a.m., PST, June 16, 2009). For a marketer, that's an invaluable window into what people are talking about in real-time. Who wouldn't want that?

But Twitter is just one tool, and a rather limited one at that. Only a fraction of the visitors to Twitter actually tweet with any regularity, and while the tweets themselves can give you a good indication of buzz, it's hard to get a lot of depth in 140 characters.

Listen to Facebook
It's fair to say that quantitative analysis has the edge over qualitative thinking when it comes to digital marketing. After all, there's just too much data to ignore. But data isn't everything.

If you're looking for a cheap and fast digital focus group, interactive marketing veteran Jeff Berkwits says he's a big fan of Facebook. While he acknowledges that it won't work for everyone (and similar information can be gleaned from Twitter, albeit in shorter bursts), Berkwits says that a good Facebook fan page or Friend Feed can help any marketer see what people are thinking, and -- perhaps most importantly -- give them some perspective on where those thoughts are coming from.

"If you are lucky enough to have a sizable number of friends on Facebook who are into the same products (particularly lifestyle brands), it's not too difficult to spot some trends simply via the conversations and comments that occur," Berkwits says. "[However], one needs to be especially cautious, and likely do additional research, but it's an opportunity that shouldn't be altogether ignored."

Berkwits also adds that for certain brands, especially those in the entertainment category, Facebook groups can be an exceedingly reliable way of drilling deep into the insights of brand loyalists, who are seldom shy about sharing their opinions.


Feed the information overload
If you talk to anyone who works in digital these days, the topic of information overload is bound to come up. But mention the RSS (or any of the free news feed services out there) and more often than not, you get a blank stare. It's not that people don't know about feeds -- it's just that many people don't seem to actually use them.

But according to Dimitry Ioffe, CEO of The Visionaire Group, the proper settings on an RSS tool can really drive a campaign's success, if the agency's culture demands that staff use the tool.

Ioffe explains how his agency uses a general RSS feed to help identify marketing and advertising opportunities:

"The RSS feeders are set up either on the desktop or in a browser such as Firefox. These feeds are checked on a daily basis without any one project in mind. The key is to absorb as much as possible and recognize where marketing or technology opportunities lie. The second step is matching those opportunities to clients' needs and goals. In the entertainment space, being innovative is a requirement so every RFP needs some kind of tie-in with new trends. So, we are constantly thinking of how we can incorporate these trends into our proposal and as well as current projects." 

On a more granular level, Ioffe explains that each team member is also encouraged to personalize the RSS based on their own job responsibilities:
"Each user personalizes the feeds to best fit their job responsibilities," Ioffe says. "So, a Flash designer will have not only technology blogs like TechCrunch and Mashable on there, but they will also include Flash design and motion graphic blogs. Whereas an account director may not include Flash or motion graphic blogs, but would include marketing feeds like Ad Age and iMedia Connection. Tailoring what feeds you focus on is important because there is so much information."

And does it really work, or is RSS just a fancy gadget?

According to Ioffe, it really works. Here's how the agency used RSS to its advantage to serve its client, Fox Searchlight, by pairing a tech trend (augmented reality) with the campaign for the upcoming film "Gentleman Broncos":

"Augmented reality (AR) was something that our developers were watching for over a year. There were some very simple tests back in 2008 that were online and [that we] first spotted through an RSS feed. This topic was followed by multiple people on the team until, at the beginning of 2009, people started posting how to actually do AR on their blogs, and the general chatter on the topic really picked up. We saw some early examples of it being used with mobile marketing and quickly saw there was an opportunity for this to work with an entertainment brand. The 'Gentlemen Broncos' film is a perfect fit for this technology, so we pitched the idea to Fox Searchlight, which was also aware of the technology. Obviously, Fox was doing its own trend spotting. They loved the concept and were excited to become the first movie studio to create a digital campaign using the new technology."

You can check out the results of the agency's long-term trend-spotting here.

While feeds can be useful, they can also be a little overwhelming, especially on days when you're swamped. After all, those are the days when your inbox ends up looking like a disaster area, and you spend the rest of the week deleting messages that weren't related to the pressing issue that blotted out the sun. In those cases, you're likely to miss a few days of RSS reading, and for that, Corey Pilkington, account supervisor at Worktank, suggests augmenting your feeds with a bookmarking tool.

While there are a number of free products on the market, including social bookmarking tools that allow an office to share information on the fly, Pilkington remains partial to Evernote, which allows her to "clip" and save information from multiple sources into a file that she can access at her leisure.

Michael Estrin is freelance writer.

Michael Estrin is freelance writer. He contributes regularly to iMedia, Bankrate.com, and California Lawyer Magazine. But you can also find his byline across the Web (and sometimes in print) at Digiday, Fast...

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