Key tools for tracking online trends

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Warning: The information in this article is most likely out of date.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

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