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The Real Value of Trending Topics

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Twitter’s trending topics were meant to be its jewel in the crown, a way for anyone to see a snapshot of the zeitgeist, to understand which are the most important issues of the day, and to see breaking news topics as soon as they happen. It hasn’t quite worked out that way. Unless Justin Bieber is the most important thing happening in the world right now and the three words to say after sex are what’s really on everyone’s tongue at the moment, then Twitter’s list of trending topics — highlighted on its website — have been a mighty fail. But even if trivia remains top of the trending topics, marketers can still pull some value out of the list — provided they know how to analyze the information they’re gathering and what to do with it once they get it.

Twitter at least appears to have recognized the failure of trending topics to produce usable information. Recently the site changed its trending algorithm to focus on “emerging trends” rather than the most popular subjects over a period of time. So far, the change has made little difference. Instead of Nick Jonas winning a spot in the trending topics list, “Jick Nonas” has made the popularity charts as fans look for ways around what they believe to be Twitter’s keyword blocking software. And hashtags like “#thatswhyyoursingle” are still dominating the list.

Listen to Real Conversations

The reason for the consistent failure is trending topics’ strength. Search sites have always marketed trending topics as an opportunity for marketers to overhear real conversations and understand the subjects that are actually moving people. These are topics that people want to discuss, not the subjects that media editors and producers think that people should discuss. But what people generally want to talk about on the Web are generally the same kind of subjects they talk about in college canteens, school playgrounds and around the watercooler: sex, sports, and rock and roll. That changes a little when a major news event, such as a natural disaster or an election, happens but the list soon reverts back to the usual combination of pop stars and cheesy phrases.

It’s tempting to believe that the failure is Twitter’s, that the site no longer has the kind of sophisticated audience that its initial 30-something, educated, slightly geeky demographics suggested. But trending topics aren’t limited to Twitter, and other sites are suffering from a similar failure to provide information that’s obviously useful to marketers. Google’s Trends should also be providing similarly useful data but like Twitter, its top lists are filled with searches for sports matches, television programs and celebrities.

One option for marketers and businesses then may be to ignore what’s on the list and simply aim to break into it. That’s always been part of the strategy of Twitter’s hashtag giveaways in which companies hand out a freebie at random to someone who wrote a tweet containing a particular hashtag. Twitter however was quick to spot this attempt at trend manipulation and appears to block hashtag giveaways from making the trending topic list. Giveaways have also become so common now that it’s harder than ever for a company to gain the kind of traction that would even qualify it for a trending topic. And there’s some evidence that the exposure generated by an appearance on a trending topic list doesn’t always translate into extra business.

A better option then may be to look beyond the top trending topics — which are likely to remain trivial and entertaining — and use the information to compare different businesses in the same field.

Google Compares Trends

Google differs from Twitter is in its ability to allow marketers to compare searches for their products to those of their competitors. A comparison of Blogger.com, WordPress.com and WordPress.org, for example, shows that the free WordPress blogs are more popular than the Google’s own offering. That might be interesting for bloggers wondering which software is more popular with other users, but it’s also an important piece of information for developers thinking about where to target their plugins. (A search by keyword, rather than by website, shows that interest in WordPress outgrew interest in Blogger back in late 2006 and has continued to outpace it ever since.)

Neither of those companies though are trending topics. Facebook’s privacy issues might push it onto the list briefly but in general, they aren’t likely to trend. One way then of using trending topics is to focus not on the most popular items that succeed in bubbling through the trivia but to mine search information, look deeper and make comparisons.

But perhaps the most important value of trending data doesn’t lie in an analysis of the information itself but rather in an understanding of what it reveals. The criticism of trending data isn’t an attack on the sites that produce it. It’s an expression of disappointment in the subjects that people find interesting enough to share in large numbers on social media sites and search engines. Companies might be disappointed to find that they’re not the main talking points among the general public, but they should hardly be surprised.

And yet, many of the items on the trending topics list are products. Justin Bieber is no less a product of the entertainment industry than Windows is a product of Microsoft. His record company have made him into a trending topic by making him trendy enough to build the kind of deep loyalty that other marketers can only envy — and which is just about unique to the music industry and its teenage fans. If trending topics reveal anything is that it’s not easy to create products that have mass popularity, and no list is going to provide a shortcut to instant success.

But the most important lesson is that a marketer’s goal shouldn’t be to join the conversation by attaching a product to a popular topic. It’s to be entertaining enough to change the conversation. When your competitors are sex and rock and roll, that’s not going to be easy either.

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