How to Spot Key Trends and Engage Influencers

A decade ago in The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell explained “unexplainable” trends—like the revival of Hush Puppies shoes or the precipitous drop in a crime rate—as driven by “a handful of exceptional people” who are more “sociable” and “knowledgeable or influential among their peers.”

In 2000, there was no way to measure or “eavesdrop” on the actual interactions or conversations—or even know all the players who made an idea become infectious and go viral. Now, with Twitter and Facebook, social media listening tools, influencer metrics and temporal and predictive analytics tools and methodologies, we can more easily identify tidal waves of change, who and what causes them and how to catch and ride those waves.

There are tangible, practical steps you can take today to identify the exceptional few—the true influencers and thought leaders: monitor social media conversations and determine the momentum of topics and the creation of trends; engage in (and enrich) those conversations at the right moment with the right information; and stay abreast of the changing dynamics of both trends and trend-setters.

1. Know your universe, but keep your mind open. Change doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Defining what he termed the “power of context,” Gladwell says, “Epidemics are sensitive to the conditions and circumstances of the time and places in which they occur.” We, as communicators, must develop and maintain an intimate understanding of our stakeholders’ universe. Who are the people in those communities? What drives their perceptions, their decision-making, their behavior? What outlying factors —economic, social, political, technological—might disrupt those things?

The goal is to balance a historical grasp of your audiences with an informed intuition of what might lead them to take a fresh direction, to change behavior—to set or follow a trend. Practically speaking, this lets you cast a wider net in monitoring and analyzing social media conversations to identify trends through keyword searching.

Use the best tools out there—AdWords from Google,, WordTracker, Yahoo Search Assist, Google Suggest—and populate your searches with keywords that don’t simply confirm historical assumptions, but lead to true insights about how tastes and behaviors and ideas are constantly evolving, based on (and driven by) influencers on social media.

2. Open your eyes to the dynamics of influence. You know a large segment of your influencer universe—blue-chip customers, power users, analysts, journalists and people who are active in social media. Using Web metrics and social metrics you can understand how influential each is, and where and how they engage. You also can discover new influencers in your space.

Web metrics and analytics (unique visitors per month, page views per visitor, time spent per visit, new/repeat visitor ratios) from tools such as show one level of impact. Social metrics like Klout or Edelman’s Tweetlevel show the relative power that each individual has, using algorithms to assign influence scores and other authority rankings, or calculating retweet volumes and follower/following ratios. Inbound link data—the “currency of the blogosphere” —identifies the most respected, most influential voices on the social Web; Yahoo Site Explorer is an excellent resource for that. Constantly review and revise your list of key influencers, and how and where they rank.

3. Open your ears to conversation. “Consumer attention has shattered across a billion channels,” said Israel Mirsky, Porter Novelli’s executive VP of emerging media and technology, at the March 2011 PR News Measurement Conference. It may be impossible to track every social media channel, but monitoring tools can help you glean insights from millions of sources. Using your keywords, track topics that are under discussion and their momentum. Tie conversations to external metrics (news coverage, current events, etc.).

4. Engage constructively and decisively. The “two ears, one mouth” maxim especially applies to social media. Before you join the conversation, determine how your narrative supports the trend, advances it in a new direction or bucks it. Build relationships with influencers, one on one. Offer value and peer-level content that adds momentum to the topic being discussed—or offer highly credible counter-trend data.

Mastering the ability to listen to the right people and build a real dialogue with them makes trend spotting and trend setting more possible today —yes, even in this exploding communications environment —than ever before. PRN


This article was written by Heidi Sullivan VP of media research at Cision North America. She can be reached at

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