The Birth of a Trend: Using Social Analytics to Predict Trends

By Dr. Trevor Davis, trevor.davis@uk.ibm.com

How can you identify if a trend is worth caring about? That is, if it’s something that’s going to stick around for a while and attract a whole lot of people – all of them potential customers? It’s one of the eternal questions of marketing – and a lot is depending on the answer. Clearly, it’s important to capitalize on a trend while it’s still on the upswing. Nobody wants to be manufacturing pleated trousers after the cognoscenti have started wearing narrow flat-fronts.

Marketers of course have a number of tools at their disposal to sniff out trends – surveys, focus groups, consumer panels, instinct. They go to trade shows. They talk to their friends and neighbors. They keep their eyes open. All these techniques are valid and helpful. But now, innovations in technology are providing CMOs with powerful new capabilities. The advent of social media and sophisticated analytics software enables marketers to identify trends as they develop. The software can be used to spot “weak signals” online – nascent trends that reflect something new with a lot of upside potential. Case in point – Cycle Chic. Around 2006, I started noticing a small number of people online talking about cycling in fashionable clothing – often tweeds. They liked to share photos of themselves on their bikes – which invariably boasted classic or vintage styling. The tiny group of enthusiasts grew quickly; and using a custom algorithm, I was able to chart how the trend blossomed online – and offline – as the years unfolded.

In 2007, the Cycle Chic blog was founded in Copenhagen – an important milestone. The online discussion soon spread from Copenhagen to Berlin, Stockholm, Portland and Los Angeles. Then in 2009, the trend really began to gather steam, with online conversation sprouting up in London, Amsterdam, Dublin, Atlanta, New York, Ghent, Boulder, Seoul, Charleston, Phoenix, Poznan, and Dallas. In the meantime, the brick-and-mortar world was taking notice. Small consumer products companies and retailers started to serve the trend – offering fashions specific to Cycle Chic. In 2009, the first “Tweed run” – events where people dress in vintage or modern tweeds and cycle in groups – was organized, in Savile Row, London.

By 2011, bigger players had gotten involved. Ralph Lauren introduced the Tweed run-influenced Rugby Collection. Target began selling the new Missoni for Target bicycle. This year, Levi’s introduced its Commuter Series jeans, and – in a nod to Cycle Chic – fashion weeks in New York and London merged high fashion and cycling. Today – even though many still may not have heard about it – the Cycle Chic trend is something of global phenomenon. There are more than 100 blogs. There are Cycle Chic events going on all the time. There’s even a song. My study of this trend illustrates an important point: Using algorithms to identify and follow a trend in its infancy opens up a world of possibility for marketers. It enables them to estimate the size – and location – of a potential market. It identifies likely customers. It provides insight into what competitors may be doing – not just established players, but startups as well.

There are 500 million people on Twitter – that’s way bigger than any focus group. The vast number of online participants posting and sharing creates mountains of valuable data from which insight can be extracted. Marketers who understand how to use this data will have a much better chance of catching a powerful trend early on and riding it for maximum profit.

Dr. Trevor Davis is a consumer products expert at IBM Global Business Services. He can be reached at trevor.davis@uk.ibm.com.


More Web Exclusives/Guest Commentaries