How to Use Social Media for Trend Research

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Co-Founder and CEO of Open Influence
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In 1998, the founders of Google set out on a mission to do one thing: organize the world’s information. Google has come a long way since then, however, and so has digital media. Until recently, social media content was somewhat ephemeral: The more content that was created, the more possibilities got lost in the noise.

Related: New Study Details Who Is Using Social Media and When

But popular social networks are at last creating order from the chaos, and turning social media content into a powerful research resource for advertisers.

Social media, after all, is rich with user-generated content from digital creatives, businesses and brands. The effect has been an overwhelming deluge of information about the world, but more specifically, the kinds of things people worldwide tend to be buzzing about on any particular day.

This data can be particularly useful for marketers looking for timely consumer trends and new ways to engage with online audiences.

At any given moment, social media users are talking about a multitude of topics; however, the most engaged conversations bubble to the top and become trending topics. From Twitter and Facebook, to newer players like Instagram and Snapchat, each social network has evolved to represent trends unique to its own platform. As new and improved search functions have continue to emerge, each network has shown itself to be useful for different types of research:

1. Twitter: real-time trends

Twitter is perhaps the best network for researching real-time trends and conversations. This is true for a variety of topics, but especially for sports, news and entertainment. In fact, the average Twitter user is mostly engaged in conversations around large-scale live events; Twitter's hashtag system turns keywords into search results. Journalists, media personalities and publications are all very active on Twitter, which makes it an excellent resource for collecting real-time commentary from publishers large and small.

Recently, Twitter took another step by becoming the owner of a live-content category: It allowed Periscope streaming video to play directly in feeds. This move came on the heels of the “Moments” feature which launched in late 2015 and collates all breaking stories in one central tab. Such moves point to the platform’s ongoing strategy to capitalize on its real-time nature.

2. Facebook: trend evolution

Facebook hasn’t always been the most searchable social network, but it recently announced an improved search tool, with suggestions and results from public posts, and posts from friends. Where Twitter thrives in the moment, conversations and trending topics seem to have a longer life span on Facebook. This could be useful for researching how a conversation shifts and evolves over time.

Remember, though, that your Facebook search results will show only public content, or content from your friends. So, while Facebook is the biggest social network, most of its public posts will likely come from publications, businesses and public figures, while regular users likely have their posts set to private, rendering them unsearchable.

Related: How to Use Social Media to Ethically 'Stalk' Competitors and Job Candidates

3. Instagram and Pinterest: trends In visual mobile content

Pinterest and Instagram are both image-based platforms, which means they’re most useful for finding pictures related to certain topics. Instagram revamped its application in June last year to allow for easier image discovery: This means that users are able to discover trending hashtags and explore new posts based on what they already follow and like.

While Instagram’s search is powered mostly by hashtags, Pinterest has become a well-organized archive of visual content searchable through careful user curation and smart infrastructure. Indeed, Pinterest has become a visual-search engine; most recently, the network released a new tool that lets you zoom in on a part of an image and find similar Pins.

The disappearing feature with Snapchat makes it difficult for brands to do a post-mortem analysis of what content is being created and what is trending. But, a quick look at the “live” section offers an idea of how people get involved with pop culture events like the VMA Awards and how people from certain geographic locations use Snapchat.

Recently, there was news that a Snapchat API (application program interface) might be in the works, which could present interesting opportunities for advertisers to identify trending “snaps.” 

Related: How to Build a Social-Media Strategy That Works

In a nutshell, brands that actively and regularly monitor social trends will uncover invaluable insights on what types of content appeal to people, which will greatly inform their content strategy -- and, eventually, brand positioning in the long run.

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