The Birth of a Trend


We’ve become a society that’s very well attuned to what’s “trending” at any particular moment. The rise of social media combined with simple analytical tools have made it possible to know, for example, when a Kardashian soars in the public consciousness, or when some other Internet meme (remember #winning?) is everywhere at once.

Regular folks are even getting into the act. The New York Times recently reported on guests at a  non-celebrity wedding who Tweeted the wedding’s hashtag repeatedly until it trended on Twitter. Yes, some weddings now have hashtags.

But these trends are the very definition of fleeting. They’re like old-fashioned fads sped up to warp speed by modern technology. And, as such, their value is limited.

Underneath the noise of the day, however, something extremely valuable is going on. The Internet is also a place where long-term trends are born and spread: trends that take years to play out. These are the kinds of trends that savvy marketers can capitalize on – if they know how to identify them.

Long-term trends exist across the spectrum of human endeavor. They might involve a new fashion or social movement or even an idea. But here’s the key: They usually take a while to get started.

My research, using custom algorithms and software designed to suss out and analyze online trends, suggests that the longer term ones typically begin with a small number of dedicated agenda setters: influencers who take a leadership stance. Usually, these leaders “talk amongst themselves” for a while – on blogs, Twitter and other forms of social media – as well as offline. The general culture takes little notice.

After a gestation period, the long-term trend begins to snowball, picking up adherents at a steady pace.

At some point, the trend might go viral, exploding online and even trending on Twitter. But this usually happens relatively late in its lifecycle. You might even start to see stories in the media and hear your friends and colleagues discussing the trend.

Then again, maybe not. One thing the Internet Age has taught us is that extremely powerful trends can exist quite nearly out of the public eye.

A good example, which I have investigated extensively, is Cycle Chic, a fashion and transportation trend that involves cycling in stylish street clothes, often atop classic bicycles.

The concept around Cycle Chic began in 2006 with a small number of people chatting online talking about cycling. They liked to share photos of themselves on their bikes.

In 2007, the Cycle Chic blog was founded in Copenhagen; now the nascent community had a hub to gather around. The online discussion soon spread from Copenhagen to Berlin, Stockholm, Portland and Los Angeles. Then in 2009, the trend began to ramp up significantly, with online conversation sprouting up in London, Amsterdam, Dublin, Atlanta, New York, Ghent, Boulder, Seoul, Charleston, Phoenix, Poznan, and Dallas.

Soon, small consumer products companies and retailers began offering Cycle Chic-related fashions. In 2009, the first “Tweed run” was organized in Savile Row, London. These are events where people dress in vintage or modern tweeds and cycle in groups.

In 2011, Ralph Lauren introduced its Rugby Collection, which was heavily influenced by Tweed Run styles. Target began selling the new Missoni for Target bicycle. This year, Levi’s introduced its Commuter Series jeans, and fashion weeks in New York and London merged high fashion and cycling with a decided Cycle Chic flair.

Today, the Cycle Chic trend is something of global phenomenon, even though many still may not have heard about it. There are more than 100 blogs. And Cyle Chic events are going on all the time: fashion shows, bike tours, charity events.

As my experience investigating Cycle Chic indicates, sophisticated analytics technology can be harnessed to create a dashboard that demonstrates how trends unfold in real time, both online and in the offline, brick-and-mortar world.

Equipped with this kind of technology, Chief Marketing Officers can have a substantial advantage over competitors. They can spot trends in the process of being born, follow how they spread geographically from city to city, and keep tabs on what the competition is doing – even when the competition is an under-the-radar startup.

Knowing what’s “trending” at the moment is nice. But it’s far more useful to understand when a powerful, long-term trend is emerging. That’s actionable intelligence – and it can be instrumental in driving real business results.



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