Definition: A trending topic is a subject that experiences a surge in popularity on one or more social media platforms for a limited duration of time. Ecommerce businesses can check social media trends to find out what's holding consumer interest and capitalize on the current conversation.

Trending topics often evolve around popular cultural occurrences such as current events, celebrity announcements, TV premiers, social concerns, breaking news and viral content. There's no limit to how long a topic stays popular, though trending topics tend to have a shelf-life of one day to one week.

Trending topics are determined by algorithms created by the site on which the topic appears. Most platforms tailor the topics shown based on the user accessing the site, taking into account location, previous likes or searches and who the user follows. For instance, a user who follows Target might see a popular store promotion, while a member of a mug collectors group would see a trending online ceramics store.

What does a trending topic look like?

Trending topics often come in the form of hashtags, but they can also be simple keywords that have been frequently used on social media. Some websites have specific pages or links dedicated to trends, while others show up in or near search results.

  • Twitter users generally see trends tailored to their location but are able to change this location on Twitter's website. Trending topics appear on several areas on the site's desktop version, while trends on mobile devices are found in the Search section.
  • Trends on Facebook are separated into five categories: All News, Science and Technology, Sports, Entertainment and Politics. Clicking a category brings users to a related page with public and in-network posts.
  • Google Trends are calculated by analyzing a percentage of keyword or topic searchesbased on time and location. Google does not use special characters, multiple searches by the same person or infrequent search terms for determining trends.
  • Tumblr users can browse the Explore page to see popular and Featured tags. A lighting bolt means a tag is new and trending.
  • Instagram has a Search & Explore page that shows several posters similar to those a user has liked or followed; the page also displays popular local images.

How businesses can use trending topics

Trends can help an online store appear on more feeds and search results, increasing the number of people who see its posts and profiles.

  • Take advantage of Internet culture. Denny's is famous for its ability to capitalize on trending topics. The technique may seem weird to many, including users who engage with Denny's on social media. However, the company's leisurely tone and use of Internet memes (quick bits of content such as images or short statements that are frequently imitated, usually for comedic effect) have led to 150 percent growth in followers since 2013, according to Entrepreneur.
  • Join an ongoing conversation. Many brands used this technique during a viral phenomenon known as "The Dress." A wedding attendee posted a picture of a dress online and asked viewers whether it was white and gold or blue and black. This simple question stirred an incredible amount of commentary, enough that The New York Times published an article about color and brain science in response. Companies took advantage of the situation, often cheekily comparing their branding colors to the dress and imitating consumer confusion.

What to watch for

It is possible to abuse trending topics; in fact, breaking Twitter's rules for trend abuse could, in extreme cases, lead to account suspension. If a business wants to capitalize on a trending subject, it should approach the situation in a way that doesn't have unintended consequences.

  • Refrain from posting unrelated content. Twitter discourages adding unrelated keywords or hashtags to posts to increase visibility in search results. Businesses should make sure their posts and brands relate in some way to the topic at hand. In addition to drawing ire from social media sites, posting irrelevant content is confusing to viewers and damages credibility.
  • Research a topic's history. This mostly applies to hashtags and keywords. DiGiorno once used the hashtag #WhyIStayed in order to promote its product, not realizing that the tag had formed to spread awareness of domestic violence. The company quickly deleted the tweet and apologized to users who had voiced their displeasure.
  • Approach tragedy with care. In the immediate aftermath, posting about a tragedy can show empathy and concern for human beings. However, too much branding can change the tone from compassionate to disrespectful. Several American brands miss the mark, according to AdWeek, when it comes to honoring Sept. 11, 2001. Oftentimes, insensitive social media posts can cause a brand to become a trending topic for the wrong reasons. It's worth nothing that those AdWeek claimed got it right stayed relevant to the situation and kept branding to a minimum.

Participating in trending discussions increases awareness among consumers and makes brands relevant. Care should be taken to make sure posts have a positive effect among consumers.

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