Why Marketers Should Follow Their Audiences, Not Predict the Future

It’s 2017, and you convince your executives to be early adopters of the #Web3 trend. Blockchain-based product investments, marketing with NFTs, perhaps your own crypto coin. It’s fun, interesting, and it feels like you’re ahead of your competition on a rising tide that will lift all ships. Only trouble is, your target audience—the people you hope will become customers—aren’t adopting this craze. They’re still in #Web2 and #Web1 and most of them don’t even know what those terms mean.

Web3 is an extreme example. But it’s not alone: Google Glass (i.e. building for the wearable “smart” glasses audience), Mobile App Marketing (i.e. every website owner should build their own iOS and Android app), Voice Search SEO (i.e. creating content or transactional systems for Alexa, Google Home, and Siri to read-to/engage-for voice searchers) and dozens of others have been popular in marketing discussions online and at major events.

Even marketers who manage to avoid this macro-level trend chasing often fall prey to prediction-focused marketing at the tactical level.

We try to make hashtags take off. We attempt to coin new terms or be first to market with a mashup of “thing-we-do” + “trend-that-might-take-off.” Many of us try to predict which content trends our audience will engage-with next month, or what people will search for in the coming year. We’ll try to figure out what styles of ads or which yet-to-launch products will be a hit.

Sometimes, it works. Most of the time, it fails. Rarely is the aggregate juice worth the many failed squeezes.

When marketers predict the future, the positives of getting it right fail to outweigh the negatives of getting it wrong.

My $0.02: Unless you’re a marketer who also designs the product, you don’t need to predict the future. You can (and should) instead, follow your audience.

What does that mean?

  • Don’t optimize for keywords you *predict* people will search for in the future; target the ones that have search volume now
  • Don’t try to predict social media trending topics; ride the waves of topics that rise in interest and engagement
  • Don’t try to predict which websites or social account will gain traction with your audience; use tools like SimilarWeb, Google Trends, Brandwatch, or SparkToro to see which ones are actually popular and growing with the people you want to reach
  • Don’t be the first to jump on new formats (“we have the first-ever live TV, VR ad campaign”); wait until you’ve got data showing that your audience is using that new format/tech/trend (“ticket sale data confirms >25% of our target demographic are using VR headsets for commercial TV”)
  • Don’t invest heavily in a new social media platform until you can see that 1,000s-100Ks (depending on your total market and current size) of the audience you care about are participating there; just grab your social handles, make a nice profile, and keep an eye on activity

It sounds weird to say, but marketers who chase trends instead of trying to predict them will have far greater ROI. We’re not influencers. We’re not venture capitalists. We’re long-term investors who can only make a positive return when our audience pays attention. Get somewhere too early, and your audience cannot pay attention (because they’re not there yet and may never be!).

One Important Caveat

What about once-popular networks like Google+, Digg, Clubhouse, or Vine?

What about trends like the rise of online events during Covid, meme-formatted advertising, online magazines, or Facebook keyword pages?

In many of these cases, your audience might indeed have been present/engaged-with the network/trend. If you jumped on these bandwagons at the right time, and rode them until their declines, you likely saw solid ROI. Am I recommending against these?

Absolutely not.

If I had Google+ to do over again, I’d play it exactly the way I did in 2011: start an account, invest more heavily once I saw my audience engaging there, and back-off that investment a few years later as the network declined.

The rule here is not: “guess where you audience will be, but don’t go to a place or invest in a trend that might be short-lived.”

The rule is: “wait until you have evidence substantive portions of your audience are adopting the trend, then invest, watch your returns, and back off if it doesn’t deliver or your audience disengages.”

None of this behavior will make you feel cool, or smart, or ahead of the curve. But it will make you wise, logical, and be a less stressful way to do effective marketing.

An Example in Action

Below is a screenshot from my personal Audience Tracking email:

Audience tracking in SparkToro for follows: @randfish

This is showing me data about Alaska Airlines (among others) rising in popularity among my social audiences, i.e. more of the people who follow me on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, etc. are now following or engaging with Alaska Airlines’ social accounts.

Besides the relevance issue, does this data prove that I should immediately attempt to get in touch with my contacts at Alaska’s marketing department to see how we might do a promotion, advertising, or content campaign with them?

No. At least, not yet.

It’s one week where growth happened. The total audience overlap between my audience and Alaska Airlines’ is still quite small (2.3%), as evidenced by the full data in the Social tab of the product:

Screenshot of the social tab in SparkToro’s Audience Tracking

Now, further down the list, I see AdWeek, which didn’t rise nearly as much in percentage terms, but has far-greater audience overlap with mine. In that case, I probably should drop a line to an editor there and see if they’re looking for contributors in 2023 😉.

AdWeek in SparkToro’s Audience Tracking for @randfish

On the macro-reach side of things, there’s a fast-growing social network among members of my audience: Mastodon (which I wrote about a couple weeks ago). That network has ~3M+ active users, and I’m already seeing as much engagement per post there as I get on Twitter, where I have 200X the following. I’m going to treat that investment more like I did Google+ in 2012, and see how it pays off. If the audience leaves, I’ll follow. If it keeps growing, I’ll be glad I’ve invested. If I’d invested there 2 or 3 years ago, would I have gained anything extra?… Probably very little.

You’re not Wayne Gretzky. Don’t skate to where the puck is going. Skate to where it is right now.