Strategy · CST

Getting the Timing Right for Trending Topics by Mike Taylor

Bernard Huang

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Mike Taylor, author of Marketing Memetics, joined us for a webinar on getting the timing right for trending topics.

Here are our biggest takeaways from Mike’s talk:

  1. Publish or perish. There is an importance in “Filler” content, not just trend jacking “Killer” content.

  2. Build expertise in the trend during its rise and position yourself for monetization on the tail end.

  3. Go niche with the “Killer” content.

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Watch the full webinar

Check out Mike’s slide deck and his new book Marketing Memetics.

About Mike Taylor:

Mike was a co-founder at Ladder, a performance marketing agency incubated by a traditional creative agency (BBH). He has hired and trained 100+ marketers, optimized 8-figure advertising budgets, and has run over 8,000 creative tests. He is the author of "Marketing Memetics: Reverse-Engineering Creativity To Drive Brand Performance."

Follow Mike on Twitter:

Read the transcript


The specific topic here is, getting the timing right for trending topics. And it's all based off of this quote here by Victor Hugo, "Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come." And it definitely feels really powerful right now. If any of you guys are in the AI, GPT-3, ChatGPT, Midjourney, DALL-E, stable diffusion kind of world, it really feels like the time has come for that idea. And actually, this image was made by AI for my book. It's one of the illustrations I use in the book. I'm not an artist, but it looked cool to me. How do you get ahead of these ideas? Because it's incredibly valuable to know what's up and coming, and to understand which ideas are worth your time and investment. One of the benefits of being ahead of the curve is that you get a ton of back links, and back links are still really what drives SEO.

If you're like Brian Dean and you coined a new term in SEO, he invented the skyscraper technique. Now every single person who writes about the skyscraper technique has to link to Brian Dean. And similarly, if you write about a topic that then suddenly becomes trending, then every news organization is going to have to link to you to point out that, oh, these guys came up with the idea, or these guys have a specific asset or a specific article that you should read. Being slightly ahead of the curve is really important, but obviously once that moment has passed, you lose it forever. This is one of the rare occasions where I have gotten it right. I was part of this team in Canda. Actually a pretty small team, just three of us. And yeah, we wrote this, Who's freezing hiring from Coronavirus, page.

It was actually a database that we built on Airtable. We got over 7,000 submissions in the space of nine hours, which was pretty insane. Airtable said at one point we had the highest velocity of new database entries, which is really nuts. And we stayed up all night on the weekend answering these queries. Because basically, we'd hit upon a trend. Loads of companies had suddenly started to freeze hiring, interns were getting told that jobs they'd been offered were actually being rescinded. It was a crazy time for everyone, nobody knew what was going on. And therefore, anyone who had any information was suddenly plucked to the top of all of the rankings. We got over 2,000 backlinks just in a very short space of time. That weekend, but also over the next few weeks as people wrote up what happened and what's continued to happen, and who's now hiring again, et cetera.

And you can see that made a huge difference to our SEO traffic, but it was a delayed effect. It's embarrassing, but we were writing for months before we got really any traffic. At this point we had 35 articles on the site and we were getting a few hundred hits per article. It was really this huge injection of backlinks that made it possible for us to rank on the non-trending topics, like the things that were related to what we were trying to commercialize. I think in general, when I zoomed out to think about what I was creating for this presentation, I realized that I'd done this a couple of times. My whole career really is just a series of waves that I've ridden. The big one was the shift from advertising budget out of offline channels like newspapers, magazines, outdoor, into the internet.

I started advertising around here, I won't date myself too much. But at the time I remember people telling me the Google Ads campaigns that I thought were really important, spending millions of dollars a year, were actually a rounding error compared to what they were spending on TV. Now that is completely flipped and digital is the majority of ad spend, and being part of that trend really accelerated a lot of my career. Yeah, I guess I have dated myself here, started advertising in 2010. I quickly jumped on Facebook Ads. Because as you can see, I was 10 years behind the curve here. It was still very valuable for me to be advertising in Google Ads in 2010, 10 years after they came out. But with Facebook Ads, I was a little bit closer. They came out in 2007, I started testing them in 2011. And I took a job specifically that allowed me to spend more money on Facebook Ads.

Then growth hacking came and I spotted my opportunity. I immediately started to learn about growth hacking. Brian Balfour, Noah Kagan, Ryan Holiday, all these guys. Travis is nodding because I think we've read a lot of the same blog articles. But that term was coined in 2010 by Sean Ellis. And I pushed pretty hard, and I managed to move into a growth role in 2012. I was actually called the product manager for marketing, which was the closest my organization could get. But yeah, that was the most consequential wave that I rode. I started an agency that was a growth hacking agency, as Travis said, they were called Ladder, and we grew that to 50 people.

That was definitely the biggest wave, it made the biggest difference to my salary. But since I left Ladder, I've been trying to catch other waves. Marketing mix modeling was one of the ones that worked out. I got into that February 2020. And then iOS 14 happened in September 2021, and suddenly an attribution method that didn't require cookie level data was incredibly important. I was actually a little bit ahead of the curve there, and been able to triple my consulting rate since. Now, one of the waves I'm trying to ride right now is AI. Actually, my book, I started writing it before AI came out, but then it's basically made a lot of the things in my book a lot more important and more interesting than they otherwise would've been. I think that's been helpful. But I was playing around with the GPT-3 beta in July 2020.

I remember trying to convince my wife, who is a copywriter, to use it. And she was instead very horrified by the implications of what it would have for her career. Yeah, a ChatGPT now is 100 million users plus, and everyone's talking about it. But I already had blog posts in place, I already have been using it for a while and built that foundational knowledge. It's let me capitalize on it a little bit quicker. Cool. One thing though, you can't be too early. Being early is exactly the same as being wrong. One simple example that everyone always uses is They went bankrupt after losing $82 million in 1998, which actually doesn't seem like that much, but at the time it was the biggest loss in the start to be consistent. They popped the first dotcom bubble.

But essentially exactly the same idea, Chewy, they managed the IPO at an $18 billion market cap in 2017. And there's a few different things that make the ecosystem ready for an idea. It's very hard to predict startups. One of the number one things that a VC will ask you is, why now? What's changed that makes this idea really good? The ones that have been in the game for a while will say that they've seen this idea a thousand times, and maybe the thousand and one time is the best one to launch. It's very hard to know. Facebook wasn't the first social network. Google wasn't the first search engine. It's just really a case of getting the time you right and jumping in at the right time. Cool.

Specifically to content, one thing you have to remember is that anyone who is a content creator is captured by their audience. They have to publish or perish. And this is one of the things they don't tell you in influencer school, is once you start posting on Instagram, you're doomed to forever continue. Every single moment you won't be able to enjoy because you have to turn it into postable content. And it's the same thing for news organizations, they have the 24-hour news cycle, there always has to be something happening. And sometimes there just isn't any news and they have to manufacture some. Here's a really good example that I managed to find, this is from the election. The famous election where Trump unexpectedly won. I think elections and sports games, different breaking news events are really interesting to look at from this perspective, because you can see when news suddenly happens, you can see the transition. On the left here you have Jeff from Franklin County, small county here in Ohio. He was discussing the security of the new voting machines, and it's just a piece of filler content.

This is Jeff's five minutes of fame. And he wouldn't normally get on the news, but it's the election. Nothing actually happening at this point, so they're interviewing him. And then just a few seconds into Jeff's spiel, then Hillary Clinton leaves her compound to head to Manhattan. It's not even that important of a news story, but it's enough to switch attention. And they actually interrupted poor Jeff in order to show you just some footage of Hillary leaving the compound. I think it's really important to think about this dynamic. And this is actually something that I got from Nick Baron, he was the former head of SEO and PR at Grammarly. When I got in contact with him after we had this breakout success at Candor, because he was an advisor or a friend of an advisor, and he was the one actually I need to credit for this filler versus killer interplay.

Filler news, that's where you can be. When there's no actual breaking news, you can insert yourself into the conversation. If you're Jeff, you can actually get your five minutes of fame .and you can tell if there's fill a news going on, when there's a lot of demand for a story but there's not much supply. There's a lot of demand for the election, but there wasn't much supply, so they had to drum something up. Usually these are human interest stories, could be celebrity gossip, lifestyle pieces, expert interviews, or pundit opinions. And then the killer news. When something is breaking, it's very, very hard to insert yourself in the conversation. Killer news is anything that's urgent, relevant, significant to the audience. Could be press releases, natural disasters, political events, sports games, economic reports. This is the way I think about it.

Is there something happening or nothing happening? And then the thing that's happening, does it have broad appeal or does it have niche interest? So if something happening, and that thing that's happening has broad appeal, that's breaking news. You're not going to get your brand message in there. You could write a blog post about it, but nobody's going to care. But if nothing is happening, then you can write something that has broad appeal and then you become the filler content. That's what you want to think about is when can you pitch a mainstream news organization? When can you pitch a guest post? When they need to fill that gap in the 24-hour news cycle. There's another category which is also interesting, and I think it could be even bigger if done well. Which is, you might have a niche interest that doesn't really have broad appeal, but if something is happening that you could relate it to, then I think that's when you can get your five minutes of fame, like Jeff.

His niche interest was these voting machines that they just got in his county. But for you, if you're a startup that's launching a new product, think about if something is happening in your category, how do you relate what you are doing to that specific topic? And getting the timing is really about figuring out what part of the cycle is going to be useful for achieving your goals. Usually something happens and then people jump on it, then it becomes breaking news. There's a little bit of a lag typically. Something will start trending on Twitter, and then the mainstream generalists would write about it. And newsjacking is getting in between those two. If you're in that Twitter group and then you're the first one to write about it, then you have a chance of getting ahead and being cited as a source by more mainstream publications.

Then eventually it gets to the peak, and then it becomes old news, and then nothing's happening anymore. And what most people don't really think about is that newsjacking is very, very good for getting attention, but it's a terrible way to make money. It's not very commercially valuable, because you're too early actually to make money. Where you want to make money is, if you're a consultant or if you sell a product, you actually really want to sell after the peak. That's actually where all the money is to be made, because that's when mainstream companies or mainstream people are willing to pay to catch up. Because they're not ahead of the curve. Fortune 500 brands are only just now hearing about growth hacking. I actually had a few leads come in where they're like, "Are you still offering growth hacking services?" And I'm like, "I haven't done that for five years."

But that's actually the best way to make a lot of money. You don't make a lot of money from working with startups, they don't have that much money to spend. And I think this is something that people forget about, they don't really consider this. If you want status, then you're going to be early on topics, and if you want money, you've got to be a little bit late.

Where do you find these things? There's a quote by Paul Graham, which I'm just paraphrasing, but he says that... I think in one of his essays he says, you should live in the future and then build what's missing. That's his advice for come up with good startup ideas. And I think with content it's the same thing. If you live in the future, then you just write what's missing, that's really how you can influence the influences. That's really what journalists are doing. If you trace the ancestry of the stories, you can see almost everything on Buzzfeed starts as a Reddit thread first, and then they just take the most interesting posts and package them up in a more shareable format. Because Reddit is popular, but it's not that popular with the mainstream. Nobody mainstream really reads Reddit. It's more counterculture. It's the same thing with any creative pursuit. Fashion designers will steal the looks and styles that they see on the street from actually fashionable people who came up with those things themselves.

DJs, they'll replicate the sounds that they hear in underground clubs, rock bands do the same. Think about, where is the counterculture? Where are the people who are living more authentically, more realistically? Closer to reality, I guess is the best way to describe it. And then you just insert yourself in that conversation, and you'll just start to see things bubble up. And typically I would say, when you feel you're almost too late on the topic, if you are living in the future, that means you're actually just at the right time. That's the topic that I had for you today, the trending topic. It's just one of many things I talk about in my book. The book is Marketing Memetics, it's about reverse engineering creativity. Obviously, reverse engineering. The timing is one thing, but I also talk about how to figure out what copy is likely to work, what images are likely to work, what brand attributes are likely to work as well. Hopefully that's interesting for you guys, and happy to stick around and answer as many questions as you'll throw at me.


Awesome. Yeah, thanks Mike. Yeah, definitely looking forward to the book as well. I had not heard that Paul Graham quote. I do like that, from the future about what's missing. It's pretty impactful.


I should have put that on the slide with an inspirational picture behind us.


And then everybody, you can drop your questions in the Q&A, or just send it to me in chat. But we do have a couple to kick it off. Do you use any tools to surface trends on the rise?


Yeah, good question. I think actually tools almost by definition not good at doing that. Because tools need data. You need HRS, for example, is a very good tool for checking how much traffic specific keywords would have. But they're terrible for trending topics because these keywords aren't associated with anything interesting yet. Actually, even if I look at marketing mix modeling, I still don't really see a big trend in Google search trends. I still don't see the spike. But I definitely felt it, I had a huge amount of it. I actually had a Twitter post. I was just live tweeting a Facebook webinar on marketing mix modeling. It's a statistics webinar, you wouldn't expect any traction, but I got 800,000 people reading the tweets. So like-


More than the webinar.


Yeah, exactly. Yeah. Actually, people from the webinar reach out and they're like, "Thanks so much. You did our job for us." Yeah, I managed to talk to the Facebook team that built it. But yeah, I would say most tools are specifically designed to tell you what's already popular, they're not that good at predicting what will be popular in the future. I think that's still a very human task.


Yeah. Yeah. That's one thing I was thinking about when we were going through your talk, is Google trends, of course. But then exploding topics, which is ironically by Brian Dean, he referenced-


Yeah. Well, he obviously sees the value in solving that problem. But yeah, I talk about this in the book, memetics, this method for finding what ideas are going to evolve and what ideas are going to spread. That's still not a undisputed science. It's very, very hard to define... Even to find a topic. When you get into the messy weeds of it, everyone's view of a topic is different. If I say, I don't know, Batman is trending. Batman means something different to you than it means to me. If you're a fan of the comics, and I've just seen the movies. Actually, even if I saw the Christopher Nolan movies and someone else saw the latest movie, we're all going to have a completely different definition and vision of what Batman means. So you can't just do a keyword search for Batman and just tell that is trending, right? It's too nuanced.


Good point. Twitter trends is probably the best example of that. And you click in and you see all kinds of questions, and not sure why things are trending.


Yeah, exactly. And it almost never seems to make any sense to me. Click through. Yeah.


Sarah sent in a question. She says, "How would you translate this into writing stories? How do you find and write about those topics before they peak?"


Yeah, good question. With newsjacking, going back to this diagram. This is specifically for trending topics. That means something happened and then that shifted everyone's vibe. Something has changed about the world and therefore it's news. I would say that's more obvious in terms of, if you're enveloped in a space. I was a agency owner, so I knew that being able to attribute marketing budget was very important. And marketing attribution was a very difficult topic. I knew that if anything came around that helped you do marketing attribution, that would be a big news story. Because I felt the pain myself. That doesn't help you necessarily with the timing, but if you can see something developing in the space, then that's when you start to jump on it.

I think it is hard to get the timing right specifically, because quite often these things will just fizzle out, or they'll come back again in the future. That's why I do think you need to keep your ear to the ground. You need to make low cost bets on whether that will become a thing, and then double down. With AI, for example, I think I wrote one blog post about it, started tweeting about it a little bit. And then more recently it's become a much bigger thing. Now, I just taught a course for O'Reilly on prompt engineering. I have multiple blog posts about it. I've included AI in my book. I think your commitment is what you scale up and up and down once you see that you've gotten the timing right.


Nice. Yeah, that's super helpful. And then some people might already be thinking this, but how and should you manufacture trends? Especially B2B SaaS, a lot of people are thinking about category creation.


Yeah, it's tough. Nobody really knows what makes something go viral, quite often it could be something random that causes it. I think people in general are allergic to obviously manufactured trends, which is why it's so hard to do it. I'd say, at the very least, it needs to come not from your brand. It needs to come from something authentic in the space. I'm reading a book right now, a little bit of last minute research for my book, but it's called Narrative Economics. And they talk about this in related to finance and the economy, and it's interesting. But one of the things that they say is that almost always the same narratives come back again and again, except they're attached to a new celebrity. And that's usually what launches it. They talk about Bitcoin, Satoshi Nakamoto, he's not a real person, a pseudonym, but that's the celebrity attachment with Bitcoin.

That mystery optimized the virality of the Bitcoin narrative. But the narrative that we should have independent financial system has actually been as old as time. And I don't even remember the name of the previous guy, but there was a whole trend where we the gold standard and things like that. This has actually come up multiple times in the past. Similar to Bitcoin, the whole trend of the narrative, people are making money on Bitcoin and you're a fool for not investing in it. That has been used to sell financial products for centuries. It's just usually a different example, a different celebrity that's attached to it.


Nice. And then going back, this might be the last question, but going back to the diagram you have of the trend timeline. You dug into a little bit, but it's like, what's the business KPI for trend jacking? And is it measurable or is it more brand awareness for down the road initiatives?


Yeah, good question. I think there are probably three different reasons to write content, or at least three different reasons why I write content. One is evergreen content, which I think is probably the most valuable. It's something that if you can imagine multiple of these peaks, it's a topic that will keep happening again and again. It's evergreen, it's perennial. And I would say that's really to build long-term traffic, and that traffic's going to keep coming back in the future. I would say that's the type of content where you're writing in this space, the topic or the narrative has already proved itself valuable, and it's going to keep happening again and again. Jeff Bezos has this quote where he's... I'm not even going to try and do the quote off memory. But he basically says, you shouldn't really care about what's changing, you should care about what's staying the same, because that's what you can build a business off.

With Amazon, nobody is ever going to ask for slower delivery. Bringing that back to content, if you can write about the equivalent of that, something that people always struggle with, then that content's going to be a long-term asset. I think that's one reason to write content. Another reason to write content is for things that don't necessarily have any search volume, but they will attract links. I think that's where newsjacking comes in. Links are status, links are authority. And if you can get ahead, if you can build a reputation for being ahead of the game, then people will want to follow you. And there will be compelled to link to you because you are the original source that they learned it from. I think that's another reason to create content. And then the third is for commercial gain.

You need some of your pieces that will turn into leads. Because you have some educational things that attract traffic. You have some status type short-term things that will attract links. And then you need the third thing, which is to convert all that traffic and authority into actual money. I write for a marketing attribution firm, and we've got one blog post which is, Eight Tools For Marketing Attribution. It is very low traffic, but it's a 10% composure rate. And a lot of the rest of strategy is about building the authority and then building the regular visitors in the traffic and email list in order to be able to fully capitalize on those money terms.

Written by
Bernard Huang
Co-founder of Clearscope

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