Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Broken Trending Topics and ABC's Twitter Fail

This isn't a blog post about the usefulness of Twitter. You're either sold or not on the benefits of being involved with Twitter and social media in general. The only thing I'll say is that Twitter — for any late adopters — is not the endless stream of what people had for breakfast that you think it is (in fact, that's increasingly becoming Facebook). Twitter is anything you want it to be — follow news, your favorite celebs or your fellow hobbyists.

The key with effectively using Twitter is in carving out your niche. Finding people to follow who are valuable. Either they provide helpful links, breaking news, humor or interesting musings about a topic in which you are interested, such as the environment or video games (two of my favorites). One tool that can make this process easier is by paying attention to trending topics.

What's in a trending topic?

Bear with me for a second, Twitter pros. Here is a good definition of trending topics straight from Twitter:

Twitter's Trending Topics algorithm identifies topics that are immediately popular, rather than topics that have been popular for a while or on a daily basis, to help people discover the "most breaking" news stories from across the world. We think that trending topics which capture the hottest emerging trends and topics of discussion on Twitter are the most interesting.

Sounds really helpful for staying in the know

If you think trending topics sound great, you're half right. There is a lot of potential for keeping up with current events in following trending topics. Often, when breaking news happens, it will be a trending topic on Twitter within seconds. However, there is a lot of room for Twitter to improve this feature, and trending topics aren't always the most reliable source of information, and they are rarely ever fully helpful.

Take, for example, the recent RIP Jackie Chan trending topic. Guess what? Jackie Chan didn't actually die. But once a few people tweeted that he had as a hoax, it caught on fire... the more retweets, the more those words had potential for becoming a trend. Eventually, even people asking "OMG Whyz JACKIE CHAN RIP ???" were fueling the fire by feeding Twitter's algorithm and appearing in the stream for that trending topic.

Unreliable information isn't the only problem with trending topics (TTs from here forward). Another problem is that people latch on to pretty useless TTs sometimes. As I'm writing this (using the U.S. as my TT region), one TT is #youlookedgooduntil. The top tweet of that TT is from @kattwilliams: "#youlookedgooduntil I saw you in person. U must be using that new makeup called photoshop?" Not really even that great from a humor standpoint. Another example is #dontdoit. As in @RealWizKhalifa's utterly genius (sarcasm, yes): "Changing your looks and lifestyle to please someone #dontdoit..."

So what's the newsiest thing trending on Twitter at this hour? It seems to be "Joan Jett," a non-hashtagged trend. However, I have to read several tweets down in the stream to find out that Joan Jett is supposedly going to perform with Miley Cyrus on Oprah. Not sure if that's actually accurate (too bad there's no verified status for tweets like there is for accounts). Most of the tweets that show up first in this timeline are quotes from Joan Jett that people have apparently found inspirational.

There's a great opportunity with TTs if Twitter will capitalize on it. The geniuses there need to perfect their algorithm or perhaps even hire people to monitor trending topics and do a better job of filtering the useful from the junk (more on spam in TTs later). What's intended to be a spotlight on what people are talking about is too easily becoming a random list of mundane things that segmented audiences are skyrocketing to 15 seconds of fame, leaving much of the real news, humor and social movements in the dust. Even when important things do rise to the TT list, users often need to do some scrolling and perhaps even some Googling to figure out exactly what is going on with this topic (unless, of course, you're hopefully already following someone who is in the know, which is where Twitter is actually highly valuable). It's not uncommon to see 25 tweets when you click on a TT of people asking "WTF Why is da #cheeseballz trendings?" These people don't know why the topic is trending, but they are contributing tweets with the same words that appear in its stream and keep it trending, making it even more useless. Simple monitoring of the TTs to provide a quick explanation and perhaps a link to an AP article or a company news release about a new product at the top of the page would be super helpful.

Let's just promote trending topics about our company then!

Before you start delving into the realm of paying Twitter to advertise on its site by sponsoring a trending topic, think long and hard about your messaging and if this is right for you and your brand. One problem with TTs is that they can easily be hijacked by the public, and they bring increased attention to your company and your messages. One perceived wrong move, then you're toast, and you just wasted a bunch of money on ineffective social advertising. Plus, spammers will take advantage of your spent cash by using the words from your sponsored topics in their tweets so that they appear in your stream, potentially offering a competing product or even malicious links.

Luckily, ABC provided me with a great example of this for my post today! To promote its new show, Happy Endings, ABC created @HappyEndingsABC and sponsored a TT based on the hashtag #HappyEndings. If you've ever been 12 years old, you can see where this is going. When I check out that stream, I see tweets such as these:

@azraluvzyou: #happyendings well I've always wanted one.
@RadHayes: I think it's awesome that #HappyEndings is the promoted trend right now. Glad people finally realize the value of full-release massage.
@PkSmith9: #HappyEndings are only in fairy tales and at the end of a Asian massages

More mature tweets deal with folks claiming that happy endings only happen in Disney movies or that there is no such thing as a real happy ending in life. I just refreshed the page, and without scrolling, I see no tweets that are actually about the ABC show. I am in awe that no one at ABC had the foresight to think that this messaging might be hijacked. But even if you use more carefully crafted messages, be aware that even when you pay for promoted tweets — the public controls the message with social media, not you. That's why you have to constantly develop your brand and build good relationships so that when the ball is in your fans' court, they slam dunk your message home for you.

Discussion

What do you think? Have you found trending topics to be sort of helpful but lacking in substance? Do you love following them? Do you ignore them altogether? And do you have your own stories of lame promoted tweets or perhaps of very successful ones? Share it and discuss in the comments!