As Hugo proclaims, “nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come”, but how do we tell what's coming next? Being early is the same as being wrong, – Pets.com failed in 1998, and Chewy IPO’d at $18b with the same idea. Markets move by supply and demand, and the market for ideas is no different. We oscillate between hunger for a trending topic, and satiation when the need is filled. You can’t tell where it'll go next, but you can spot the early signs of excess demand, and rush in to capitalize on the latest thing. Of course this is what we all do on a day to day basis on social media: listen to what our smart friends are excited about, and weigh in with our own take. But there may be a more algorithmic way to do it.
Social media algorithms and the 24 hour news cycle force everyone influential to 'publish or perish'. They built their audience by giving them what they want, but often there’s nothing to report. So they publish ‘filler’ content – anything that doesn’t advance the plot. You see this on election night, while we wait to count votes, during the build up to a sports game, and during any unexpected and shocking event. When people are tuning in we have to show something relevant to the main event, but we don’t have anything to show until the event itself unfolds and we get real information. So instead they cut to whatever rotating cast of niche experts they can find for 5 minutes of fame. When the action starts again, these segments get cut. If you can differentiate filler content from real information, you can get the timing right and insert yourself as one of these experts, getting coverage at a time when competition for attention is low.
Bonus points if your story invokes fear, anger, disgust, or sadness, because that’s what the audience wants, even if they won’t admit it. A study by Jonah Berger of New York Times headlines show these emotions are most likely to be shared and go viral. Another study by David Rozado shows that since 2000 news headlines have exhibited double digit increases in prevalence of these emotions. It’s not necessarily because journalists are finding what’s pushing your buttons, it’s also because the rise of the internet has increased competition and squeezed out profit. As a rule of thumb as institutions get more desperate, they kowtow to the more base wants and desires of their audience, as they can no longer afford the luxury beliefs that come with monopoly profits.
The secret hiding in plain sight with public relations, is that it’s all about relationships. The best product, the most compelling origin story, the most deserving product doesn’t get coverage, it’s the one who had the foresight to build relationships with influential people. If you’re well known by a journalist, publisher, or influencers, and they need to fill pages or airtime, they’ll think of you first. Failing that, simply being easy to find, and credible enough to contact, can go a long way. The alternative is ‘Newsjacking’: get ahead of the story and break it yourself. If you’re the first credible source for a story, or coin a new term for an interesting trend, it’ll earn you references as the source or expert on the topic, from every one who covers it after you.
Where do we find these emerging memes? To paraphrase Paul Graham, “Live in the future, then explain what's missing”. Rather than trying to divine what comes next, live a more futuristic life than the general population and then pitch the story that shows them what their future holds. “The future is already here” says Gibson, “it's just not evenly distributed”. Spend time in alternative, fringe communities, and some of what you see will go mainstream. It’s no secret that Journalists get their news from Twitter, their memes from Reddit, and their inside information from old friends that ended up in a fortuitous position. Spend enough time amongst forward thinkers, and it’ll be obvious what the future holds for the rest of us.
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