Hashtag Loser: Why Brands Should Avoid Trend Surfing

A few years ago the lights went out during the Super Bowl. I don't remember who was on the field, and I don't remember the score. But I do remember that Oreo won that Super Bowl because they had a wonderful tweet that was timely, and it was great, and people re-tweeted it and everything like that. Everyone thought: "This is a great thing to do; we should all copy this; this is the model of how to do it."

In fact, the play was nothing new. Plenty had already been trying to pull off that kind of stunt for years. Mostly it had failed—just ask Gilbert Gottfried and Entenmann's. Simply put, hashtag surfing and trend surfing as a strategy fails more than it works. Sometimes it fails horribly; mostly it's just bland, tedious, trite. The successes are rare. Don't do it.

First, it's spammy. Basically, you're saying: "There's this conversation that's happening in the world, a lot of people are watching it. And I'm going to say something that's kinda funny and cute just to earn brand impressions so maybe people will repeat it and I can get more brand mentions." Yuck. The guy who does that at a party is a heel. That's annoying; don't be that guy.

Second, it's very risky. Yeah, there's a potential for a high reward, but that comes so rarely. It's not worth it. What makes humor work—I mean really work—is risk. You can't afford to bet your brand on risk when the payoff is so fleeting.

But the real reason not to play the trend surfing strategy is that trend viewers are not your audience. People who are watching the mainstream, trending topics are not the audience and customers you really want. The universe of people who care about McDonald's, shopping malls, Ebola, how inflated the balls are in the NFL, and whether Tom Brady touched them or not—this is the mass market of American society—it's a lowest common denominator.

In aggregate, that group of people does not have money to spend. Ironically, they don't have money to spend because they buy lots of stuff. This seems strange at first, but this is in aggregate a low disposable income group in debt up to their eyeballs from buying too much stuff. They are stressed out, freaked out, and angry at the world most of the time. These are terrible customers because they are going to bargain on price, they're going to be slow to pay, they're going to treat your employees badly, and they're going to give you bad reviews.

I'm not saying you don't want to serve customers in this segment. What I'm saying is you don't want to invest in acquiring their business. Identify your power customers—the trend setters, not the trend followers. Don't try to over-target, you can't really be all that precise about targeting anyway. The rest will get the message, the rest will follow, and when they do they'll be primed with better expectations.

Scott Garrison